Summer 1994 (2.2)
In Search of Extraterrestrials
Azerbaijani Music Selected for Voyager Spacecraft
by Anne Kressler
Slides: courtesy of NASA
Sketch: courtesy of JPL
Azerbaijani music is on its way to the stars encased in a gold-coated, copper phonograph record attached to the sides of two NASA spacecrafts, Voyagers I and II, which were launched on August 20th and September 5th, 1977. For the past thirteen years, these two spacecrafts have been sending back photos from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and beyond on their lonely voyages that will eventually, if all goes as scheduled, take them beyond the earth's solar system.
NASA scientists who organized this project were intrigued by the possibility that extraterrestrial life might exist. If it did and if it could be contacted, then they wanted to try to send a token from human life on earth of "our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings."
Along with 90 minutes of some of the world's best music, the record which is identical in both spacecrafts, includes three other major sections: greetings in 55 different languages, a sound essay, (Sounds of Earth), and a digitized photo essay of 118 photographs showing what man looks like and some of the things he has achieved.
On the one hand, the Voyager's record is like a 20th century time capsule which potentially could survive a billion years into the future. On the other, it's something like a bottle cast into the ocean, hoping that someone, somewhere, will eventually find and read its message. Except that this time, the ocean is a galaxy so large it's beyond imagination and the chances are extremely slim that any extraterrestrial, if there is such form of life, could, or ever would, find it.
But the possibility of contacting intelligent extraterrestrial civilization always stirs our imagination so, perhaps, the value of such an experiment is much more beneficial to us human beings on earth than to extraterrestrials.
A duet by balaban players.
As B. M. Oliver, Vice-President for Research and development at Hewlett-Packard Corporation said at the time, "There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit, and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind." (Murmurs, 11).
The Voyager Spacecraft
The short selection of Azerbaijani music (2:20 minutes long) is an exquisite piece, brilliantly performed by two balaban players in the tradition of mugam, which is a type of modal music with historical roots in Azerbaijan's antiquity. The piece is one of 27 pieces, including selections such as Bach, Beethoven, Peruvian pan pipes and Navajo night chants that was selected to represent the wide range of emotional life expressive of human beings on earth.
The mugam was recorded by Radio Moscow (probably in the early 1950s), brought to the US by American composer, Henry Cowell, and produced in 1960 by Smithsonian Folkways Records, "Folk Music of the USSR". Timothy Ferris, wrote that the mugam piece is "a haunting series of variations played over a drone rich with subdominants (which) holds something recognizable for listeners from Spain to Afghanistan" (Murmurs, 185).
As the world's music is extremely rich and much of it unfamiliar even to the most-knowledgeable professional musicians, it was not easy for Scientist Carl Sagan, who headed the Record project, and his music experts to choose the pieces for Voyager.
The team wanted to be as fair and representative as possible in terms of geographical, ethnic and cultural distribution, style of music and relation to other pieces chosen. Of course, there were constraints of time, budget and bureaucracy.
But still the possibilities were limitless. The team coped with questions such as the comprehensibility of the music if the words were unknown, whether the music performed by alleged Nazi sympathizers should be included, and whether great music performed on poor quality recordings should be included.
There was considerable discussion about limiting the disk to Western music. The greatest influence for expanding the horizons for other types of music seems to have come from American folklorist, Alan Lomax, who had spent a life time studying and classifying the world's broad expressions in music.
According to Sagan, it was Lomax "who was a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible. There was, for example, no room for Debussy among our selections, because Azerbaijanis play bagpipe-sounding instruments and Peruvians play panpipes and such exquisite pieces had been recorded by ethnomusicologists known to Lomax" (Murmurs, 16).
Even careful thought was given to the sequencing of the music (See box). The team wanted to avoid grouping all the Western European music together and so they purposely juxtaposed music from many cultures. In some cases, pieces are coupled because of the emotion and tone contrast, because of a common solo virtuosity on quite different instruments, or because of a similarity of instruments or rhythmic and melodic styles between seemingly disparate cultures.
Perhaps, it was because of the great constraints of time and budget and because Azerbaijan under the Soviet regime was so inaccessible to the Western world that very serious errors in the description of the music are included in the, otherwise, very excellent book, Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, by Carl Sagan and others (New York: Random House, 1978).
For example, the Azerbaijani music is described as "bagpipe" music played by a "soloist" in the tradition of "ugam". But the music is not performed on a solo bagpipe, but on two balabans which are reed-like instruments producing a bagpipe-like sound. Of course, there is no such tradition in Azerbaijan as "ugam." It is clearly "mugam." The player's use of a circular breathing technique does produce a bagpipe effect. In this piece there are two players, one playing a sustainined drone and the other improvisations on the melody. Despite the misnomers in written description, the music is exhilarating and truly deserves to be part of this great collection.
CDs and Casettes Available
A CD and CD ROM, "Murmurs on the Earth" ($54) has just been released which includes all the music of the Voyagers. Contact: Planetary Society, 65 N Catalina Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106 at (818) 793-5100. A cassette is available with the Azerbaijan balabans playing mugam (the written description mistakenly identifies it as Azerbaijani "bagpipes" playing "ugam"). Contact Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, 955 L'Enfant Plaza Suite 2600, Washington, D.C. 20560. Tel: 202-287-3262 or Fax 202-287-3699. Ask for "Folk Music of the USSR", Folkways Records Album FE 4535, compiled and with notes by Henry Cowell. (Double cassette $18.45).
Special thanks to Allen Wood of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA; Yusef Jones of Smithsonian Folkways Records, Washington, D.C; and Maziar Mahjoobi, Music Composition Major at UCLA for mugam transcription.
From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer Issue 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.