Blog and online portfolio of Ian Pollard

Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.

An annotated version of a piece recently published  in mat.zine 07 – ‘The Hourglass Issue

Voyagers' Golden Record Cover | Image ©NASA


“I am currently 13 hrs 11 mins 23 secs of light-travel time from Earth”

{Voyager II, midnight, 20th January 2011, travelling at ~55,690km/h}

Having come across the ‘@Voyager2’ feed on twitter, I was presented with the first line of text above – an intriguing semi-human communication.

Reading the text, while this years perigee moon shone brightly in a clear winter sky, I was reminded of the golden record which the spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 both carry. Each is an identical gold-plated copper phonograph containing material curated by a group led by astronomer Carl Sagan. On the records they chose to put a selection of natural sounds from earth, recorded greetings in fifty-five languages, and a unique playlist of music from around our world. A collection of images and written messages from then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim accompanied the audio material, which were ‘written’ onto the phonograph in binary code.

Shown in the image above is the mysterious aluminium cover for the record, upon which is inscribed a set of diagrammatic instructions. These outline the origin of the interstellar vehicles, and how ‘one’ might attempt to ‘play’ the record. To the lower left can be noted basic directions to our solar system, while above you may detect a plan and elevation view of the record and its stylus. The symbol to the lower right describes the hydrogen atom, and above it is represented the process involved in viewing the 115 images and various messages contained therein.

The Golden Records have fascinated me since I first happened upon their intriguing descriptions. They are positively surreal. Within this exquisite capsule is the attempt to communicate some symbolic embodiment of our race, what Sagan dexcribed as “Murmurs of Earth”. This dense fragment of humanity is, at a first glance, both optimistic and hopeful; ‘optimistic’ in the sense that it provides a positive view of our development, and ‘hopeful’ in the belief that was the impetus for the Golden Records – that they may be decoded, sometime, by some sentient others. As Sagan noted; “(…) the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet”[1].

However – every curatorial exercise is one of reduction and exclusion, and assessment of such is judged as much by what the curator excludes as that which they include. So, working within the spirit of optimism and hope that framed their choices, what did Sagan and his team exclude? What did they exclude from the golden records of our capacity for war; of disease; of our negative impact on the environment and our fellow inhabitants? What of the vast inequalities that have developed within in our own species as it developed across diverse geographies and resources? What of the other forms of life in whose extinction we have played a significant part? For it is these destructive forces – as much as what is creative and good – that constitute the human condition. “At present, all over the world, is war” remarked conductor Leopold Stokowski;

“So much destruction. And so little compared to that destruction that is creative. Many minds who are in what we call war – those minds might have enormous creative power, but they are killed, smashed by the destruction”.[2]

Despite the necessary optimism of the project brief however, the music of the records contain a more complex story. The playlist includes representative selections from each continent, and traverses several genres, including blues & jazz, and what is usually described as ‘ethnic’ and ‘world’ music. From Mozart and Bach to Stravinsky, however, ‘Western’ Classical music clearly dominates the list [3]. While most of the choices merit individual analysis not possible here, the most illustrative example is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). In Le Sacre we witness something rather unusual – a point at which the elite sophistication of classical music returns to the primal, the savage; it depicts the dance of a girl to her death, offered as she is a pagan sacrifice to the god of Spring. It is at once terrifying and uplifting, and there is something unnerving about how Stravinsky sets the rare and delicate craftsmanship of violins, tubas and cellos against the cruelty and violence of human ritual. This is beautiful music that soars; yet as it moves toward denouement in the strange rhythms of the ‘Sacrifical Dance’, it bores down into Dantean circles of suffering.

Stravinsky - Le Sacre du Printemps; Sacrifical Dance.

The very fact that humans made the golden records will ‘tell’ future generations as much about us as the data they contain – as they were perhaps made as much for us as for any other sentient beings. In the spirit of a memento mori, the covers for the golden discs serve as a reminder to our own frail mortality. Electroplated with enriched uranium – with a half-life of approximately four and a half billion years – the aluminum covers are solid-state clocks, where the hourglass’ sand is replaced by the measurable decay rate of unstable atoms.

In the a global environment polarised between a data-driven, ‘transient’ digital culture, and an underdeveloped world where many lives pass completely unrecorded, these records exist within multiple levels of significance. But above all they exist to serve the recording of time – whether it be through the violent crotchets and minims of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps, or the slow demise of uranium particles employed in their unique duty.

It will be approximately forty-thousand years before Voyager II reaches another planetary system. So until then, it will be travelling in an unknown emptiness of space, carrying its most unusual cargo. What will Blind Willie Johnson’s transcendental ‘Dark was the Night’ sound like in the great vacuum, ten thousand years from now? Or even one billion? Perhaps we should have kept a few copies for ourselves. Sometime in the distant future, someone may choose to listen back to these ‘murmurs’, and like Proust’s proverbial madelines, in a cascade of involuntary remembrance, may recall from whence we came – for the records would

“amid the ruins of all the rest; […] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection”[4].


1. Murmurs of Earth – The Voyager Interstellar Record. Sagan, C. et al. 1978
2. Leopold Stokowski is here transcribed from the Glenn Gould radio documentary entitled ‘Stokowski-A Portrait for radio’, extracts of which are available here- part 1 and part 2.
3. Available at http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec.html
4. Remembrance of Things Past – Swann’s Way. p32. Proust, M. Vintage. 2009 (Translated from 1927 French edition). Selected passage available to view online here.
Recording of Stravinsky conducting Sacre du Printemps (1929)
Main Voyager Website


Filed under: History, mat.zine, Music, , , ,

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