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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 2, 2019: Harmonica Used Aboard Gemini 6

Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.

From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?

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When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.

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The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.

Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited 

“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123

Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.

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The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.

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On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:

Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”]. 

 Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].

 Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.

 Houston: You’re too much, Six.

Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab

The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”

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The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-10356]

Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-13329]

García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-45171]

I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)

Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12510]

Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8609]

When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)

Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1980-3491]

In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)

McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-23779]

Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, no. 2012-10346]

An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)

Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-1302]

Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, September 25, 2019: Spacecraft Voyager “Sounds of Earth” Record Cover

Voyager Golden Record: Through Struggle to the Stars

An intergalactic message in a bottle, the Voyager Golden Record was launched into space late in the summer of 1977. Conceived as a sort of advance promo disc advertising planet Earth and its inhabitants, it was affixed to Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, spacecraft designed to fly to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, providing data and documentation of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And just in case an alien lifeform stumbled upon either of the spacecraft, the Golden Record would provide them with information about Earth and its inhabitants, alongside media meant to encourage curiosity and contact.

Recorded at 16 ⅔ RPM to maximize play time, each gold-plaited, copper disc was engraved with the same program of 31 musical tracks—ranging from an excerpt of Mozart’s Magic Flute to a field recording made by Alan Lomax of Solomon Island panpipe players—spoken greetings in 55 languages, a sonic collage of recorded natural sounds and human-made sounds (“The Sounds of Earth”), 115 analogue-encoded images including a pulsar map to help in finding one’s way to Earth, a recording of the creative director’s brainwaves, and a Morse-code rendering of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra (“through struggle to the stars”). In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first Earth craft to burst the heliospheric bubble and cross over into interstellar space. And in 2018, Voyager 2 crossed the same threshold.

Listen to the music recorded on the Voyager album with this Spotify playlist from user Ulysses’ Classical

A tiny speck of a spacecraft cast into the endless sea of outer space, each Voyager craft was designed to drift forever with no set point of arrival. Likewise, the Golden Record was designed to be playable for up to a billion years, despite the long odds that anyone or anything would ever discover and “listen” to it. Much like the Voyager spacecraft themselves, the journey itself was in large part the point—except that instead of capturing scientific data along the way, the Golden Record instead revealed a great deal about its makers and their historico-cultural context.

In The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record (2019), a book published by Bloomsbury’s Sigma science imprint, author Jonathan Scott captures both the monumental scope of the Voyager mission, relentless as space itself, and the very human dimensions of the Gold Record discs: “When we are all dust, when the Sun dies, these two golden analogue discs, with their handy accompanying stylus and instructions, will still be speeding off further into the cosmos. And alongside their music, photographs and data, the discs will still have etched into their fabric the sound of one woman’s brainwaves—a recording made on 3 June 1977, just weeks before launch. The sound of a human being in love with another human being.” 

From sci-fi literature to outer-space superhero fantasies, from Afrofuturism to cosmic jazz to space rock, space-themed artistic expressions often focus on deeply human narratives such as love stories or stories of war. There seems to be something about traveling into outer space, or merely imagining doing so, that bring out many people’s otherwise-obscured humanity–which may help explain all the deadly serious discussions over the most fantastical elements of Star Trek and Star Wars, or Sun Ra and Lady Gaga. In the musical realm, space-based music frequently aims for the most extreme states of human emotion whether body-based or mind-expanding, euphoric or despairing. In other words, these cosmic art forms are pretty much expected to test boundaries and cross thresholds, or at least to make the attempt. The Voyager Golden Record was no exception.

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The “executive producer” behind the Golden Record was the world-famous astrophysicist, humanist, and champion of science for the everyman, Carl Sagan (1934–1996). Equally a pragmatist and a populist, he was the perfect individual to oversee the Golden Record with its dual utilitarian and utopian aims. In his 1973 book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan writes that humans have long “wondered whether they are in some sense connected with the awesome and immense cosmos in which the Earth is imbedded,” touching again on the meeting point between everyday mundane realities and “escapist” fantasies, a collision that animates a great deal of science fiction and cosmic-based music. In his personal notes from the time of The Cosmic Connection, Sagan makes reference to music as “a means of interstellar communication.” So how would he utilize music to create these moments of connection and convergence?

