Is the Official Description of the Aboriginal Music on the Voyager Records Wrong?

Perhaps what we sent to the stars isn't what we thought it was.
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The Golden Record (NASA)

In the summer of 1977, humans sent two spacecraft ad astra—to the stars. Last summer, the first of those two machines, Voyager 1, crossed beyond the bubble around our sun and into interstellar space, though we didn't know it until this fall.

These spacecraft are our first emissaries to the cosmos, and they each bear a disc known as the Golden Record: 87.5 minutes of music, 116 pictures, a handful of other ephemera, selected to together tell of a small blue planet, circling a distant star, in an alien constellation.

What would you put on a mix tape sent to the heavens? In just a couple of months in 1977, Carl Sagan, Timothy Ferris, and Ann Druyan (whom Sagan later married) selected and tracked down 27 clips that captured both the beauty and the diversity of the world's musical heritage: There's a few minutes from the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, a Peruvian wedding song, and Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode

And from the remote islands off the northern coast of Australia, there is this:

Which, according to both NASA's official list and Timothy Ferris's essay in Murmurs of Earth, are two Aborigine songs "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird." But new research conducted by space archaeologist Alice Gorman suggests that this description isn't quite right. The first 23 seconds of the recording are in fact "Morning Star." But when "Morning Star" cuts off the song that comes on is not "Devil Bird" but a different piece called "Moikoi," Gorman explained to me over email. "Devil Bird," it seems, is not on the Voyager record. 

Additionally, according to Ferris in Murmurs of Earth, the two songs were recorded in 1958 by Sandra LeBrun Homes, an expert on aboriginal music and art. But Gorman says that LeBrun Holmes didn't visit Milingimbi Island where she made the recording until 1962. The liner notes of her record from which the Voyager recordings were copied, The Land of the Morning Star, also bear the 1962 date.

Gorman believes that by including "Moikoi" instead of "Devil Bird" we inadvertently sent a different message to the stars than the one we intended. According to Ferris in Murmurs of Earth, "Devil Bird" represented fate’s dangers. But that may not have gone to space. What did go, "Moikoi," is about "malicious spirits who try to entice newly deceased souls away from their clan country," according to Gorman. That idea, paired with "Morning Star," which is about the journey souls make after death, "could," Gorman writes, "perhaps be read as a message about the journey of the human spirit between Earth and spaceand home at last."

It's possible, Gorman acknowledged to me, that there is some other mistake at work here. Perhaps the clips on YouTube that are supposedly of the Voyager track are wrong, and something else is on the spacecraft. She believes the YouTube clips come from the CDROM Warner New Media released in 1992 once Sagan had received all the necessary copyright releases. That the YouTube clips accurately reflect what's actually on the spaceship "is an assumption that we can't verify without listening to compare," Gorman wrote to me, "but I think it is a reasonable one." Moreover, the clips are the right length: The YouTube videos all (and there are many) contain a bit less than 1 minute, 30 seconds of music. NASA says the Aborigine track is 1 minute and 26 seconds long.

It is also possible that there is an error in the transcription of the liner notes from LeBrun Holmes' The Land of the Morning Star. For the moment at least, Gorman has been unable to track down an original version of the now out-of-print record, and her conclusion does rest on the assumption that the liner notes, and the way they describe the record's contents, are themselves accurate.

In an email, Ferris said that he could not at this time "render judgment" on whether the official description contained an error. He added:

I am, however, proud of the fact that the Voyager record contains a number of field recordings from distant times and places.  That questions of their identification and attribution come up from time to time seems to me a small price to pay for our having been able to include peoples who would otherwise have not been represented, and to have dispatched their wonderful music to the stars.

And that music is just as wonderful as the day it launched. On its own, a song—notes played on a didgeridoo, tapped out on clapsticks, sung by a human—can't be wrong. All that might be mistaken are the descriptions, and those are here on Earth, easily updated with a few lines of code on a NASA webpage, a new edition of a book (and it's a lovely book), a couple of clicks in Wikipedia. No harm, no foul.

We sent our message to the stars with no real belief that it would ever be found. The chance an alien will someday intercept Voyager is, as scientist Bernard Oliver put it, "infinitesimal." But, he added, "it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials."

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we decided to put our best face forward: Here is our music, our art, our words of greeting in 55 languages. Here is a record of life on this planet. "It says," Ferris writes in Murmurs of Earth, "however small we were, something in us was large enough to want to reach out to discoverers unknown in times when we shall have perished or have changed beyond recognition."

Yet it might not be exactly what we thought. One song, swapped unknowingly for another. A misunderstanding, sent to the stars.

Could anything be more human? 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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