Third Man Records is a Nashville-based label set up by The White Stripes’ Jack White. Their expressed mission includes the promotion of vinyl records, alongside novel digital formats. In a kind of weird meshing of ideas, they will release a 7” single of the song “A Glorious Dawn“ by John Boswell, which was a bit of a YouTube phenomenon and featured previously on this site. The song (and accompanying video) features material taken from astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1980 TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, cut up and auto-tuned, with some Stephen Hawking thrown in for good measure.
In Cosmos and other works, Sagan expressed a hopeful and outward-looking brand of science that isn’t common today. One of his theses was that an explanation for the apparent lack of extra-terrestrial life could be found in the possibility that intelligent life forms tend to destroy themselves rather quickly (on cosmological timescales), this at the height of the Cold War.
The Voyager Golden Record was an attempt by Sagan and others to produce an object capable of communicating some of the essentials of Earthly life to any intelligent finder. Copies of the record were launched into space on the 1977 Voyager missions. They include sounds and images from Earth, along with music from an assortment of countries. Many of the images on the back relate to communicating intelligence to some other being. An example Sagan frequently used was that one could simply express a list of known prime numbers, for which there is no natural generating process. This would be proof of sentience.
“A Glorious Dawn” recreates the etchings from the Golden Record on its B-side and is released to coincide with what would have been Sagan’s 75th birthday. I spoke to Third Man capodecina Ben Swank to find out more about the realization of this release.
How did you and Third Man come across the video for “A Glorious Dawn”?
Jack [White] was on a big Cosmos kick, watching the DVDs every day and he came across it on YouTube. It’s since become one of those massive viral videos that you see on tons of blogs… He sent it to the rest of us at the label, and the more he thought about it, he really wanted to do a 45 of it. We had no idea if it would be possible with copyrights and everything – it’s basically one big sample.
So was there copyright difficulty?
Well, Jack started looking into it and found that Carl Sagan’s son Nick is a screenwriter with his own website. Nick had posted a blog about the video saying how much he loved it, so Jack wrote to him and they talked and Nick put us in touch with his step-mother Ann Druyan, who co-wrote Cosmos (along with Steven Soter), and she owns the copyrights to it. So we got in touch with her and she loves the song and is a big fan of Jack’s music as well. She’s been incredibly helpful and supportive of the whole project, so it turned out to be easier than we thought it would be.
Yes, I remember you emailing me about talking to Ann Druyan.
She’s a really amazing lady. She chaired the committee to pick the music and other material for the Voyager Sounds of Earth record. And they recorded her brainwaves and put those on the record too. She told me she was determined to put Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” on there. She couldn’t think of a more appropriate song to hurtle through space.
I was going to ask about that. “Dark Was the Night” is a song that every Blues nerd holds in awe…
Totally, and it’s something that we always wondered: how it ended up on there. I had to ask her. That whole Voyager project is something else – it would never happen again. It seems, to me anyway, that the whole thing is so wrapped up personally between Carl and Ann. I think it’s so amazing that they were able to send this personal message out into the vastness of space not knowing that anybody would ever hear it. It says a lot about things now, how something like that couldn’t happen today since it’s almost viewed as a gesture instead of a valuable scientific experiment, but the gesture is what makes it so beautiful.
Amazing. In fact, much of the music on the Voyager record reads like a compilation of exotic 78s and field recordings. There’s a Smithsonian-style archiving feel to it. And anthropological relevance everywhere, which was the point, I guess.
Rarest compilation ever?
A lot of the space science activity at that time was incredibly romantic or ideological. The Voyager project represents some of the best of that.
With regards getting the actual images etched on the vinyl, did that idea just naturally present itself?
It was obviously going to be a one-sided single and we always do etchings on the B-side of our one-siders, usually our logo. When we realized this thing was going ahead we had a meeting where we threw out a lot of ideas. The etching from the Voyager record obviously made the most sense, and we thought it would be a nice tribute for Ann who had been so helpful with everything. It looks so cool too.
What about John Boswell, the musician?
John has been super cool the whole way. He was really grateful that we were able to make it happen – he didn’t see any way of doing it as a proper release due to copyrights and everything. I think he just struck on something that so many people can relate to. It’s a perfect track at the right time, as Cosmos is kind of retro-cool right now. But the words he used from it are so meaningful and Carl is so sincere. There’s not a lick of irony to it.
November 7th was Carl Sagan Day; did you know that?
Yeah man. We had to rush really hard to get the record pressed for Monday the ninth, which would have been Carl’s 75th birthday.
Here’s a question to do with Third Man’s policy on vinyl: Steve Albini has talked about how easily digital formats become obsolete and the quintessentially robust nature of any analogue format. It takes very particular technology to encode/decode digital information. Analogue is simply a scratched picture of a sound wave; it doesn’t get simpler than that. Carl Sagan obviously believed that any intelligent being could figure out vinyl, which links in with your mission regarding that medium. That’s really not a question…
And they included easy-to-read binary code and hieroglyphs to show aliens how to play it.
I think we’ll stop with aliens listening to Willie Johnson… Thanks Ben.
John Boswell’s “A Glorious Dawn” is released today, November 9th.