It’s little wonder that Sagan endorsed the inclusion of a record on spaceships, with music specially selected to call out to the outer reaches of space. Music was a “universal language” in his telling due to its “mathematical” form, decipherable to any species with a capacity for advanced memory retention and pattern recognition. But this universal quality didn’t stop it from expressing crucial aspects of what earthlings were and what makes us tick, or the many different types of individuals and cultures at work on the planet Earth. Moving beyond the strict utility of mathematics, he also believed that music could communicate the uniquely emotional dimensions of human existence. Whereas previous visual-based messages shot into space “might have encapsulated how we think, this would be the first to communicate something of how we feel.” (Scott 2019)

Further refining this idea, Jon Lomberg, a Golden Record team member who illustrated a number of Carl Sagan’s books, argued for an emphasis on “ideal” types of music for the interstellar disc: “The [Golden] Record should be more than a random sampling of Earth’s Greatest Hits…We should choose those forms which are to some degree self-explanatory forms whose rules of structure are evident from even a single example of the form (like fugues and canons, rondos and rounds).”

Ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and Robert E. Brown were brought in as collaborators, offering their expertise in the world’s music and knowledge of potential recordings to be used. The latter’s first musical recommendation to Sagan hewed to the stated ideal of music which establishes its own structural rules from the get-go—and by association, how these rules may be broken—all overlaid by the yearning of the singer’s voice and the longing expressed in the lyrics. As he described it in his program notes written for Sagan: ‘“Indian vocal music’ by Kesarbai Kerkar…three minutes and 25 seconds long…a solo voice with a seven-tone modal melody with auxiliary pitches [and] a cyclic meter of 14 beats, alongside drone, ‘ornamentation’ and drum accompaniment and some improvisation.” He also gives a partial translation to the words of the music: “Where are you going? Don’t go alone…”

Taken as a whole, the Voyager Golden Record is reminiscent of a mixtape made by an eccentric friend with an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s music—leaping from track-to-track, across continents and historical periods, crossing heedlessly over the dividing lines drawn between art, folk, and popular musics, but with each track a work of self-contained precision and concision. The disc plays out as a precariously balanced suite of global musical miniatures, a mix where it’s perfectly plausible for Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” to end up sandwiched between a mariachi band and a field recording of Papua New Guinean music recorded by a medical doctor from Australia. Human diversity is the byword, diversity as a trait of humanity itself. The more the individual tracks stand in relief to one another the better.

Given all of this, one could make a plausible case that the Voyager Golden Record helped “invent” a new approach of world music, one where musical crosstalk isn’t subtle or peripheral, but where it’s more like the center pole of musical creation itself. While it’s hardly clear if Sagan or most of his other collaborators had this goal in mind, creative director Ann Druyan certainly did. Or at least she did when it came to her insistence on including Chuck Berry on the Golden Record. As she puts it in a 60 Minutes interview from 2018, “Johnny B. Goode, rock and roll, was the music of motion, of moving, getting to someplace you’ve never been before, and the odds are against you, but you want to go. That was Voyager.” And so rock ‘n’ roll is turned into true “world music.”

Whether by chance or by design, the Voyager Golden Record anticipated the shifting cultural and aesthetic contexts through which many listeners heard and understood “world music,” a shift that would become blatantly obvious in the decades to come. More than a culturally-sensitive replacement for labels like “exotic music” and “primitive music,” more than a grab bag of unclaimed non-Western musics and vernacular musics, the Golden Record anticipated a sensibility in which the “world” in world music was made more literal—both by fusion-minded musicians, and by music retailers who placed these fusions in newly-designated “world music” sections. (but one must acknowledge that these musical fusions were sometimes problematic in their own right, too often relying on power differentials between borrower and borrowed-from music and musicians)

In this respect, and in other respects beyond our scope here, “world music” embodied many of the contradictions inherent to the rise of globalization, postmodernism, hyperreality, neoliberalism, etc.—coinciding with the crossing of a threshold sometime in the 1970s or ‘80s according to most accounts—with the outcome being a world that’s ever more integrated (the global economy, the global media, global climate change) but also ever more polarized, each dynamic inextricably linked to its polar opposite—a sort of interstellar zone where the normal laws of physics no longer seem to apply.

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By taking diversity and juxtaposition as aesthetic ideals rather than drawbacks, the creators of the Voyager Golden Record sketched a sonic portrait of the planet Earth and, at the same time, anticipating the art of the mixtape, yet another trend that would come to fruition in the 1980s. Not unlike a mixtape made for a new friend or a prospective love interest, the Golden Record was designed both to impress—an invitation for aliens to travel across the universe just to meet us—and to express who we are as a people and as a planet. 

With the Golden Record as a mixtape-anticipating bid for cosmic connection, it’s fitting that its creative spark was lit in large part by the love affair that developed between Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in the summer of 1977. To the self-professed surprise of both, they became engaged in the middle of an impulsive phone call and conversation, before they had even officially moved beyond friendship. They remained happily married until Carl Sagan passed away in 1996. On a National Public Radio segment broadcast in 2010, Ann Druyan described the moments leading up to that pivotal phone call and its lifelong aftermath—a relationship made official across space and over a wire—“It was this great eureka moment. It was like scientific discovery.” Several days later, Druyan’s brainwaves were recorded to be included on the Golden Record—her own idea—while she thought about their eternal love.

