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June 29, 2016

Book Notes - Anthony Michael Morena "The Voyager Record"

The Voyager Record: A Transmission

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Anthony Michael Morena's The Voyager Record is an impressive book centering on the music launched with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, a lyric essay composed of prose poems.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Like its subject, Morena's transmission is a celebration of human achievement full of history, pop culture, jokes, and an intangible soulfulness—enchanting and educational at once."

In his own words, here is Anthony Michael Morena's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection The Voyager Record: A Transmission:

Somewhere near the end of The Voyager Record—my lyric essay on the images, sounds, music, and greetings attached to the most distant human-made objects from Earth, the twin Voyager spacecrafts—I comment that I’m not sure when people stopped liking my mixtapes. So, I apologize in advance for this list.

Voyager’s music has been called the ultimate mixtape, the one that will rock beyond the confines of the Earth, with luck, even after the planet and everything on it has been burned up by an expanding sun. Like the human teenage mixtape, its goal is to make someone fall in love with us. It was the music on the Golden Record that made me write about Voyager. In 2012 I had not been in Tel Aviv for very long, and was feeling a kind of loneliness that made me recoil into my headphones. Murmurs of Earth—the commercial release of the songs on the Voyager record—came up on shuffle so many times eventually I started to write about it.

My rule for selecting these songs was like the book, eclectic: some of them inspired me as I was writing, some just go together well with the theme, some animate the story, and some are suggestions that could go along with an updated version of the Golden Record, if anyone ever gets around to doing that.

Erik Satie "Gnossienne No. 1—Lent"

This song was always on at the Strand, the iconic used bookstore where I worked at the time my obsession with the Voyager record was first taking shape. The Gnossiennes have a more esoteric character than most of the music on the record, and listening to them is as equally lonely a journey as Voyager’s endless flight to nowhere. Shuffle also seemed to like this song because I heard it a lot in 2012 when I first started writing the book.

Guns N’ Roses "Estranged"

This is another song that I would listen to along with Murmurs of Earth to remind myself that I was alone. There are dolphins in this video. Axl swims with them. Swimming with dolphins, as Flapperhouse editor Joseph P. O’Brien defines it, is when people "become adrift, lost at sea, islands unto themselves, struggling to connect with fellow human beings, perhaps only able to connect with other non-human beings of higher intelligence." There was a tank of dolphins outside of Carl Sagan’s hotel room where he was staying during the conference where the Golden Record was first proposed. In The Voyager Record I dramatize him listening to their noises through the night, wondering what they have to say.

The Pixies "Bam Thwok"

It’s a space song, and they shout out to all the listeners. It’s also a rare Pixies track that has Kim Deal lead vocals. She wrote the song, and the lyrics are her interpretation of some kid’s sketchbook she found in a street in New York. There was a story in it the kid had written about a party in another universe between monsters and people. So yeah, mission accomplished for the Voyager record.

Chris Zabriskie "What True Self? Feels Bogus, Let's Watch Jason X"

This is probably the best title ever given to a song. A slightly altered version of "What True Self? Feels Bogus, Let's Watch Jason X" can be heard in the trailer for The Voyager Record. Chris Zabriskie makes his music free to use and to remix under a Creative Commons license, which is something that I think is so awesome. The song’s minimalism matched the lonely, wandering mood that we were trying to capture with the images. Including it here completes the circle: This is a song that I found on the Free Music Archive, a resource I discovered via Largehearted Boy.

Omar Souleyman "Warni Warni"

The Voyager record lacks any Middle Eastern music. Souleyman, a former wedding singer from a village in the north of Syria, says his music was influenced by the diversity of Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, and Arab cultures in the area. So all of those traditions come to the record with this track. Plus, the last half a minute of this video. Actually, all of this video.

