Space Jams

Alien Listening: Voyager's Golden Record and Music from Earth by daniel k. l. chua and alexander rehding. brooklyn, ny: zone books. 272 pages. $32.

The cover of Alien Listening: Voyager's Golden Record and Music from Earth

LAST DECEMBER, nestled amid the second and final COVID-19 stimulus package of Donald Trump’s presidency was a strange provision: within 180 days, the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence were to release an unclassified report detailing the agencies’ knowledge about unidentified flying objects. Between the law’s passage and the release of the report, American interest in UFOs—or, as government officials have euphemistically dubbed them, “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP)—soared. In May, 60 Minutes ran a segment featuring witnesses, including two Navy pilots, who had observed these mysterious entities. Barack Obama confirmed their existence. The report, when it eventually arrived, testified to at least 144 sightings of objects, eighteen of which involved “unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics.” It identified one of the UAPs as a deflated balloon; all of the others remain unexplained.

This inconclusive episode in the history of ufology has been notable in part for bringing American officials up to the precipice of entertaining the existence of alien life. But it was not the first such close encounter. Forty-four years ago, NASA launched two interstellar probes—Voyager 1 and Voyager 2—into space, equipping each with an identical gold-plated phonograph record. Each “Golden Record” contains twenty-seven pieces of music—among them Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a Navajo Night Chant, and compositions by Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart—as well as recordings of natural sounds, greetings in various languages, and 115 images transformed into sound waves. They also included a message from the then president Jimmy Carter, embedded as text: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”

For many people, the Golden Record was less a testament to belief in alien life than a gesture: humanity’s bold shout into the abyss. Indeed, facing criticism about the project, those behind it sometimes insisted it should be taken symbolically. Yet the care that went into the design of the records belies this dismissal. In a 2017 essay for the New Yorker, Timothy Ferris, one of the architects of the Golden Record, explained that the overrepresentation of Bach and Beethoven was meant to aid aliens in understanding the music, even if their hearing doesn’t resemble ours. “They’d look for symmetries—repetitions, inversions, mirror images, and other self-similarities—within or between compositions,” he hypothesized. “We sought to facilitate the process by proffering Bach, whose works are full of symmetry, and Beethoven, who championed Bach’s music and borrowed from it.” The careful curation—not to mention the bare bones of a turntable included with the records, along with a detailed diagram for its assembly—suggests that the Golden Record was not a lark, but a serious attempt to reach someone.

In their new book Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth, musicologists Daniel K. L. Chua and Alexander Rehding take the record at least as seriously as those who assembled it. The book is nothing less than an attempt to reconceptualize music theory on the basis of the Golden Record. Early on, they make their ambition clear by reflecting on “the founding myth of Western music theory,” which “begins with a thing”: the hammer. Reportedly, when the philosopher Pythagoras overheard the varying clangings of differently sized hammers, he calculated the relationships between their weights to discover harmonious ratios—the octave, the fifth, the fourth—that formed the basis of his musical metaphysics. The Golden Record is Chua and Rehding’s hammer, an object to occasion a new beginning for music theory.

Assembly of the Voyager Golden Record, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, August 4, 1977.  NASA/JPL-Caltech
Assembly of the Voyager Golden Record, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, August 4, 1977. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why begin again? Because the current state of the discipline frustrates Chua and Rehding, who find it “boring” and “incomprehensible.” It’s boring, they argue, because it’s recursive rather than expansive, trapped in endless self-referentiality and cordoned off from other areas of study. It’s incomprehensible because music theorists have stopped puzzling over the most basic questions, and have even lost sight of their central object: “Music theory,” they write, “does not know what music is.” (Here there’s a clear echo of Martin Heidegger, whose fundamental ontology proposed that philosophy had failed to really ask what being is.) Alien Listening imagines “an intergalactic music theory of everything” with ambitions at once cosmic and humble, centered on the simple question “What is music?” For the authors, the Golden Record presents a unique opportunity to defamiliarize the familiar: “A music for aliens makes for an alien music.”

If the endeavor seems quixotic, these knights-errant are in on the joke. They cut their project’s grandiosity with self-deprecation and an abundance of lighthearted sci-fi references. “By academic standards,” they write, “what you are reading now may not even constitute a book. It is more an explosion of debris.” After a “pre(inter)face” and introduction, Alien Listening is organized into two parts—“Toward an Intergalactic Music Theory of Everything” and “A Media Theory of the Third Kind”—and a “coda.” These may, the authors explain, be read in any order the reader likes. (An “instruction sheet” explains how to understand each method.) All of this metacommentary relieves readers of the burden of approaching the book as a whole to be fully grasped, while Chua and Rehding’s style—exhaustingly allusive, delightfully overdetermined—makes it clear that, however serious their project’s philosophical stakes, the real point is to play around.

