Saturday, September 14, 2013

Music en voyage



A couple of days ago NASA announced that the space probe Voyager 1 has left the solar system and is now in interstellar space: the first man-made object to do so. That provoked this odd little story in the LA Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-voyager-1-music-in-space-20130912,0,1206907.story

A quote:
The music selection on Voyager skews noticeably classical, with the inclusion of seven classical selections out of a total of 27 tracks.
I'm not quite sure if the writer is bragging or complaining about the classical "skew", but if I had been running the committee making the selections it might have been seven popular selections out of a total of 27 tracks, with the majority being classical.

Voyager 1 was launched in September 1977. Was the choice of music skewed by that? In other words, did the committee pick a bunch of then-current popular music and throw in a few token classical pieces just for show? Will we see a lot of Rod Stewart, ABBA and K.C. and the Sunshine Band (big hits in 1977)?

Here, from the NASA site is the whole list of music selections:

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Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
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Java, court gamelan, "Kinds of Flowers," recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
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Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
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Zaire, Pygmy girls' initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
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Australia, Aborigine songs, "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird," recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
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Mexico, "El Cascabel," performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México. 3:14
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"Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
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New Guinea, men's house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
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Japan, shakuhachi, "Tsuru No Sugomori" ("Crane's Nest,") performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
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Bach, "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
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Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
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Georgian S.S.R., chorus, "Tchakrulo," collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
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Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
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"Melancholy Blues," performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
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Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
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Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
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Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
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Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
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Bulgaria, "Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin," sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
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Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
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Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, "The Fairie Round," performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
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Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
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Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
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China, ch'in, "Flowing Streams," performed by Kuan P'ing-hu. 7:37
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India, raga, "Jaat Kahan Ho," sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar. 3:30
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"Dark Was the Night," written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
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Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

Aha, interesting choices. In the 1970s one of the most interesting recording projects was that of Folkways Records who specialized in recording everything non-commercial such as "folk, world, and children's music". It was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1987. The non-classical selections on the NASA list seem to be very like a Folkways Records repertoire list: Javanese gamelan, Zaire pygmy girls' song, panpipes from Peru and so on. Some 'classic' examples of American music such as Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry are included. The classical selection includes not only those you would expect, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky, but also some early music by Hans Holborne. All in all, a pretty impressive selection.

Imagine this same project being taken up today. Would a similar aesthetic be followed? I am extrapolating that the basic principle of selection was something like: choose the most fundamental pieces from the classical repertoire allowing also for a wide range of genres from solo violin to opera; from world music, choose distinctive examples from a wide range of cultures and instrumentation, childrens' song to panpipes; then choose a sample of distinctive American popular music, jazz, blues and rock and roll.

I would almost be willing to bet that if the selection was made today, it would be heavily skewed towards current pop music. Sure, a few classical tunes, some world music, but I would bet that there would be some Beatles, some Jimi Hendrix and either Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, maybe some Michael Jackson. After all, that is what is 'relevant', right?

What has happened in the last thirty-six years to dilute the aesthetic that was probably used to make the original selection? I would argue that a real historical perspective has faded even from academia. The other thing that has diminished is a sense of objective aesthetic criteria. Why do you have to have Bach when he is a "minority taste"? Isn't Beyoncé more important? Well, sure, if you no longer have an aesthetic but just rely on popular appeal.

Here is the haunting blues by Blind Willie Johnson included on Voyager. "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" recorded sometime between 1927 and 1930:


It is sure in a cold, dark place now!

4 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

One commentator says:
"Just proves white folks sent it, where are Modern greats like Bird, Miles and Trane, or Indian musics?"

Very ignorant comment. Maybe a (radical) multiculturalist (he clearly uses reverse racism) and he probably doesn't have an idea about the fact that the selection was in fact from all around the World (including India). I agree with you, 7 classical music tracks isn't a big number at all. But either way seems like a fair selection and it isn't surprising that J.S. Bach has 3 tracks there considering his mastery of all musical elements.

Bryan Townsend said...

For some reason, the comments wouldn't load for me, so I didn't see the one you quote. But yes, silly and ignorant because the musical selection really was color-blind. Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Armstrong are both black so 2/3rds of the American music was by black musicians. Also included was music from India, as you say, and Africa.

Shantanu said...

I think the choice of the last piece on that list -- the Cavatina -- is just perfect.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, pretty much!