Bach Goes Interstellar: Classical Music on NASA's Golden Record, 40 Years Later

Sep 4, 2017

Even though Johann Sebastian Bach died centuries before rocket launches and space exploration began, he has still managed to travel farther from earth than any astronaut. Or, at least his music has.

40 years ago, NASA launched Voyager 1 and 2, spacecraft meant to explore the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond. Launched September 5th, 1977, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to cross into interstellar space in 2012. It is now nearly 13 billion miles from Earth.

On board Voyager 1 (and Voyager 2 also has a copy) is what has been called humanity’s most famous mixtape: a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disc known as The Golden Record. This phonograph record contains, essentially, a very concise history of the world.

In addition to images and sounds from earth — everything ranging from volcanic eruption and human laughter — the record includes a selection of music meant to represent Earth’s diversity to any extraterrestrial beings that may encounter the Voyager.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the mission, science writer and Golden Record producer Timothy Ferris wrote an essay about the process of putting together the time capsule. Below, hear the eight musical selections that come from the Western classical tradition, with a few notes about how and why they were chosen to be rocketed into deep space.

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concert No. 2 in F, mvt. 1.

Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor.

J.S. Bach: Partita No. 3 in E for Violin, “Gavote en rondeaux”

Arthur Grumiaux, violin.

The Interstellar Record Committee was chaired by Carl Sagan and included fellow astronomer Frank Drake, science writers Ann Druyan and Ferris, space artist Jon Lomberg, with additional help from music producer Jimmy Iovine and Sagan's wife at the time, Linda Salzman Sagan. While each team member was tasked with individual responsibilities, they all collaborated on the selection of music.  According to Feriss, although there were instances of differing opinions, the process of making the selections was "quite civil." 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14.

Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Edda Moser, soprano, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor.

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1.

Glenn Gould, piano.

For a collection meant to convey diversity, there is an awful lot of J.S. Bach on The Golden Record: Of the eight musical selections devoted to the classical genre, three belong to the Baroque master. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reasoning given by Sagan and his team of scientists for this lack of diversity is very calculated. Consider, for example, that the extraterrestrials who encounter the record lack what we understand as hearing, or didn't have a musical tradition of their own. The mathematics of Bach — the symmetry, inversions, and repetitions — would allow for study beyond just listening. 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, mvt. 1

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor.

Anthony Holborne: The Fairie Round

David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London.

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130, Cavatina

Budapest String Quartet.

Classical composers throughout history have been preoccupied with their musical legacy, but with The Golden Record, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Holborne will probably endure beyond all. Stored in a case electroplated with uranium-238 (which has a half-life of 4.468 billion years), floating in a vacuum more perfect than anything attainable on Earth, the music etched on The Golden Record may be around long after human civilization is gone forever. 

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