In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, fastening to each a phonograph album containing sounds and music of Earth. If the best calculations are to be believed, one of these records was intercepted and “remixed” sometime in 2005 by extraterrestrial intelligences on the edge of our solar system. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Exile (SETI-X), a dissident offshoot of the better-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in 2010 finished decoding signals believed to be transmissions of these “remixes.” Scrambles of Earth, unauthorized by a skeptical SETI, is SETI-X’s document of these audio signs of possible alien intelligence.
The original two-hour record, compiled by a team headed by astronomer Carl Sagan, was meant to serve as an interstellar greeting and to represent to aliens the variety of Earth’s musical and sonic offerings. The consideration the consortium gave to choosing compositions and performances from around the planet appears, however, to have been unusually interpreted by otherworldly auditors of the record. From the segments of the remix that SETI-X has reconstructed from transmissions received at the radio telescope of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, from the screensavers of people participating in the SETI@home project, and from L. George Lawrence’s Stellartron , it would seem that the extraterrestrials have produced an analysis rather at odds with Sagan and company’s anthropological and technological project.
Published documentation of the Voyager album’s contents offers incomplete recording information for much of the disc’s non-Western music — with credit and copyright often given to those European and American ethnomusicologists who recorded “Pygmy girls” and “Navajo Indians,” while the names of Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky stand as tokens of unitary authorship and putatively universal genius . Signaling an attitude Sagan clearly would have commended, the aliens have disregarded the differences that these attributions might suggest (though the resulting, largely implicit, critique of the record’s Eurocentrism comes off as unintentional and confused, even if the remixes do call into question some of the dearest assumptions of Western music theorists ). Moreover, it is obvious that the aliens take as only the merest suggestion the 16 2/3 RPM at which the record is designed to play (explained by this icon, on the back of the Voyager record,
which designates along its circumference in binary arithmetic “the correct time of one rotation of the record, 3.6 seconds, expressed in time units of 0.70 billionths of a second, the time period associated with a fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom” .). The photographs the record contains, encoded in the audio spectrum, have also sometimes been treated as fodder for an undiscerning (or perhaps contrarian?) alien auditory imagination. What is more remarkable about the alien remixes is the possibility that the agent or agents behind them don’t always seem to be able to tell the difference between organized sounds produced by humans and damage to the record resulting from interstellar dust. Indeed, in many cases it seems that the aliens have decrypted the disc’s information according to radically different conceptions of how matter is organized; the stylus provided with the record has been used in odd ways and sometimes disregarded entirely. None of this may be a surprise. After all, as Dr. Richard Doyle of Penn State explains, “the very essence of the alien presence … [is] its characteristic ability to proliferate and mutate, disturbing the various taxonomical categories that we bring to bear on ‘them’” .
It could also be that the aliens were unmoved by Voyager’s musical program and sought in their version to reprimand Earthlings with an obnoxious response to what Sagan and others modestly termed, in the title of their explanatory coffee-table book, Murmurs of Earth. A 1987 review of the original record by an earthling concerned about alien ears and other sensory organs lends support to this hypothesis:
Ten year ago, America perjaculate Voyager satellite out of planethood. Voyager had Golden Record holding gobs of Gaia tunage to interest/tice/press aliens. Aliens want state-of-art mega-hip scene. But music on Voyager record is hundreds of years old! No synthesizer, no drum machine, no dance remix! No wondering that, in ten year, not a one alien has called! Aliens hear old tunage, puke out all kidneys from ear-pain. Say: “Gaia beings are coma-toast lamo Gilligans.” (www.brunching.com/flashvoyager.html)
The listener will note that the decoded material presented here includes pieces that sometimes sound like nightclub remixes made with looping software. Such moments may constitute artifacts of earthly deconvolution technologies.
Even through the translatory mediation of our all-too-human audio algorithms, however, it is apparent that the aliens are playing fast and loose with complex intercultural questions and flirting with copyright violation on an interstellar scale. In their remixes, they take unprecedented liberties with the sounds of Earth, bounding beyond even the most elementary of legal restrictions — enumerated in such cautions as the below, which appeared on a 1992 commercially available CD-ROM of the Voyager Interstellar Record:
WARNING: Unless you have the express written permission of Warner New Media, it is a violation of United States copyright law to use this product in any manner other than as an integrated presentation, to copy, photograph, transcribe, sample, print out or otherwise record in any manner the product or any portion (no matter how small) of the product, including the pictures, other graphic images, text or music contained in the product, or to synchronize or otherwise combine this product or any portion (no matter how small) of this product with any other material of any kind.
In view of this warning, listeners might reason that any earthly decryption of the alien remix should only be listened to in outer space, where this transformation was almost certainly created (and where, paradoxically — as the inscription on the Voyager record, “To the makers of music, all worlds, all times,” implies — all remixes might be considered at once completely outside the law and perfectly legal ). Terrestrial auditors might also keep in mind, however, that Warner’s worries rest on the assumption that the pirate aliens consistently used the same device to read as Earthlings did to write .
These transcriptions are incomplete. Listeners might keep an ear out for the arrival of new remixes from the stars and consider passing these along to the scientists of SETI-X. The extraterrestrials are still transmitting, perhaps even seeking to locate original performers, technicians, record executives, lawyers, drum sets, and dust particles, calling those agents within hailing frequencies to continue to modulate the Voyager Interstellar Record.
1. See L. G. Lawrence. Galactic Life Unveiled: The Phenomenon of Biological Communication Between Advanced Life in Space and Its Subliminal Effects on Terrestrial Man. Borderlands, 1997, which reports that the device has received signals “possibly of a modulated anti-matter-type, that can be intercepted only by living organic (i.e., biological) transducer substrates” (p. xx).
2. S. Nelson and L. Polansky, “The Music of the Voyager Interstellar Record.” Journal of Applied Communication Research 21(4)(1993): 358-375.
3. See, e.g., material on the “Whincop Observation” in D. Lewin. “Thoughts on Klumpenhouwer Networks and Perle-Lansky Cycles.” Music Theory Spectrum 24(2)(2002): 196-230. Similarly garbled are any resemblances to the space music of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, or Parliament. See K. Eshun. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet, 1998.
4. C. Sagan, F.D. Drake, A. Druyan, T. Ferris, J. Lomberg, L.S. Sagan. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Random House, 1978, p. 37.
5. R. Doyle. Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living. University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p. 197. See also S. Helmreich, “The Signature of Life: Designing the Astrobiological Imagination.” Grey Room 23(4)(2006): 66-95.
6. Convincing as it might be, such a cosmic “fair use” argument leaves aside the question of whether the presence of information in this decryption of a decryption may a priori violate key laws of physics. See M. Lachmann, M.E.J. Newman, and C. Moore, “The Physical Limits of Communication, or Why Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable from Noise.” American Journal of Physics 72 (2004): 1290–1293.
7. C. Kelty, impersonal communication, 10 April 2005. See also S. Kember, “Media, Mars and Metamorphosis.” Culture Machine 11(2010): 31-40.
No profit is sought from these sounds, only the greater information.
If you have received an alien remix of a Voyager Interstellar Record element, send a file to the appropriate address.