Music from Earth

May, 2022

Alexander Rehding, Harvard University

Daniel Chua, Hong Kong University

The unassuming title “Music from Earth” hides an ambitious (and polemical) program to rethink the position of music theory in the disciplinary landscape. How can music theory emerge out of its self-imposed slumber? Together with a group of interdisciplinary scholars from astrobiology to paleontology we will tackle this plan. The foundation of our efforts will be a book manuscript (under contract with Zone Books) that we hope will shake up the field—with, hopefully, ripple effects on adjacent (and not-yet-adjacent) disciplines. The central object of our discussions is quite simple: in 1977 NASA shot a record into outer space—with the express hope that it might convey a musical message to whatever extraterrestrial life might be out there. None of us will be around for a definitive answer: the earliest moment the spaceships will be closer to other stars than the sun will be some 40,000 years from now. For us, the only option is to speculate. But the big questions that NASA’s mission raises are important issues for humanists (not just musicians) to ponder: What is the nature of communication with the absolute unknown? Will there be humans around several millennia into the future? How can we make sense of such vast space-time distances? How can we unclog our anthropocentric thinking? Not since the mythical days of Pythagoras 2,500 years ago has music stood in the cosmic limelight. The questions that Voyager raises have gained extra urgency in the light of the critical troika of anthropocene, chronocriticism, and post-humanism.