On the Voyager Mission.
This summer, we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Up this week is Alison Kinney, whose column, Songs to the Moon, is a series on fandom and how the music, art, and artifacts of opera transform cultures and desires. — Ed.
If the inhabitants of other stars should spot the Voyager 1 interstellar probe zooming past—if they capture it and assemble its onboard audio player—and if they have ears to hear, they might puzzle over this message from the Queen of the Night (translated here from German):
The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair blaze around me!
Perhaps these German-speaking aliens will visit Earth to eradicate the threat posed by Mozart’s 1791 aria. Or maybe they’ll thrill to the prospect of subscribing to the Bavarian State Opera, only to discover that the soprano Edda Moser, who performed the recording they’d heard, had retired five billion years earlier, in 1999.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to depart our solar system, bearing the Voyager Interstellar Message (better known as the Golden Record), a gold-plated disk containing music, pictures, and greetings in fifty-five languages. One project consultant said, “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.”
In making their selections, the Interstellar Message team tried to accentuate the positive—but art and culture, even NASA-approved art and culture, tend toward revelations in excess of their creators’ intentions. Though the team opted not to mention the nuclear arms race, Auschwitz, the Khmer Rouge, transatlantic enslavement, and the genocide of Native peoples, it was clear, as the team’s creative director, Ann Druyan, said, “how much of what we tried to hide was more obvious than we realized.… The lies we tell have a very short shelf life.” One of the greeters, for example—UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim—was later accused of Nazi war crimes.
And the approved music carries its own messages about conflict. The design director Jon Lomberg, a fan of Mozart, Rossini, and baroque opera and oratorio, told me he ranks Mozart’s music “with sex, sunsets, and sushi as among life’s greatest pleasures.” Lomberg gave Carl Sagan a tape of an aria from Mozart’s ethereal, antic fantasy The Magic Flute. (“A wish-list project is to design a stage production of Magic Flute,” he told me. “I could do some interesting things visually with the Queen of the Night!”)
Druyan wasn’t an opera fan, but she was “absolutely thrilled” by the recording; she extolled the mastery and emotional range of Moser’s voice. “It’s like a little mechanism for touching all the parts of you, when you hear it. It’s so exciting, and of course, that wonderful passage where she seems to defy gravity, and she goes higher and higher and higher … She’s the Queen of the Night, and you imagine these two Voyagers, moving around forty thousand miles per hour through the night, for all the nights of a thousand million years,” Druyan said. “The idea that she retains her dominance of the night, from Mozart’s brain to the cosmos, is the closest thing we get to eternity.”
But the Queen’s dominance isn’t just artistic. The Voyager aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” is about assassination, violent coercion, and parental abuse. As Lomberg said, Mozart is “the genius of musical contradiction and reconciliation of opposites.” The crystalline, stratospheric perfection of Moser’s voice rings with power: both murderous political absolutism and virtuosic mastery. Sometimes the loveliest music exhorts you to kill. Among the disk’s other songs about violence, the Bulgarian folk song “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin,” performed by Valya Balkanska, stars a rebel warrior, warning the authorities not to convert his aunts to Islam—or else.
The team might have confined themselves to wedding songs, nonverbal music, or the whale’s song, but Druyan said she saw the recording as both a conceptual artwork and an act of atonement. The disk also includes a recording of her brain waves, during which, she said, “I was trying to be honest in my meditation about the real state of the world, the history of the world … as well as the plight that we found ourselves in, in 1977—fifty to sixty thousand nuclear weapons, and at least one-fifth of the whole population of Earth couldn’t find potable water, get enough to eat, find shelter. So I tried to be honest about our worst.” The reckoning with violence, war, and responsibility, indivisible from beauty, is Voyager’s most profound message to the universe.
There’s no reason to expect an extraterrestrial to understand. Musicologists debunk the supposedly universal communicative potential of music even among different peoples of our own planet. When not everybody understands German—when happy and sad songs don’t cross cultures—when even a bel-canto fan might profess not to get Verdi, much less Schönberg—no aria can universally connote beauty, much less understanding, self-revelation, or ethical standards. But the Voyager message also suggests, tacitly, the desire not to be wholly understood, by either extraterrestrials or future earthlings. If our music and chatter turn out to be unintelligible to them, than we might earnestly hope that murder, genocide, and deprivation will be, too.
We can still marvel that this fragment of opera, and the Navajo “Night Chant,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,” hurtle through the vast nighttime of space. We can also fantasize that one of Lomberg’s alternate musical suggestions might have gone aboard Voyager: the tender, charming “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, a youth’s amazement at the mysteries of love. May all opera fans’ minds be blown by the concept of Cherubino in space! May we all sing of love, of nothing making sense to us, and of yearning to understand the world a little bit better.
This series, like Voyager, essays the starry void. It bears a message about music, creativity, and the unruly passions opera fans can’t help but flaunt to the universe, in hopes of interception and understanding. Everybody needs a playlist for the cosmos!
Alison Kinney is the author of Hood (Bloomsbury, 2016). Her writing has appeared online at The Paris Review Daily, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, New Republic, The New Inquiry, The Mantle, VAN Magazine, and the New York Times. @Alison_Kinney