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A Space Jam, Literally: Meet the Creative Director Behind NASA's 'Golden Record,' an Interstellar Mixtape

We talked with Ann Druyen, wife of the late Carl Sagan, about curating a record for extraterrestrials.
August 4, 2015, 9:22pm

If you’re the type of person who is fascinated by science and the global pursuit of what lies beyond our fragile planet, you’ve certainly pondered the possibility of life existing elsewhere within our galaxy. Despite our initial lack of physical knowledge, astonishing advances have been made by NASA since its inception with the help of intelligent individuals from around the world. What might that have to do with music? Well, without knowing too much about what or whom we are looking for in outer space, NASA funded a music, language and culture-themed project in the late '70s known as The Golden Record to coincide with the launch of two unmanned, interstellar space crafts, the Voyager 1 & 2, in 1977.


The Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonographic record with a one billion-year lifespan, contains spoken greetings in 55 languages, 115 images, sounds from nature, and a 90-minute looping selection of music dubbed “Earth’s Greatest Hits.” It contains some of the most notable cultural music from around the world, at least at the time, including everything from U.S. chart-toppers to folk music from around the world. Classical musicians like Bach and Beethoven are featured as well. With its only intention being to introduce an extraterrestrial species to our diverse culture, they even positioned the attached stylus at the beginning so that an alien just has to hit play. The late astrophysicist Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University, who oversaw the project, had once said "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space, but the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

Dr. Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, was the project’s creative director, diligently gathering each and every bit of the record’s vast contents which have now been floating in space for nearly 40 years. You may also know her as co-executive producer alongside Seth MacFarlane of Fox and National Geographic’s ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’. Although they’ve been out for a few decades now, it was only recently that NASA had officially released some of the record's carefully-placed sounds. Being able to hear what Ann and her team had envisioned for one of space travel’s most artistic enterprises to date is surely intriguing. With nearly 30,960 years left until the records can conceivably reach another planetary system, there’s still plenty of time for the record to continue to tell its own story. Ann was pumped to talk to us, stating that “when reading VICE it seemed to me to have a sort of extraterrestrial perspective on earth and so it really appealed to me.”


Noisey: Why do we as humans assume that extraterrestrial organisms can understand and process sounds and music?
Ann Druyan: That's a great question and here's the assumption. So you have two Voyager space crafts, 1 and 2, that are the most distant objects ever touched by human hands. Voyager 1 has, in some sense, left the solar system in that it has escaped that area where the wind from the sun, the solar wind, flows, and it has entered the interstellar medium. So, the chances of either space craft actually ever running into anything in their projected shelf life of 1000-million years, is fairly small because space is mostly empty. The idea is that the only beings who are likely to flag down a Voyager are the beings of a space-faring civilization. If you're clever enough to travel in space across these vast distances, the thinking is that you can figure out a message. Of course the Voyager message is built on so many different levels, but it has all of these redundancies in it. There's so many gateways to enter the meaning of the message. I'm not saying that we're expecting these putative extraterrestrials to completely rock out to "Johnny B. Goode" but I am saying that the rhythm in that message, if you will, suggests something of an intelligence maker, rather than something random. So there are patterns to be found in the record itself. The Golden Record cover is inscribed with scientific hieroglyphics, which any self-respecting space-farer will know is a pulsar map. The idea is that we'll have something in common with them, no matter who they are. One will be the language of science, because you have to know some physics to get out there into the cosmos, and we can take it from there.

Why now for NASA to release the audio contents of The Golden Record?
AD: Actually, I don't mean to harsh your buzz or anything but [the sounds] have [unofficially] been available at for at least a decade now. It's a great site. I don't know who's responsible for it to be honest, but you can hear every single thing that's on the Voyager record. It's a great service and whomever performed it I'm really indebted to them.

Your late husband Dr. Carl Sagan had explained that the record would only be played if "advanced space-faring civilizations" discovered it in interstellar space, but was there ever a thought to projecting a looping audio stream from the craft?
AD: Well, the record is not playing and the reason we didn't do that is because of the shelf life of the record, which is a billion years, so anything like that will break down over time. We did, however, include a stylus and instructions on how to play the record within those scientific hieroglyphics. One of the ways to find out if a message is decipherable is to send it to someone who doesn't know what it means and see if they can figure it out on Earth. That's what Frank Drake and Carl did with the original Arecibo message. Frank sent it to Carl and Carl figured it out, so we knew that if he could figure it out that it was likely a being from another civilization could figure it out.


Well, the first episode of your show Cosmos: A Spacetime Voyage shows a brief animated clip of the record playing in space, why is that then?
AD: Yeah, I was worried about but I think we felt that the hearing of the music made more sense. You can hear Blind Willie Johnson, but in fact, I was really concerned that that would create exactly the misconception that you are talking about. But, you know, you see a record and you want it to spin.

