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November 2022   |   Volume 24 No. 1

The Impossible Book

NASA’s spaceships launched into space in 1977, carrying on board the ‘Golden Record’ – an LP made of gold-plated copper containing 90 minutes of music from around the world. Professor Chua has been pondering why the NASA team would choose to send music into space and what would happen to the music in the unlikely event of aliens encountering the record. (Courtesy of NASA)
Music Professor Daniel KL Chua and his co-author Alexander Rehding describe their new publication purporting an intergalactic music theory of everything as an “impossible book”. It’s certainly out there, combining laughs with deeply consequential ideas about the fundamental nature of music, such as – can we communicate with aliens through music?

In 1977, NASA launched its two Voyager spaceships to travel to the distant reaches of the galaxy. Attached to each vessel was the ‘Golden Record’, an LP made of gold-plated copper containing 90 minutes of music from around the world, as well as a montage of other sounds on Earth, 115 photographs and greetings in 55 languages, all meant to convey the message: we come in peace.

The Golden Record has excited space fans for years, including Professor Daniel KL Chua, Mr and Mrs Hung Hing-Ying Professor in the Arts and Chair Professor of Music, who has been pondering why the NASA team, led by famed astronomer Carl Sagan, would choose to send music into space and what would happen to the music in the unlikely event of aliens encountering the record.

His response, formulated with Professor Alexander Rehding of Harvard University, is laid out in a new book, Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth, which puts forth what he humorously calls an “intergalactic music theory of everything” that could have universal application beyond Earth.

“Because we humans have rocketed music in space, we need to think about how music in a context without any human culture communicates. In this book, we are re-thinking what music is and what’s possible for music beyond human ears,” he said.

“Our argument, in simple terms, is that music is repetition. As such, it helps us mark and shape our experience of space-time. Repetition is all you need to create a coherent fabric of time. Music both makes time and is something that is time, and so discloses to us something beautiful about the universe we inhabit.”

No ears needed

Seeing music as repetition – be it steady hammer blows on steel, whale songs or a Beethoven symphony – makes it possible to conceive that an alien could receive these patterns and through that, realise humans have an understanding of the universe, he said. Language cannot do this because its signs are arbitrary.

But of course, this assumes aliens have ears. “Aliens may not be able to even hear, but they could sense repetition in some form, such as vibration,” he said.

This leads to the other aspect of their theory, which they call “media archaeology” – the technological side of music. “Music cannot be thought of without technology. Music is not pure; there is always a medium between us. Even our ears are media,” Professor Chua said. The medium always makes a big difference in how music is experienced. For instance, elephants and fruit flies would hear a three-minute Mozart aria very differently (assuming they could tune into the correct frequency).

To help the aliens tune in, NASA imprinted illustrated instructions on the record sleeve on how to make a gramophone and play the Golden Record. However, as Professor Chua points out, this assumes aliens have hands.

But there is a bigger question in the book about what role media plays in music. “We will never be able to communicate music as we hear it to other species, and this gap – this interface – is the most precarious and also the most interesting point of communication. Thankfully, we don’t need to have perfect communication to get a message across the unknown. You can actually share something of your experience of time with someone else through music. Music enables an ‘Other’ to keep time with us, as it were, however imperfect the medium,” he said.

“Carl Sagan saw the Golden Record as an ultimate act of cultural diplomacy from our planet. By sending music, you’re communicating that we come in peace, which is a huge presumption that the universe is peaceful.”

Back to the cosmos

The book explores these concepts in a playful way, treating music as an object rather than an expressive subject. There are puzzles, cartoons, pages with just a dot to convey an idea of space, and much more.

The authors also reference ancient theories of music, such as those of Pythagoras and Confucius, who believed music to be related to the cosmos.

“If you only think of music as human expression, you forget it belongs to the universe. The ancients knew this. We need to recover their understanding of music but in a modern way,” Professor Chua said.

Time is of the essence – and not only because Voyager is reaching the limit of being able to emit signals back to Earth. “Why have we written this now? It’s the most important topic for music because our planet is in crisis on a massive scale – we are having to think about the challenges of climate change and much larger questions of time. And this requires a bigger view of music,” he said.

Book cover

Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth
Authors: Daniel KL Chua and Alexander Rehding
Publisher: ZoneBooks (Princeton University Press)
Year of Publication: 2021

If you only think of music as human expression, you forget it belongs to the universe. The ancients knew this. We need to recover their understanding of music but in a modern way.

Portrait

PROFESSOR DANIEL KL CHUA

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