Given the sudden and unexpected manner in which they fell in love and into sync, it maybe didn’t seem too crazy to believe that infatuation could beset some lonely extraterrestrial who discovered their Golden Record too, especially if this unknown entity plugged into Druyan’s love waves. After all, the Voyager mission itself was planned around a cosmic convergence that only takes place once in the span of several lifetimes. Much like the star-crossed lovers, the stars had to literally align for the mission to be possible at all. The Voyager mission took advantage of a rare formation of the solar system’s most distant four planets that made the trip vastly faster and more feasible, using the gravitational pull of one planet as an “onboard propulsion system” to hurl itself toward the next destination. With all the jigsaw puzzle pieces so perfectly aligned for the first part of the mission, it would be a shame if some mixtape-loving alien never came for a visit. The main question being if anyone will be here to meet them by the time they get here. As Jimmy Carter put it in his written message attached to the Golden Record:

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.

Podcast: Dallas Taylor, host of independent podcast Twenty Herz, explores the Voyager album track-by-track in episode 65: “Voyager Golden Record”

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

DiGenti, Brian. “Voyager interstellar record: 60 trillion feet high and rising”, Wax poetics 55 (summer 2013) 96. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-40100]

In the summer of 1977, just after Kraftwerk dropped Trans-Europe express, Giorgio Moroder offered the world the perfect marriage of German techno with American disco in Donna Summer’s “I feel love,” the first dance hit produced wholly by synthesizer and the precursor to the underground dance movement. Meanwhile, there was another gold record in the works. The Voyager Interstellar Message project, a NASA initiative led by astronomer Carl Sagan and creative director Ann Druyan, was a chance at communicating with any intelligent life in outer space. In an unintended centennial celebration of the phonograph, the team created a gold-plated record that would be attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 probes—the Voyager Golden Record—a time capsule to express the wonders of planet Earth in sound and vision. As they were tasked with choosing images and music for this 16-2/3 RPM “cultural Noah’s Ark”—a little Mozart, some Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and Blind Willie Johnson—the pair of geniuses fell madly for each other, vowing to marry within their first moments together. Their final touch was to embed Ann’s EEG patterns into the record as an example of human brain waves on this thing called love. (author)

Meredith, William. “The cavatina in space”, The Beethoven newsletter 1/2 (summer 1986) 29–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-3441]

When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched its spacecraft Voyager I and II in 1977, each carried a gold-plated copper record intended to serve as a communication to “possible extraterrestrial civilizations.” Each record contains photographs of earth, “the world’s greatest music,” an introductory audio essay, and greetings to extraterrestrials in 60 languages. Two of the record’s eight examples of art music are by Beethoven (the first movement of the symphony no. 5 and the cavatina of the string quartet in B-flat major, op. 130). The symphony no. 5 was selected because of its “compelling” and passionate nature, new physiognomy, innovations, symmetry, and brevity. The cavatina was chosen because of its ambiguous nature, mixing sadness, hope, and serenity. (author)

Sagan, Carl. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (New York: Random House, 1978). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1978-20425]

On 20 August and 5 September 1977, two extraordinary spacecraft called Voyager were launched to the stars (Voyager 1 and Voyager 2). After what promises to be a detailed and thoroughly dramatic exploration of the outer solar system from Jupiter to Uranus between 1979 and 1986, these space vehicles will slowly leave the solar systems—emissaries of the Earth to the realm of the stars. Affixed to each Voyager craft is a gold-coated copper phonograph record as a message to possible extra-terrestrial civilizations that might encounter the spacecraft in some distant space and time. Each record contains 118 photographs of our planet, ourselves, and our civilization; almost 90 minutes of the world’s greatest music; an evolutionary audio essay on “The Sounds of Earth”; and greetings in almost 60 human languages (and one whale language), including salutations from the President Jimmy Carter and the Secretary General of the United Nations. This book is an account, written by those chiefly responsible for the contents of the Voyager Record, of why we did it, how we selected the repertoire, and precisely what the record contains. (publisher)

Scott, Jonathan. The vinyl frontier: The story of the Voyager Golden Record (London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-6834]