How do the two Voyager crafts currently attempt to communicate with other life forms?
AD: The current Voyager is communicating with the propulsion laboratory, or one of them is, but they're not making any attempt to communicate with anybody else. They're just completely passive in the sense that they're just moving around at about 35,000 miles per hour and they're going further and further out. So, it really is a case of "what the hell is that?" and then somebody will fly down and start taking it apart.

Continue below.

What was the creative process like to choose what sounds and songs best represented Earth in 1977?
AD: Oh, it was really awe-inspiring. Back in 1977, when the arms race was going full-tilt, there was some 60,000 nuclear weapons infesting the Earth. The rivalry between the U.S. and what was the Soviet Union was bitter and seemed intractable and so we felt that if the record has a shelf life of 1000-million years, then we felt like we were building a kind-of "Noah's ark" of human culture. It was a very profound responsibility because it would be speaking for us long after we could speak, but also 1000-million years from now, that's enough time for humans to evolve, let alone to imagine how we might have abused these planets in that timescale. So, that's enough time for the actual continents to change their shape. That's a long time. If you went back 1000-million years ago, you wouldn't even recognize the shape of the continents, forget about the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, everything that is now part of our human identity. So here's the chance to take the music of Blind Willie Johnson who died of poverty and lack of shelter, who didn't even have a place to shield him from the rain, and you think "wow, this guy was such a genius but he lived in a world that didn't respect or value him in any way." So this guy's music will live for 1000-million years, and the same goes for everybody else on the record. We took it very seriously with a little sense of humor but we also realized that it was a sacred duty and that we had to get it right.


Were artists or other music professionals consulted and what qualified you musically to lead the creative component?
AD: That's an excellent question. First of all, my first thing was to contact Alan Lomax who is responsible for discovering so many of the great delta blues artists as well as being one of the most revered ethno-musicologists in history. We talked to composers, conductors, we talked to experts on Chinese music, and Indian music. We wanted this to be completely representative of all of the world's great musical traditions. We knew that we didn't know anything about Chinese music or Indian music and any other tradition, so at least we had enough humility to realize that we should go and really search and contact people who did. My qualifications were simply that I had worked with Carl Sagan and Tim Ferris on a project which never came into fruition. It would have been a kind-of "Cosmos for Kids" for the children's television workshop. Carl knew that I had a passion for music and some knowledge of it and that I would take the whole thing seriously. When he appointed me creative director of the project, he knew that I was thinking about it as one of the world's great conceptual art pieces. Obviously there's a lot on there that wouldn't have been on any standard NASA message, but because of Carl and Frank Drake and their imagination and willingness to let us really knock ourselves out, I think it turned out really well.

What are some of your personal favorite songs that made the final cut?
AD: Well, from day one I had three [songs] that were absolute deal-breakers, non-negotiable. One was "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry because I just felt that there was a lot of great popular music for which Chuck Berry was truly the innovator. He was one of the real progenitors of the music that the whole world loves. I loved "Johnny B. Goode" because it's about the music of locomotion, of moving. "…the rhythm that the drivers made" is a line in that song. So here was this spacecraft that was going to be moving between 35,000 and 40,000 miles per hour for 1000-million years and I wanted that on it. Also, I wanted the Cavatina movement from one of Beethoven's late quartets because years before I had heard it and I remember feeling so overwhelmed and thinking "how can I ever repay you, Beethoven, for this work of genius?" So when Carl asked me to do this, that was pretty much the very first thought I had, was that this was a way to pay Beethoven back. Then to my astonishment, when I was doing further research and I looked at Beethoven's manuscript of this piece which really captures a sense of longing like nothing else, he had written on it "what will they think of my music on Uranus?" [laughs] and I was like, oh wow, he must have really given this some thought. Lastly I wanted Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night" because, for one, it's just a moan. There's no language there. It's truly a piece of global music in that it's readily understandable to any human. Plus, Voyager is going to be travelling through the night for all this time, and so it seemed like the perfect way not only to give Blind Willie Johnson his propers, but also to put something on there that had real meaning. After I had met Alan Lomax and Ferris and I started talking to composers and musicologists and although each and every song has so much meaning to me, there was particularly one by a Bulgarian shepherdist whose name was Valya Balkanska. When I first heard that, you know, the tradition of Bulgarian shepherd music, is that you got these people standing on mountaintops calling to other people on other mountaintops. When I first heard that, I thought to myself that Valya Balkanska has got quite the set of pipes on her. She's like Mahalia Jackson, she just has that fearless singing which is like when an artist throws herself on the song and is just willing to stretch totally beyond what you think is possible. It feels like the whole universe is opening up. So, that was a piece I was really happy with but I love all of the music on the Voyager, and if anything, am a little crazy about it.


Was there any music that you discovered after launching the craft that you regret not being included?
AD: Yeah, if I could add one piece to Voyager it would, without a doubt, be Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." I think it's one of the greatest songs about community and life that I have ever heard. I'm pretty sure I knew about it before 1977, I must have, because I've always been crazy about Bob Marley. I'm not sure what happened or why it didn't make the cut but that would have been the one song that I could have included. By the way, Rita Marley heard me say that on CNN and she invited me to her house for a week as a result of that. [Laughs] I would do anything to be able to put that on because that was one of the universe's greatest.

