Voyager, Music for the Stars

While watching reruns of the X-Files, I was reminded of the Voyager mission launched in 1977. I looked into the progress of Voyager 1 and 2 on the NASA page. In 1993, Voyagers 1 and 2 were determined to be on the outer edge of our solar system, losing many of their mapping capabilities in the process; however, both crafts still possess limited capabilities for mapping and transmitting, and scientists believe they will be able to continue sending us invaluable information about the space that surrounds us for decades to come.

Voyager 1

Why am I talking about the Voyager mission on a blog about classical music? Voyager 1 and 2 serve another purpose beyond just that of mapping our galaxy. In the incredible event that one of the crafts is intercepted by an intelligent alien life form, they will find a golden disc containing photos, artwork, sound bytes of language and nature, and 90 minutes of musical selections, which are meant to represent all of Earth and its peoples. These pieces were picked by Carl Sagan and his associates at Cornell University.

Golden Disc

The disc contains Javanese Gamelan music of Indonesia, Aboriginal songs from Australia, Peruvian pipes, Native American chants, and so much more.

(Javanese Gamelan is an ensemble playing traditional music on the traditional instruments of Indonesia. There are different types of Gamelan, reflecting different cultures and musical tastes.)

Javanese Gamelan: Indonesia:: Symphony Orchestra: Europe and America

Other countries that contribute music include China, Japan, Senegal, New Guinea, Mexico, Zaire, Bulgaria, and India. The fount of musical information contained in these 90 minutes is staggering, but of course, being Americans, there is a slight bias toward Western music.

Here are some of the classical Western pieces, which are circulating through space as we speak: J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (1st movement); J.S. Bach, Partita No. 3 for Violin; W.A. Mozart, The Magic Flute (Queen of the Night aria); Igor Stravinsky, the Rite of Spring; J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C No. 1; Ludwig van Beethoven, Fifth Symphony (1st movement); and Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14.

Anyone else notice a bit of a preference? Mr. Bach gets 3 separate entries on a list, which has the purpose of representing all music of all Earth for all time. Why? My guess is that many musicologists agree that good ole Johann composed the most sophisticated music ever known to man. That’s right, we hit our musical peak in the 1600’s.

It’s all Downhill from There

(Interesting observation: Those musicologists that do not view Bach as the greatest composer often point to Beethoven or Stravinsky instead, both of whom are also included on the disc.)

Mixed in among these pieces, which represent the peaks of each culture’s musical achievement as we understand it, we also find some more familiar stuff mixed in, like rockin’ Chuck Berry and some sultry Louis Armstrong.

I am not going to discuss any one piece of music today. Instead, I am going to ask you to do some homework. This is a playlist of the music included on the Voyager crafts. Do you think these pieces are an accurate depiction of music on Earth? Are there pieces you loved that you didn’t think you would? Are there other types of music that should have been included or other composers? Did they pick the right pieces from the composers and countries that they did include? Is there a piece from the disc you would like me to discuss? (I have had some education in world music.) Finally, if you were an intelligent alien hearing this package of music for the first time, what might be your thoughts about Earth?

Click Here for the full Playlist on Youtube

You can find a list of the pieces and where each originates at this website.

“Little” Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

So at last we arrive at the fugue, admittedly one of the more complicated forms of music out there. I mean, a fugue is basically 2-4 voices, each doing different things but playing all at once. That just sounds exhausting for the ears of the listener. That’s why I am going to try to ease you into the concept with this “little” fugue. I picked it for a couple of reasons. First, it is a very simple fugue, following pretty much every rule about how they should be written. There’s no funny business in this one. I won’t have to tell you, “I know Bach made a rule to never do A here and do B instead, but Bach did A here just to confuse you.” Second, it really is a cute little fugue. It’s simple, to the point, and very short.

Who’s a cute little fugue? You are! Yes, you are!

I am going to try to make this as painless as possible, but I do have to explain what the heck is going on. So, fugues are basically made up of three different sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. Lots of big words, but they boil down to pretty easy concepts.

Exposition: To expose something is to reveal it. So, the exposition of a fugue is the section where the composer reveals the themes. The exposition is the most structured part of the fugue with very strict rules.Every fugue starts with the introduction of the theme or subject, which is what the entire piece is based on. The second voice comes in next, echoing that theme while the first voice performs the second theme or countersubject. It is written specifically to go with the subject. Then, following suit come the third and finally the fourth voices. During this time, the first and second voices get a little more freedom to play, as long as they sound good with the subject and countersubject, of course.

I built a handy dandy little chart to help you understand what the heck I am talking about.

Fugue Exposition

And it’s color coded!

The soprano starts on a G (because, after all, this is a fugue in G). The altos come in next, and they enter on the V of G. Whoops. Did I lose you? Okay, let me break this down: G-A-B-C-D=1-2-3-4-5. It is widely accepted that the 1 and 5 sound really good together, so this is done a lot. Of course, things can’t be quite that simple in classical music, so we use Roman numerals instead of numbers. In this music, the G is I and the D is V. And yes, I do realize that it is weird that the letters only go up to G. I don’t know who voted on that years ago, but they are crazy. That’s just the way it is. It is common knowledge that musicians only know the first seven letters of the alphabet. 😛

Development: After the exposition comes the development. It is my favorite part of a fugue because it is the part that allows the composer the most freedom. This is where you hear fun, interesting way to twist and bend the subject and countersubject. Bach was an expert at finding amazing ways to develop his themes, such as writing them upside down.

Look at me, Mom! I’m composing!

No, no, no. The MUSIC was upside down, you silly people. Although Bach might have composed like that. Maybe that’s what made him such a genius. Anyway, the development section gives the composer a lot of opportunity for self expression. Composers utilize key changes (changing home base), rhythmic variation, changing the texture (like having the alto quiet to make the tenor line sound really strong), and lots of other devices. I know, it sounds kind of boring, but some interesting stuff happens in there. Trust me.

Recapitulation: Wow, that’s a big word. Stupid fancy words that mean something simple… The recapitulation is a return to the beginning. It means that we go back to the basics that we heard during the exposition. We are in the same key, and the parts are playing the same notes we heard at the beginning. Remember, recap is short for recapitulation. A recap on a TV show is when they replay what happened before. A music recapitulation is when we rehear what we heard before.

So, I was trying to figure out how I could explain fugues to you all if you don’t have the music in front of you, so I decided that you all needed a basic fugue that would allow you to read along. Ah! Inspiration! I’ve written tons of music in my time as a student, and some of it is pretty darn good, if I say so myself. About three years ago, I was asked to compose a fugue for a final project in music theory. I thought maybe I could use that to help explain a fugue as you see it happening. Hopefully, you all will like it.

Now, go back to that first video. Listen to it again. Can you separate out the parts? Can you tell when the exposition turns into the development? Can you hear key changes? Not to worry. If you can’t figure all of that stuff out right away, you are in good company. It takes us music majors years to get all of this stuff under our belts.