Song is the one thing common to all languages and now a composer plans to compile a ‘world song’ to send into space.
In California, a collection of 42 radio telescopes scans the heavens in search of signs of life. Since it was founded in 1984, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute has been keeping a weather eye – or dish – out for signs of life in distant galaxies.
So vast is the project, that astrophysicists say it has only scanned the equivalent of a glass of water in all the world’s oceans.
But Dr Jill Tarter, its co-founder, is undaunted. A renowned astrophysicist, she is now scouring the earth for exactly the right signal to send into space. Tarter and Felipe Pérez Santiago, a Mexican musician and composer—and artist in residence at SETI—think a song might just fit the bill.
Since song, like the human voice, is common to all languages and nations, he and Tarter have devised the “Earthling Project”: a call to people everywhere to upload snippets of song that he plans to meld into a collective human chorus.
An initial composition will be launched into space this summer, inscribed on a virtually indestructible disk alongside Wikipedia and the Rosetta Project, a sampling of 1,500 human languages.
Human music has already been sent to the heavens, notably on two Voyager probes that were launched in 1977 and are now more than 11 billion miles from Earth.
Distant beings can in theory already enjoy Peruvian panpipes, a Navajo chant, Bach, Beethoven and more. But no previous offering, and perhaps no composition undertaken anywhere, has tried to encompass the entire variety of human song.
The composer – who trained in Mexico City and then studied for five years at Rotterdam’s conservatory and counts everything from” tango to gamelan to flamenco” as his influences – says his the first piece he produces for SETI will probably resemble a “wall of sound’ incorporating as many as 10,000 unaccompanied voices, he told The Economist.
But later he proposes to craft an “Earthling Symphony” to send into the vacuum of space. Santiago says he is just as excited about bringing together contributors from around the globe as he is about the prospect of getting his music into outer space.
The music is intended to be not just a message to the universe, he says, but a mirror—a chance to say, “See, we’re all the same.” Santiago raises his hands and his eyebrows as he summarises the goal: “Can we unite humanity with 30 seconds of singing?”
Unlike other recordings sent into space, says Santiago, “Everyone’s invited. You don’t have to be one of the main composers of our history like Beethoven, just someone singing in their shower.” Download the app, warble up to three songs of 30 seconds each, and your voice will be dispatched into the firmament.
Santiago pledges to use every submission. The ultimate plan is to throw open the whole database for musicians anywhere to sample. Understanding that all earthlings share a common planet “is crucial for our long future,” Jill Tarter says. “We face challenges that have to be solved by co-operating across the globe.”
The artists’ programme at SETI encourages co-operation between disciplines—resulting in artwork that gives tangible shape to abstract data.
The first participant, Charles Lindsay, investigated interspecies communication through the song of humpback whales; another, Scott Kildall, created a virtual-reality tour of all the known exoplanets. Rachel Sussman presented an image of the cosmic background radiation generated by the Big Bang—“the baby picture of the universe”—as a sand mandala.
As Santiago notes, “Nothing has united humanity like this pandemic.” At a dark time, he and the institute aim to foster a more uplifting sense of communion.
“If we can send this unified message,” he says, “our mission is accomplished.”
Main image via Scientia