How did you and Dr. Sagan react to EMI not allowing The Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun" on the record due to copyright concerns?
AD: Yeah, that was one of those cases of having to see the tragedy of our planet. Here's a chance to send a piece of music into the distant future and distant time, and to give it this kind of immortality, and they're worried about money. They asked us to send them $50,000. Now, the Beatles, all four of them answered Tim Ferris who was my collaborator on this record, and they immediately said great. They were all alive then. Then, we got this telegram saying that it will be $50,000 per record for two records and the entire Voyager record cost $18,000 to produce. That's including all of the people working on it for six months day and night. It was a labor of love and we didn't want to charge the taxpayers money for this, we just wanted to really do it. So, we only paid two cents per record for universal rights, or in our case galactic rights, since it will go around the galaxy four times during its lifetime,and so, we just thought it was tragic. It was perfectly emblematic of our predicament. People value money more than water, more than air, more than the things we need to live. That's just the way it is.


Would you say that the sounds of Earth have changed over the past four decades and would there ever be a need to relaunch the project?
AD: It would be somewhat different, I'm sure, because there are sounds that we had never heard back in 1977 that are new, but in a profound sense I hope that it wouldn't be too much different because we weren't giving these imagined extraterrestrials a sort-of day-to-day summary of where we were at, it was more of a portrait of the last four and a half billion years, and so, I think we covered the bases. I am now involved in the new breakthrough message, co-chairing it with Frank Drake, which we announced last week in London with Stephen Hawking and a bunch of other people, so I'm think about those same questions again now. This will be a contest and everyone on Earth is invited to join. There's a million dollars in prizes and although we're not sure if we're actually going to send it, that will be part of the conversation, whether or not we should. There are those who feel that we shouldn't really let on to where we are because they have existential fears of what might happen to us, but we'll have a chance to have another run at it so maybe we'll have a chance to put in some of those new sounds.

What were some of the creative barriers you faced when working with NASA?
AD: Oh, it was pretty funny at the time. NASA was pretty cool about everything except for one thing, you know, we have a 118 pictures on the record, and one of them was a picture of a man and woman, fully frontally nude, and they were holding hands and she was pregnant. I think some member of congress got a hold of this and on the floor of congress he started screaming "NASA is trying to send smut to the stars!" [Laughs] We were not allowed to send this picture which tells you so much about us. We have a culture of such self-hatred that we cannot stand naked before the universe without feeling ashamed which is really tragic. So that was one problem. The other thing was that there was no such thing as a global audience for "world music" at the time when we put this thing together, so some NASA mid-level officials who heard our record at CBS studios in New York where we were mastering it, and you know, we had Japanese music, a Navajo night chant, we had Senegalese percussion, and these guys were looking at us like "what the hell is this?" They didn't understand why we didn't have, and I can't remember what popular songstress they were hoping was on the for, but they really couldn't believe that given the opportunity that we were going to put music from the original people of New Zealand. I think they found the music less-than-relatable, but we felt that this was a message from the whole planet and that's how we wanted it to be. Some people have generously said that in a way, that was the beginning of world music as a concept, and I wrote a piece for the New York Times when the Voyagers were launched called "Earth's Greatest Hits" and that was the notion. I'm really sorry that we didn't get to send that picture of the gorgeous couple, that was really messed up.

If the project were ever relaunched, do you think a medium other than vinyl would be used, considering our advances in digital music?
AD: That's a really good question. I have really felt a little vindicated over the last few years with more and more musicians and artists coming around to the idea that there's a coldness to digital that vinyl doesn't have. There's a kind of authenticity and depth to vinyl. Now of course this is not vinyl, this is gold and nickel and other alloys but I'm really glad it's a phonograph record. Would I be open to someone who has a much stronger technical engineering idea to convince me to do it some other way? Of course I would be, I'd be a fool not to. But I'm very happy that it's a true record.

How confident are you that an alien species will discover our record in interstellar space?
AD: I wouldn't say I'm confident, but I'm open. That's why I worship science because it reserves all kinds of judgment in the absence of evidence but also it's not what you feel in your guy or what you hope. It's really facing the universe as it is and that is what's so precious to me. So, from my point of view, I have no sense of confidence that it will be found, but 1000-million years is so long. It could happen. All I know is that I think about it every day of my life. We're coming up on 40 years since it happened. I think of it every single day and I guess I've imagined dozens of scenarios of what might happen to it. You know, maybe someday we'll be sufficiently technologically advanced that we can go retrieve it and bring it back. There's all these possibilities, but in my fantasy [laughs], which is fully without basis or fact, is that I imagine some extraterrestrial beings, they're lurking in the shadows, they reel it in and then they know what it was like to be alive in June in 1977.

Michael Haskoor is dreaming about aliens listening to Bob Marley. He's on Twitter.