“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
Do you remember radio? Fifty-one years ago I was driving from St. Louis to Oberlin on July 19th. It was a cloudless evening when I heard the voice of Neil Armstrong as he descended the ladder and then stepped foot on the moon. All those sci-fi serials, films, and audio dramas of my childhood flashed in front of me. Good thing there were not too many people on the road that night.
Having written a few speculative fiction stories, visions of what the lunar surface might contain were coming to me, fast and furious. Perhaps the astronaut would encounter a previously unknown civilization of celestial beings that lay dormant until our heroic space cadet accidentally crushed them under his boot. Perhaps the Russians did beat us in the moon race and were secretly planning to obliterate the United States from their nuclear moon base, which had gone undetected by our satellites. They never forgave us when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition.
Nearly a decade after the moonwalk, NASA decided to include a time capsule of humanity inside the twin space probes that would eventually leave the sun’s sphere of influence and enter interstellar space. As Austin Considine explained in his piece for The Atlantic in November 2012, “Launched in 1977 aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft, the Golden Records were designed as a greeting to whatever intelligent alien the spacecraft might meet beyond the solar system. They contained nothing about disease, conflict, or the Cold War nuclear fears that drove the American space program.”
It seemed that sending negative reality to our interplanetary pals would undermine the objective of portraying Earth in the most favorable light. Projecting this attempt at communication out nearly half a century after the potential first contact, I wonder what we would include today if the Golden Records were about to be thrust upon unsuspecting civilizations? Now that most of the world can convey its history through video content, would we assume that our intergalactic neighbors had little sense of imagination?
I wonder what might be made of the concerts that several orchestras have chosen to present via the internet. What would we include as being representative of our culture of confusion? The 1977 time capsule contained audio recordings of Beethoven and Bach. Very few of us can recall the first piece of music we heard by either of those composers. Imagine encountering the Fifth Symphony or the First Prelude and Fugue, not knowing anything else of what we loosely call Western music.
If they are sophisticated enough to be able to send their fleets into the void, the extraterrestrials surely have some way of listening to what we left behind. Imagine the same project but hurtled forward in time. Today we are thinking about manned (do we need to change that term?) ships to Mars. How will we represent ourselves to other civilizations? What music will we leave for them, and what form will it take?
Since most orchestras in the States have decided on alternative presentations for the remainder of the year, it has not gone unnoticed that many are being presented as video content.
Zlurb: “What is that object on our visual detection module?”
Grinth: “I believe it is a group of humans attempting to communicate with each other.”
Zlurb: “Yes. And they appear to be holding objects with the intention of passing sounds to each other.”
Grinth: “What a crude civilization. When we abolished sonic contact in favor of telepathic generation, there were no complaints from our citizens. Society was so loud a couple hundred smergons ago.”
Zlurb: “But notice that they have what appear to be artificial barriers between each individual. Are their implements that clamorous?”
Grinth: “Apparently. Observe how far apart the individuals are. One of the participants is also trying to block the sounds by holding up an appendage over what must be his hearing implement. They have not evolved to a fully rounded countenance yet.”
Zlurb: “Those noises. They are all talking at the same time. Wait, now only one is speaking and it is a single, long tone. Boring.”
Grinth: “Wait! I believe that this is not a pattern of speech but rather an attempt to entertain each other. Yet their pitch range is so limited. Still, there is something hypnotic about it. Perhaps it appeals to the simplistic mind.”
Zlurb: “Let’s try shutting our optic neural devices. That’s better. We can perceive the intentions more clearly. It is now possible to understand what they are doing.”
Grinth: “I am sensing a feeling of loss. That isolated tone suggests loneliness.”
Zlurb: “No, I believe that it is trying to exert dominance over the others.”
Grinth: “No matter. As they say on Xenothon, ‘Better heard than seen.’”
Zlurb: “We can skip this planet. Maybe in a few more blurgons we will revisit.”
Grinth: “We should leave them something before we depart. How about that vizio of Zyloth and the Strethmos? Everyone likes that.”
Zlurb: “Okay. Just drop it on that human with the odd-shaped Xymaghus.”
Grinth: “Want a jelly baby?”
Our intergalactic friends have reminded us of the power of sound. While it is wonderful to see musicians actively engaging themselves and the public during this time, it is the literal sound of music that brings them together. Seeing people play is a joy, but really listening is out of this world.