Since sounds of our era take up as much time on the record as the ripple of primeval ponds, this sequence is open to the criticism that it vastly over-emphasizes the last few thousand years at the expense of the millions that preceded them. But if the sounds of the record accurately reflected the time scale of Earth’s 4,5oo-million-year story, all but the last few moments would have been only the gurgle of waves and the whisper of wind across barren plains.
Three-quarters of the record is music. Choosing it was a stormy business—sometimes we argued until four in the morning—even though we knew that the odds on the record’s recovery in space were low and that, if it is ever recovered by some unimaginable society, the interception will post-date our own lives by tens of millions of years.
Our criteria were devised to represent music from around the world, to hint at the richness and diversity of our planet’s human cultures, and to include nothing out of a mere sense of duty. During these times we found ourselves considering Yale professor Dr Lewis Thomas’s solution. “I would vote for Bach,” he wrote in his book The Lives of a Cell. “All of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”
Three Bach compositions are included, and two by Beethoven. There is not one by Wagner, Debussy or Brahms. We knew this was controversial. But we felt that “translation” might be easier for extraterrestrial beings if we offered more than one work by a given composer, so that his personal style could be extracted from each piece, laying a foundation for interpreting all the music. Here’s a look at seven of the 27 selections, and some thoughts on why we chose them :
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 2, first movement. Karl Richter’s recording with the Munich Bach orchestra was chosen for its exuberance—appropriate to a greeting —its technical excellence and the cleanly recorded brass parts that should still sound distinctly from the grooves of the record on its one thousand millionth birthday.
“Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. Debate over this was intense. Some of the dozens of people consulted argued that there should be no rock and roll at all—that it is Just a spasm in musical history. We decided that it is an example of two diverse cultures meeting in a distant place—Africa and Europe meeting in America. Chuck Berry won out as an inventor of rock and roll who, unlike the equally fascinating Elvis Presley, is performing a song of his own composition.
New Guinea Men’s House. This field recording, by Robert MacLennan, has been identified by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax as belonging to one of the oldest traditions of music, unaltered by civilization. At least a thousand years old, it is hypnotic, monochromatic and vastly different from anything else on the record.
Peruvian Woman’s Wedding Song. One of the two South American selections, this is sung in a bell-like voice by a young girl who happened to be standing in front of musicologist John Cohen’s field microphone. If bird songs or any of the other pure outcries of Earth’s creatures have any resonance for inhabitants of other planets, we are inclined to think this song will, too.
“Flowing Streams.” When I rang Chou Wen-chung of Columbia University and asked him to nominate a piece of Chinese music, I expected that he would want time to consider his answer. He didn’t. Flowing Streams, he told me. “It is a meditation on the human sense of affinity with the universe, performed on the seven-stringed ch’in, an instrument that pre-dates Christ by a couple of thousand years. Flowing Streams has been a part of Chinese culture since the time of Confucius. Send this one and you will be telling a great deal about China.” We listened to it and made one of the easiest decisions of the record.
“Dark Was the Night,” by Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson was a blues and gospel guitarist from Texas, who never made enough money to support himself. There are no lyrics to this guitar nocturne, recorded in 1927, just a moan that sounds like a lonely, piercing question.
The fifth movement (cavatina) from Beethoven’s String Quartet in B fiat,N umber t3 (Opus 13o). We knew that the final piece would have the additional weight of a last word. We chose this exquisite piece because it is not an expression of any one single emotion; rather, it is a quiet, melodic statement of human pain, longing and hope. It is a complicated signature, full of ambiguities like our own future.