“The soaring emotions from music might be a mystery to them, but if we were to convey something of what humans were about then music has to be a part of it,” he later said in an interview with BBC Radio 4.
Sagan quickly pitched the idea for the golden records, estimating it would cost US$25,000 to make them. Casani agreed and Sagan and team member Ann Druyan set about choosing the music. They had just six weeks to assemble the album, the most symbolic music compilation project in history. It was an almost impossible task, by Sagan’s own admission.
A frantic consultation with musicologists around the world ensued, as Druyan, who later became Sagan’s wife, battled to track down 26 specific recordings which reflected something of the emergence and evolution of music on Earth.
When the physician and biology writer Lewis Thomas was asked which tracks he would send he quickly replied “the complete works of J.S. Bach ...” before adding, after a pause “but that would be boasting.”
Still, The Sounds of Earth does carry more from Bach than any other single composer, with three pieces chosen to reflect the evolution of his style.
As with any mixtape project, particularly one intended to represent something of our diversity as a species and what it means to be a human, there are going to be some obvious omissions; not least the Beatles. Druyan was hoping for Here Comes the Sun, but the request was turned down by the band’s record company, as they presumably could not agree to clearance for the rights “in perpetuity, across the known universe.”
Yet the most striking story from this effort to compile the golden record concerns the closing piece for the album; Beethoven’s Cavatina from the String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op 130. Whilst researching an article about the project for the New York Times, Druyan had looked at Beethoven’s diaries, and: “in his own hand he’d written: ‘will they like my music on Venus? What will they think of it on Uranus...’”
At last there was a way to respond to that impulse, that question that Beethoven asked so long ago, she said.
Despite its ambition, and the epic time scales over which the Voyagers are likely to survive, given the vastness of space, these two tiny craft and their golden records are unlikely ever to be found. Sagan was clever enough to realize this — for him it was not so much what the records said to other civilizations that mattered, what was more significant was what they said about our own. Like the pale blue dot photograph captured by Voyager 1, the compilation record was a mirror to hold up to ourselves.
“Here is a moment when we have to suddenly think what is it about our culture we’d want others to know about, that we’d be proud of,” Sagan said in a 1982 interview.
“The record should represent the human species as an entirety. We are a single species on the planet Earth. The unity of the species seen down here is a fact that is essential for the human future,” he said
As our first interstellar ambassadors set sail on this new sea, it is worth reflecting once more on this unique vantage point that such exploration far beyond our “pale blue dot” offers us. From this perspective, national boundaries melt away and ethnic, religious or ideological differences seem an irrelevant way to define our identity.