Beethoven, Out of This World

Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 130 is one of the works that Flinders Quartet will perform in its concert on 28 February 2020, for Sydney Mozart Society. The Cavatina movement from this quartet has the rare distinction of being included on the "Golden Record" carried aboard each of the twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 to explore interstellar space.

Helen Ireland, the Quartet's violist  has said: "The Cavatina from Opus 130, as for so many, has a very special place in my heart, it speaks so deeply and directly to the soul. It's very easy to see why it was selected to be sent into space in 1977."

The creation of the Golden Record  - and the inclusion of works by Beethoven -  is a story about a meeting of advanced technology with the powerful human desire to make music and to share music.  The Golden Record also has a little known Australian connection.

             golden record horizontal

                                                                                             Golden Record Cover, Photo: NASA

When the Voyager Space Probe was under development, Carl Sagan of Cornell University proposed that some sort of time capsule or record of human life on earth should be included aboard the spacecraft in the event that they might encounter intelligent life forms in distant galaxies. He considered that such beings, while having an interest in the technology of the spacecraft, would probably have much more interest in the culture of the world that launched the spacecraft.

Sagan worked with a committee of eminent figures from the Sciences and Arts to select diagrams, photographs, sounds, music and other data that could represent the earth and the diversity of its people. The items would be etched into the grooves of a gold-plated audio-visual disk, a "Golden Record", that could be played on equipment carried on the spacecraft.  

The selection of music was a very important way to  indicate the range and complexity of human thought and creativity.  In an early committee  discussion about possible items for the Golden Record, the physicist Freeman Dyson is reported to have said "I'd just send Bach" then added "or perhaps not, that would be showing off."  In some accounts a similar comment "Bach, nothing but Bach. . . but that would be boasting." is attributed to biologist Lewis Thompson. The enthusiasm for Bach was noted, but the group took a more eclectic approach to the final selection of music.

The Golden Record was launched into  space with ninety minutes of music made up of 27 items drawn from many different parts of the world and from many different eras. Representing the western classical music period and earlier there are three works by Bach, two works from Beethoven and one work each by  Mozart, Stravinsky and Holborne. All are works that represent pinnacles of technique, structure and beauty in the development of western music. 

The two Beethoven works chosen for the Golden Record are sublimely expressive. They are:

The Mozart work on the Golden Record is The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor.

in a 2017 article published in  The New Yorker Magazine, Timothy Ferris  who produced the record for Carl Sagan, explained the section of multiple works by Bach and Beethoven:

" In selecting western classical music, we sacrificed a measure of diversity to include three compositions by J. S. Bach and two by Ludwig van Beethoven. To understand why we did this, imagine that the record were being studied by extraterrestrials who lacked what we would call hearing, or whose hearing operated in a different frequency range than ours, or who hadn’t any musical tradition at all. Even they could learn from the music by applying mathematics, which really does seem to be the universal language that music is sometimes said to be. They’d look for symmetries—repetitions, inversions, mirror images, and other self-similarities—within or between compositions. We sought to facilitate the process by proffering Bach, whose works are full of symmetry, and Beethoven, who championed Bach’s music and borrowed from it."

It is both logical and remarkable that these works by Bach and Beethoven have within their structure the keys to unlock an understanding of the very nature of music. It is a bonus that the works are beautiful as well as mathematically interesting.

Outside of the western music tradition  two songs from Australia's First Nations People were selected for the Golden Record: "Barnumbirr" (Morning Star) and "Moikoi" (Devil Bird) performed by Tom Djawa, Mudpo and Waliparu, recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. The inclusion of these works was a respectful acknowledgement of the world's oldest living culture, from a project involving the world's then newest technology.  

In addition to music. the Golden Record holds over one hundred images ranging from scientific diagrams to photographs of fishermen and athletes. There are audio clips of a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. There are also greetings spoken in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from then U.S. President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each Golden Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk. After their creation a message was etched by hand onto the inner part of each Golden Record: "To the makers of music – all worlds, all times". The cover of each record is etched with diagrams representing the record and how it should be played and its signals decoded.

The  twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and travelling at 35,000 per hour are now in interstellar space, well beyond the orbit of Pluto. As of the beginning of January 2020 Voyager 1 was approximately 13,822 million miles from Earth and Voyager 2 was approximately 11,481 million miles from Earth. Beethoven's Cavetina is now truly out of this world!

When you come to the next Sydney Mozart Society concert and  listen to  the Flinders Quartet performing Beethoven's Opus 130, think of his Cavatina and the other musical items hurtling through space and what they tell the cosmos about humanity, the complexity of our thoughts and  the beauty of our diverse music traditions.

To learn more about the Golden Record project and to see the complete list of its contents visit the Voyager website maintained by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory , California Institute of Technology.

                                                                                                            Charmain Boyakovsky