An out-of-this-world, exclusive playlist for members of Classical Archives

Last week we published “Can E.T. Carry a Tune?”, a blog post by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. It was a terrific post in which Seth explored whether extraterrestrials could “hear” human-made music and if they could, whether they would like it.

Inspired by Seth’s post, we remembered that back in 1977, NASA took a stab at selecting audio tracks for extraterrestrials. NASA’s goal was to help outer-space beings understand what life is like on Earth and to explain who we are.

NASA put its selections onto two gold-plated records and sent them into outer space on the Voyager I space probe, which is now more than 13 billion miles from Earth. We assume that those two golden disks are tucked safely away, awaiting their eventual use at an extraterrestrial record hop.

What Selections Did NASA Make for the Golden Disks?

NASA created a varied selection of tracks for aliens to listen to. It was not all classical music. In the very first track, Kurt Waldheim, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, sent a message of friendship. Next came greetings from earthlings from around the world, speaking 55 different languages. After that, the two NASA disks presented a mixture of nature sounds (whales singing, crickets chirping), ethnic music (a Navaho song, a wedding song from Huancavelica and more), a great rock n’ roll selection (“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry), and a blues song (“Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson). For a complete track list of what NASA included on the disks, visit the Wikipedia entry about them.

Classical Music on the Golden Disks

NASA included classical music too, to let aliens know that we are capable of creating works of aural beauty.

We are pleased to offer you a selection of the music that NASA shot into space. If you are a member of Classical Archives, CLICK HERE to listen to them all on just one playlist. 

Here’s what you are about to hear. Please note that when one of tracks on our playlist is the same one that NASA used, we will indicate that fact below.

Selection One: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047; First Movement (Allegro) by Johann Sebastian Bach

The first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto should let aliens know that humans are capable of writing highly organized and architectural music that is beautiful too. It will also let aliens know that we have learned to play the trumpet.

This excellent recording is not the same track that NASA selected for its Golden Disks. But like the one that NASA launched, it is conducted by the great Bach interpreter Karl Richter.

Selection Two: Partita for Violin No. 3 in E Major. III: Gavotte en Rondeau BWV 1006 by Johann Sebastian Bach

More Bach! This time, expressing pure melodic beauty that is sure to bring a tear to any sentient being’s eye.

This recording by lutenist Narciso Yepes is not the same recording launched by NASA, which featured violinist Arthur Grumiaux. Why? We were not able to obtain the Grumiaux recording.

Selection Three: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major BWV 870 by Johann Sebastian Bach (two playlist tracks)

We are pleased to offer you this recording by Glenn Gould. However note that the recording on our playlist dates from Gould’s recording of 1987-1989 and therefore, is a later recording than the one NASA shot off to parts unknown.

Selection Four: The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), Part II – Sacrificial Dance (“The Chosen One”) by Igor Stravinsky

NASA was willing to shake aliens up a bit by offering them the sacrificial dance from Sacre. (Take that, aliens, we sometimes dance ourselves to death!) We will hear the same recording that NASA shot into space, featuring the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Selection Five: The Queen of the Night’s Vengeance Aria from Act II of Die Zauberflöte K. 620 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

NASA also sent aliens a recording of “der Hölle Rache,” the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. In it, the evil Queen exhorts her daughter to murder the enlightened priest Sarastro. (Hey, we humans can’t be nice all the time, can we?)

We are not able to offer you the same recording that NASA selected, which featured Edda Moser. But we are pleased to include this worthy alternate, a stellar performance by Wilma Lipp, who performed this role more than 400 times during her career. As was the case with NASA’s selection, this performance is conducted by Karl Böhm.

Selection Six: Cavatina (fifth movement) from the String Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Minor Op. 130 by Ludwig van Beethoven

NASA apparently wanted to see how extraterrestrials would react to the sublime, ineffable beauty in this cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130.

This historical recording by the Budapest String Quartet is the same one the aliens might be enjoying right now.  

Selection Seven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven (four tracks)

If you were trying to present humanity’s highest artistic achievements, you would select Beethoven’s No. 5, would you not? And indeed, NASA did. One quibble? NASA only sent the first movement to our new alien pals. But because we want to treat you better than NASA treated them, we have included a complete recording of the symphony – all four movements – on your playlist. Enjoy.

This is the same recording that aliens might be listening to right now. It is a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Otto Klemperer.