Michael Jackson "The Man in the Mirror"

There were a lot of pop songs with a global vision following the launch of the Voyager crafts. The mission either loomed that large in the consciousness of musicians, or the message of prevailing human togetherness was a state-backed cultural prescription during the end of the Cold War. I think it’s the latter. Voyager itself was a product of the space race, and however uplifting, the record can be seen as a form of propaganda. It presents the world as seen through the lens of the United States of America, which is an idea that sounds like a Michael Jackson lyric when you put music behind it.

"Heaven on Earth" (chipmunkson16speed version)

See above. This also sounds like it could be a confession on humanity’s part to a new race who might be suspicious of our motives. The title also skews celestial. Why this version? It’s the first time I ever listened closely to the lyrics of the song. And as a slowed-down version of a #1 pop hit covered by a cartoon novelty band that subsequently went viral, this track should give aliens a good idea of what we’ve accomplished with the technology of the internet now that we have it.

LL Cool J featuring Leshaun "Doin’ It"

I picked this track because, just like LL, Ann Druyan represents Queens, and Carl Sagan was raised out in Brooklyn. Like in this video, they decided to hook up over a phone call. Sex is kind of a taboo subject on the record contents, but behind the scenes, these people were all falling in love. And, in that same thread…

Heart "Crazy on You"

This song comes from an album named Dreamboat Annie. I can picture Ann Druyan listening to this 1976 track on the radio pumping her palms on the steering wheel of some massive car she is driving on her way to see Carl. At least that’s what it looks like in the Scorsese adaptation. You should listen to this very loudly, on headphones, at three o’clock in the morning probably, while you think about someone you’re hot on.

Girl Talk All Day

It’s not a coincidence that while I was listening to Murmurs of Earth I also had All Day on heavy rotation. If you listen closely, you can hear the mash-up aesthetic of All Day on the interstellar message: the UN delegates from the Outer Space Committee had their message remixed. Like my book, All Day is really one long song, but it is artificially split up into smaller pieces: they’re really best when listened to/read straight through.

Neanderthal bone flute music

All the songs on the Voyager record were created by homo sapiens, however, we weren’t always the only beings on this planet capable of creating music. This reconstruction of a 60,000-year-old instrument made out of cave bear bone would present aliens with sounds created by a different species of human, Neanderthals. Just don’t use it to play Bach or Beethoven is all I ask.

Allen Ginsberg "Birdbrain"

Billy Joel’s "We Didn’t Start the Fire" if Billy Joel had been reading more than one newspaper. This track would give aliens, future humans, and people of today a good rundown of the human political situation circa the record launch. My infatuation with this song led to a pretty-much-followerless parody Twitter account @birdbrainnews that tweets headlines in passable Ginsberg-esque lyrics.

Yoshitomo (Karl Zimmer) "Japanischer Laternentanz"

The last thing I wanted to do was to include any German composers on this list since the Voyager record has so many on there already. But this track is a weird one that also related to the book trailer. Someone lent me an old gramophone to use as a prop. If you watch the trailer you can see it in several scenes. There was a record in the gramophone’s case cover: "Danza delle lanterne Giapponesi." The composer name given was Yoshitomo. I was intrigued because here was a product of obvious Orientalism but the composer name seemed to contradict that. It turns out that Yoshitomo was actually Karl Zimmer, a German composer active during the Weimar Republic. Under the name Yoshitomo he wrote a number of pastiches like this one that became hits. The song would be a perfect soundtrack for the scene in the book where I place Carl Sagan and his family at the feet of the equally culturally offensive Bendix Lama Temple at the 1939 World’s Fair.

"The Fairytale of New York" (Bill Murray & Friends version)

Why not a Christmas song? The setting of the song, New York, might as well be a metaphor for the Earth, or the human experience for that matter. There are no Irish songs on the Golden Record—there isn’t even a greeting in Gaelic—so including a Pogues song could help smooth that over. PLUS: Jenny Lewis sings on this, whose song "The Voyager" is the hidden bonus track on this list.

Anthony Michael Morena and The Voyager Record: A Transmission links:

the author's website
excerpts from the book
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
Publishers Weekly review

The Catapult podcast interview with the author
This Podcast Will Change Your Life interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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