That play unfolds in two distinct arenas. In Part 1, Chua and Rehding dive directly into the question of what music is. The provisional answer, which reverberates through the book, is at once intuitive and surprising: “at its basic level,” they write, “music is just repetition—a rhythmic fold—that holds time together as a discrete loop.” This points to music theory’s potential for cosmic consequences. “Music’s fundamental simplicity enables it to be a theory of everything,” the authors write, “because everything repeats. The universe repeats itself endlessly.” So what distinguishes music from any other repetition? Chua and Rehding answer that music uniquely “makes repetition in time the focus of meaning” and thus “makes the universe audible as rhythm.” This insight leads the authors to bring the abstract briefly into contact with the particular:

Music’s universal claim, then, is only in its relation—a resonance that gives access for another to enter ectopically “in time” with its rhythm. It wants to believe there is a significant other out there—whether there is anyone out there or not. NASA’s mission is the ultimate expression of this desire for a close encounter. . . . This hopelessly optimistic gamble betrays our species’ compulsion to repeat ourselves to anyone who cares to listen to our existence. The Golden Record, in repeating our time, literally gives time to another. The invitation to resonate with us, to sound us out, to syncopate with our time, expresses a proximity toward alterity that is the closest music can claim to being a transcendent language.

Chua and Rehding explore the idea of music as repetition in a series of seven “premises,” landing on the technically simple but conceptually consequential idea that music’s repetitiousness manifests along “different orders of magnitude along the frequency spectrum,” which create what we perceive as pitch, rhythm, and structure. But these distinctions, essential as they are for human beings, are entirely subjective. Elephant ears can perceive certain sounds too low for us to hear as anything but rhythm or pulsing; they are registered “as some kind of continuous sensation,” perhaps like pitch. In Part 2, which reviews the history of the Golden Record and begins to close read it as an object, Chua and Rehding eventually arrive at the way that the record undoes these anthropocentric distinctions, releasing music into its purest simplicity. “If this object falls into the tentacles of an alien life form,” they write, “all that will remain of the music is frequency: loops, cycles, folds, oscillations. The texts and contexts that defined its shape will dissolve into a mass of texture. Music will simply weave time.”

Alien Listening thus fulfills, and at the same time delicately undoes, the romantic intentions behind the Golden Record. Chua and Rehding argue that the contents of the record may reach an alien listener, who will not only “hear” something, but hear music. Lacking our contexts and likely not equipped with our sensory apparatus, the aliens would not hear our music. But it would still represent an encounter with human time. The authors analogize this creative miscommunication to our experience of the “song” of birds or whales, legible to us in a register alien to the source. “We have neither understood nor truly heard their song,” they write, “but the music we imagine as theirs still connects us.”

Curiously and convincingly, Chua and Rehding argue that the doomed yet hopeful attempt to speak to distant others represented by the Golden Record is “as much an imaginary act of listening as it is one of communicating,” because it embodies the search for contact with an alien frequency. They push this thesis even further, finding in the Voyager mission “an ontology of peace that music always promises”—an intention to reach the other not in violence but in hospitality. It’s an alluring notion. But if music offers one’s time to others by enlisting them in one’s rhythms, is that a gift or a command? In the titular essay of his provocative 1996 book The Hatred of Music, the French writer Pascal Quignard worried over music’s role as the only art form “to have collaborated in the extermination of the Jews organized by the Germans between 1933 and 1945.” Reflecting on the place of music in the death camps, he comes to understand it as a medium of domination. “Music violates the human body,” he writes. “It makes one stand up. Musical rhythms enthrall bodily rhythms. When exposed to music, the ear cannot close itself. Music, as a power, thus joins all forms of power.”

Space exploration, too, can be an expression of domination, even as it speaks the language of freedom and democracy. NASA has its origins in the United States’ race for technological dominance against the USSR; today American billionaires are vying for prime access to the stars, preparing for the increasing unviability of survival on our home planet. But as Chua and Rehding repeatedly remind us, barring some unknowable space catastrophe, the Golden Record will likely outlive the last of our species. If human time reaches another, we won’t be here for it. Freed from humanity itself and our capacity for violence, our music’s power will perhaps become something unrecognizable.

Nathan Goldman is the managing editor at Jewish Currents.