No One Receiving: On Daniel K. L. Chua and Alexander Rehding’s “Alien Listening”

November 26, 2022   •   By Patrick Valiquet

Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth

Alexander Rehding

LAUNCHED INTO SPACE in the autumn of 1977, just two months before the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the NASA Golden Record “Sounds of Earth” — designed and curated by Carl Sagan and a committee of scientific and anthropological advisors — offered to its projected alien listeners a perspective on human sonic culture that was more sophisticated than a Spielberg movie, but not by much. The scientists in Close Encounters reduce music to basic elements and thus prove its power as a beacon of reason and compassion. In “Sounds of Earth,” a program of music and vocal sounds functions as a “time capsule,” a cross section of humanity’s accumulated sonic prowess for the edification and satisfaction of the distant inhabitants of other galaxies. As venerable music theorists Daniel K. L. Chua and Alexander Rehding map out in their recent book Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth (Zone Books, 2021), scientific and popular consensus during the Space Race held music to be an obvious manifestation of humanity’s power to reach across the abyss of otherness. Their book is partly a history of the Golden Record itself, and partly an experiment in defining how a music theorist today might go about reasserting something like Sagan’s optimistic appeal to universality.

Because its object is the Voyager Golden Record — not an ordinary score for human musicians to interpret in performance, but a collection of sounds for alien scientists to decrypt — Alien Listening takes a number of exceptions with respect to the discipline of music theory as normally understood. First, Chua and Rehding claim that to understand the reality of the Golden Record for an alien listener, music theorists need to abandon anthropocentric cultural and aesthetic frameworks. Instead, they should rebuild on a foundation laid by late German media theorist Friedrich Kittler in his account of analog recording as unconscious disclosure of the “real” of musical sound. On this ostensibly more objective basis, Chua and Rehding offer up the Golden Record as a quintessential “flat ontology,” a democratic “parliament” where humans and nonhumans exist on equal terms with each other.

If the effort of theoretical engagement is applied a little unevenly here, it seems at least to be in the interest of reaffirming a comprehensive view of the field’s most important concerns, a clear attempt to bring certainty back to a discipline rocked by accusations of racism and burdened with a history of alarmingly backward attitudes toward music made outside the great European concert halls. While Chua and Rehding never make this context entirely explicit to the reader, it is clear enough from their stated intention, which is to probe further than ever before into musical “universals,” at least in comparison with the mainstream studies of classical score analysis that lie at the core of the profession they so lovingly caricature. The problem is that they never attempt to explain how a Lacanian real at the center of a Foucault-inspired analysis of discourse networks can be consistent with a new materialist model of ecological justice that so strongly rebuffs postmodern moral relativism.

The second exception has to do with the book’s genre. The goal here is to teach music theory in a way that applies not just to specialized composition and listening, as one normally does in a music department, but to everyone and everything involved when music is happening. In their effort to make this goal real for us, Chua and Rehding have rendered their argument as a fantasy adventure of outer-space conquest, casting the reader as heroic music researcher setting out to study exoplanetary listeners on behalf of a new intergalactic council of musicologists. An accessible “instruction sheet” wedged between the introduction and the first chapter proposes a variety of paths through the book’s remaining contents, each route tailored to a different perspective on the discipline. The authors apologize that there may be fewer score examples than usual, but there are fun Far Side–esque illustrations, just like the ones you’d expect to find pinned to a music theory professor’s office door, and even a few stylish optical games to play with an attached viewing film (design for the Zone series comes from the studio of Bruce Mau). Clarity and convenience are important and welcome features — not only because music theory classrooms need to include more people’s music in the kinds of analysis they teach, but also, more importantly, because not everyone who might want to use this kind of music theory will ever have the opportunity to study it in a classroom.

Another exception follows from the book’s ambition to depart from music theory’s outmoded obsession with “historical and cultural specificity.” For music theory to be universal, Chua and Rehding argue, following Bruno Latour, it must dispel the standard human protagonist who has until now occupied the center of its inquiries, and then widen its focus to capture a more inclusive picture of the vast network of material things that music necessarily entails. Like Kittler, however, they also interpret the invention of analog sound recording as an epochal shift away from the regime of printed notation at the end of the 19th century: whereas printed scores had relied on the intervention of “symbolic” interpretations of signs for musical sounds, the Golden Record is a register of vibration alone, and thus engages material forces that exceed human sensation. By limiting music theory to the study of these material forces, the authors of Alien Listening suggest, they can both inoculate themselves against humanist biases and restore a kind of democracy to their profession.