In 1977, a team led by the great Carl Sagan was put together to create a record that would travel to the stars on the back of NASA’s Voyager probe. They were responsible for creating a playlist of music, sounds, and pictures that would represent not just humanity, but would also paint a picture of Earth for any future alien races that may come into contact with the probe. The vinyl frontier tells the whole story of how the record was created, from when NASA first proposed the idea to Carl to when they were finally able watch the Golden Record rocket off into space on Voyager. The final playlist contains music written and performed by well-known names such as Bach, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as music from China, India, and more remote cultures such as a community in Small Malaita in the Solomon Islands. It also contained a message of peace from US president Jimmy Carter, a variety of scientific figures and dimensions, and instructions on how to use it for a variety of alien lifeforms. Each song, sound and picture that made the final cut onto the record has a story to tell. Through interviews with all of the key players involved with the record, this book pieces together the whole story of the Golden Record. It addresses the myth that the Beatles were left off of the record because of copyright reasons and will include new information about US president Jimmy Carter’s role in the record, as well as many other fascinating insights that have never been reported before. It also tells the love story between Carl Sagan and the project’s creative director Ann Druyan that flourishes as the record is being created. The Golden Record is more than just a time capsule. It is a unique combination of science and art, and a testament to the genius of its driving force, the great polymath Carl Sagan. (publisher)

Smith, Brad. “Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the night, cold was the ground”, The bulletin of the Society for American Music 41/2 (spring 2015) [9]. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2015-14869]

Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 recording of Dark was the night, cold was the Ground was included on the copper record that accompanied Voyager I and II into space, placed just before the cavatina of Beethoven’s string quartet op. 130. The author searches for the reasons the NASA team considered it among the world’s greatest music, relating Johnson’s interpretation to the hymn text of the same title written by Thomas Haweis and published in 1792, and analyzing Johnson’s slide guitar technique and vocal melismas. Johnson’s rhythmic style, with its irregularities, is discussed with reference to Primitive Baptist singing style.

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

“White Christmas” and fantasy proneness

 

In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.

Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.

Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.

This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!

Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!

Related article: White Christmas goes viral

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Science

William Herschel at the crossroads

 

William Herschel’s career shift from art to science can be regarded as a symbol of the change that music aesthetics underwent in the eighteenth century.

The traditional view of music’s dual nature as both art and science was widely accepted as the century opened, but it was challenged by a growing interest in issues such as genius and the role of inspiration in the creative process. The nature of musical expression defied rational explanation.

The conclusion that genius and inspiration were beyond the law of nature, and that music is not just an expression of natural order but a means by which feelings and emotions can be expressed and thoughts and ideas transferred, contributed to the philosophical background for the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. The arts and sciences had come to a crossroads, and Herschel chose to follow the path of science.

This according to “Music: A science and an art—The 18th-century parting of the ways” by John Bergsagel (Dansk årbog for musikforskning XII [1981] pp. 5-18).

Today is Herschel’s 280th birthday! Above, a portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott; below, his viola concerto in C Major.

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Filed under Classic era, Science

Rhythm and experimental psychology

 

In the laboratories of 19th-century experimental psychologists, new concepts of precision-oriented, mechanically regulated musical time emerged as a positive ideal—one that led to the ubiquity of the metronome in the training and practice regimes of classical musicians and pervasive understandings of “good” and “bad” musical rhythm in the 20th century.

Most notably, Wilhelm Wundt included a metronome in the assembly of clockwork instruments employed in his research into the variables of human perception and action. His experiments helped to shape and define modern concepts of rhythm, radically shifting the concept of musical rhythm from a subjective, internal pulse reference to an objective, unerringly precise phenomenon independent of human agency.

At the turn of the 20th century, other psychologists, such as Carl Seashore, disseminated these scientific ideals to a wider public through important music publications, and by the 1920s such ideals were becoming pervasive among both amateur and professional music practitioners.

This according to “Refashioning rhythm: Hearing, acting and reacting to metronomic sound in experimental psychology and beyond, c. 1875–1920” by Alexander Bonus, an essay included in Cultural histories of noise, sound and listening in Europe, 1300–1918 (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 76–105).

Above, Dr. Wundt (seated) and colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind, ca. 1880; below, an abridged version of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes.

BONUS: For the purists, a complete performance of Ligeti’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Source studies

Hating a nonexistant celebrity

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An Internet questionnaire aimed at measuring Hungarian responses to Hungarian celebrity culture gathered responses from 7317 people; the results are reported in “National characteristics of Hungarian celebrity culture” by Andrea Viniczai, an article included in History of stardom reconsidered (Turku/Åbo: Turun Yliopisto, 2001, pp. 90–96).

Several of the statistics that were generated could give pause; for example, respondents overwhelmingly voted that celebrities should be scandalous (97%), while fewer than 20% believed that they should be likeable, intelligent, or decent (see above).

Particularly notable were the responses to a fictitious celebrity—Lukács Bíró, Vinczai’s dentist—among a group of 29 well-known names. 25% of the respondents claimed familiarity with Bíró, and 60% of them expressed dislike for him. He was the 8th most rejected person in the group.

Below, Jimmy Zámbó, a formerly extant, but still potentially hateful, Hungarian celebrity who is profiled in the article.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music