In 1977, the United States, acting on behalf of the Planet Earth, launched two deep-space probes a few weeks apart, Voyager 1 and 2, tiny druplets expelled from the complex raspberry of our civilization. They flew by Jupiter and Saturn, sending incredible pictures and crucial revelations about the weather, magnetic fields, rings and moons of the two gas giants.
As I type this, Voyager 1—which was actually launched after Voyager 2—is flying through space and is roughly 13 billion miles away from the Sun. As of August 25, 2012, it was the first Earth spacecraft to cross out of the solar system and into interstellar space. Voyager 2 hasn’t gone quite that far, but it will.
While it's bugger-all down here on Earth, out there, no sense of strife exists. Only cold, black remoteness surrounding those two tiny specks of hope. As they fling their way ever further into deep space, both of these spacecraft carry something that isn’t in the mission statement of either: A Golden Record. More specifically, a 12-inch LP fashioned from gold-plated copper and mounted to the side of each Voyager—a still life of Earth conveyed in words, music, and images, coded as sound. Also included are instructions for playback—left for any alien civilization who might run across this thing at any point in the deep future.
As the de facto ambassador to the stars, it’s a little surprising that the Voyager Golden Record—assembled by a committee led by late astronomer Carl Sagan—hasn’t been made readily available to the humans it represents, which, aside from a short-lived CD-ROM release in the ‘90s, has been the case for 40 years. Until now.
Matt Sullivan, co-founder of Seattle’s reissue label Light In The Attic Records, explained that LITA wanted to helm the release of the Voyager record, and reached out to Golden Record Committee member Ann Druyan about their interest. She told him that David Pescovitz and Timothy Daly of Ozma Records were already working on it.
“Coincidentally, David had reached out to us about a month before that, to tell us about the founding of Ozma Records and that they were working on a special project that they would tell us more about soon. Turns out Ann beat them to the punch on that one.” LITA ended up distributing this new release instead.
San Francisco Amoeba Music manager Daly, teaming with Pescovitz, a science writer, had organized a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a limited-edition reissue of the Voyager Golden Record, which consisted of a golden vinyl LP featuring the original music and the words, a deluxe book designed by Lawrence Azerrad with the images of Earth presented decoded as regular pictures, and an essay by another committee member, Tim Ferris, credited as the producer of the original Golden Record.
The Kickstarter proved so successful, says Pescovitz, that the Ozma duo rolled a slightly-modified version into wider production. “For us, the Kickstarter was a way to tell the story, and have pre-orders, get a sense of how many people were actually interested in this thing. Even when Carl Sagan and the others were hoping it would get released, the record labels were facing two challenges. One, they didn't know what the audience would be, and two, it was a copyright nightmare.
“It absolutely blew our mind how much the story of the record resonated, once word got out. It's as relevant now as it was 40 years ago, and I think it's because it embodies a sense of hope and optimism, and people are jonesing for that right now.”
Ferris recalls having lunch with Pescovitz a few years before the record’s release. “He told me of his idea. I said that others had come up short but he certainly could try and might well succeed. I stressed the importance of retrieving and working from the master, rather than trying to recreate the record from other materials.” Ferris, a key player in the Golden Record’s format and sound, wanted Earth ears to hear what extraterrestrial ears (or the equivalent) would experience.
The program includes but is not limited to: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”; Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”; panpipes from the Solomon Islands; a pygmy girl’s song from Zaire; electronic music by Laurie Spiegel derived from the work of astronomer Johannes Kepler; Japanese shakuhachi flute by Goro Yamaguchi; greetings from Kurt Waldheim, then the Secretary of the United Nations; and greetings to aliens in 55 different Earth languages. Seven-year old Nick Sagan, son of Carl and Golden Record committee member Linda Salzman, was tasked with coming up with a greeting in English. He spoke seven words: “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
The 116 images cover mathematics, science, human anatomy, human culture, various Earth creatures and places. The sound-to-photo signals from the actual LPs weren’t included because, Pescovitz admits, “We didn't think it was a particularly pleasant listening experience.”
Of all the music included on the LP, Pescovitz’s favorite is “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Because, he says, “it's so deeply haunting. To me that is the soundtrack of the Voyager probes traveling through the blackness of space. Looking like they're not moving even though they're moving at incredible speeds. The feeling of looking up at the night sky and imagining that.”