Music, or at least pitch, rhythm and note combinations, feature prominently in attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial aliens. Acoustic phenomena have a ready home in putative alien encounter. I think of the tuneful greeting to the alien spacecraft in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or Kubrick’s use of György Ligeti’s Requiem for Sopranos, Choir and Orchestra in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The latter deploys ethereal music to invoke the feeling that something is communicating, though probably not to us.
I’m comfortable thinking of fictional or actual attempts at extraterrestrial encounter through the lens of neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory — excursions into uncertainty and back again, a return to primal roots, and shades of utopian imagining. More that reaching out to other worlds “alien communication” is about human grounding. But I can also enjoy the extraterrestrial narrative at face value.
The unmanned Voyager space probes launched in 1977 carry “golden records” containing data about Earth, including samples of music on the off chance of alien interception. Radio transmissions increase the odds. Daniel Oberhaus summarises attempts to make contact through music in his book Extraterrestrial Languages. Not least amongst these attempts was a broadcast of a theremin concert.
Embedded in the 2001 Teen Age Message broadcast from the Evpatoria radar in Ukraine was a live theremin concert orchestrated by Russian teens who selected seven songs to be performed by musicians from the Moscow Theremin Center. Shortly thereafter, Alexander Zaitsev orchestrated the second Cosmic Call message in 2003, which included an album by the Hungarian rock band KFT. In 2008, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration broadcast the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” toward Polaris to commemorate the anniversary of the song’s recording. More recently, the newly minted nonprofit METI International sent two messages from the EISCAT radar in Norway, each of which included several short electronic music pieces produced by musicians affiliated with the Sonar music festival (145).
A detailed website (www.sonarcalling.com/en/) explains the latter sound event — with printouts of the binary signals as sequences of 1s and 0s, though as yet I’ve not discovered a version you can listen to.
As indicated on the site, and by Oberhaus, one of the challenges for the sender is to make clear to the alien interceptor that this is music, i.e. communication in a category other than language that conveys overt information or commands. Via the message itself, the recipient has to be “tutored” in how to interpret the signal. It must be sent as a “self-interpreting message” (149). See post: Cryptography for space aliens.
- Oberhaus, Daniel. 2019. Extraterrestrial Languages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press