However, they also agree with the broader consensus in sound studies that recording devices are adapted by definition to the physiology and social psychology of human audition. What is really inscribed in the Golden Record, then, turns out to be a mere mirroring of musical audition itself. And so, unlike Sagan’s contemporary Sun Ra, whose project was to understand what else musics could be in a radical multiverse (and whom this book does not mention, although he undoubtedly had more to say about the meaning of space travel than any of the musicians it does include), Chua and Rehding want to lead us back to the universality of what music was at the high modernist moment when NASA assembled its collection of sounds. Theirs is a harmonious, National Geographic–worthy “Family of Man,” led (naturally) by the exalted tradition of sui generis geniuses like Bach and Beethoven, who taught the West to master both the natural world of sound and all its tumultuous inner feelings. Not only does the Voyager Golden Record finally ground music in a consistent, unified reality of earthly vibrations, independent of human perspectives; it also reveals musical communication to be an even more “exceptional” expression of human universality than the modernist technoscience that carried it into space.

An unspoken rationalism seems to propel this line of thinking across such daring tangents. Their methodology for making human music intelligible on other worlds comes organized into a sequence of “rules” and “premises.” Music’s power need only be universal, Chua and Rehding suggest, to the extent that it enables humanity to share its advanced knowledge with neighboring creatures elsewhere in the universe: the only real question is whether the vehicles carrying it will survive our demise. They recognize a certain naïve modernism in the thinking of the committee who compiled the playlist for the Golden Record, but are quick to forgive, indulging in a similar overemphasis on the great works of Europe’s Golden Age. They vaguely gesture to the ecological challenges facing the contemporary music industries but justify the expense of their exoplanetary ambition with echoes of what William MacAskill calls “longtermism,” the surprisingly widespread belief that engineers and philosophers can simply optimize ethics in the interest of humanity’s distant, post-catastrophic descendants. Indeed, in light of longtermism’s unfortunate tendency to flirt with eugenics, passages like those where Chua and Rehding compare the sensory experiences of disabled humans with those of animals are very difficult to take at face value.

What if this optimistic quest to transmit and explain the greatness of human musicality to the universe is less like that of the heroes of the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars and more like that of the rationalizing leaders of the off-course Mars colonists/prisoners at the beginning of Harry Martinson’s epic poem, Aniara, reassuring passengers that, with the help of the ship’s all-powerful intelligent communication system, the Mima, they are almost certain to turn their disaster into an opportunity? The sounds the Mima transmits seem always to come from faraway places and times, and as the smoldering earth fades into oblivion, their origins actually begin to matter less and less. As far as the colonists/prisoners are concerned, everywhere else is now in the past. The future turns perfectly black as the meanings of their songs and dances collapse into a fog of nostalgia.

If the Mima’s music consists only of vibration, then why does its meaning so tangibly fade along with the memory of its origin? Chua and Rehding seem ready to argue that, in fact, there is never any loss here, because music is always somehow completed and activated in reception, and therefore the nostalgia lies somewhere outside of what it is to be music at the most basic level. The problem seems to be that it is much more difficult to produce a “flat” realist ontology of nostalgic musical experience “in itself” than it is a similarly theorized account of vibration alone. Recent work by self-described “speculative realists” in aesthetics and social theory seems to affirm that philosophy’s interest in the reality of objects need not always begin with reduction. As Graham Harman explains in his essay Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Polity, 2016),

The point is not to subtract humans from any given situation, but to focus on the way that humans are themselves ingredients in a symbiosis rather than just privileged observers looking on from the outside.

Thus, for instance, in Basque noise musician Mattin’s composition for the documenta 14 exhibition (2017), Social Dissonance (the manifesto for which is now available from Urbanomic), focus shifts from sound to the social as performers set out to “instrumentalize” the very identities of their audience members. 

The really insurmountable problem with Carl Sagan’s bet on vibration is that, as far as we know, music only occurs in forms that consist of more than just sound. Contrary to what Chua and Rehding suggest, the kinds of vibrations that humans can detect with their ears and skin are not the ultimate ground of the physical universe: quantum physics collapses three-dimensional particles and waves into amplitude peaks in higher-dimensional fields that in no way resemble the kinds of objects that humans would experience as located in physical space. Maybe the “real” of music, then, is not some hidden state, accessible only to scientific instruments cutting finer and finer slices into pure materiality, but something much closer to the strangely incomplete absoluteness of music as it merely appears to be. In Harman’s aesthetics, at least, there is no use trying to direct attention beyond appearances, because there is no reason to doubt that appearances themselves are also things. By rushing to equate the “material” and the “universal,” Chua and Rehding reduce the range of possible musical existence in a way that really only makes sense if you are as nostalgic as they are for Cold War American technoculture. As Sun Ra always taught, speculation in music can also aim beyond the vanishing points of modernity and establish alternate horizons for the sound of thought.


Patrick Valiquet is a Canadian musicologist studying the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and technoscience in experimental music research.