Week 405: “Rise Up, My Love” by Healey Willan

This Valentine’s Day, I want you to know something.

The Voyager 1 space probe, launched by NASA in 1977, left the solar system in 2012, and is currently speeding away from us at approximately 60 000 kilometres per hour. It has travelled billions of kilometres in its 40+ years. It’s further away from earth than any other human-made object has ever been.

On board is a golden record, containing all kinds of information about us. Photos, music, voices. You probably knew that.

The hope is that one day some other beings might find it, might be able to understand it, might look out into space and think about us. You probably knew that, too.

But what you may not know (I certainly didn’t until recently) was this: encoded on that record is a visual representation of Ann Druyan’s brainwaves.

Druyan was one of the leaders of the team that put together Voyager 1’s contents. Working with longtime colleague Carl Sagan, she suggested that it might be worthwhile doing a brain scan of someone thinking about various things; after all, who knows what kind of capabilities the hypothetical recipients of the golden record might have? Might they be able to look at those patterns and ‘read’ those thoughts?

Sagan was excited by the idea, and on June 3, Druyan had an EEG, during which she meditated, and focused on various thoughts. She had a script of things to think about – culture, philosophy – but there was one thought that she couldn’t push from her mind.

Two days earlier, she had fallen in love with Carl Sagan. Having worked together for years, having never kissed or had any intimate contact, they had shared a phone call just two days earlier during which they had spontaneously, overwhelmingly, and with incredible certainty, agreed to get married.

When she went in for her EEG, nobody knew of the blossoming relationship. It was a bursting secret known only by Druyan, Sagan, and some 1970s hospital equipment.

And now, it’s out there, moving through space, waiting to be discovered.

Ann Druyan is now approaching 70. Carl Sagan died in 1997. But the way she felt about him 48 hours into their relationship are up there, recorded on a device with a billion-year shelf life.

When Druyan thinks of Voyager now, she thinks of it as “a joy so powerful, it robs you of your fear of death.”

That line, I think, has become my new definition of love.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Willan’s style looks forwards and backwards at the same time. Although this piece was written in 1929, as the 20th century was changing the sound of choral music, there are clear influences of romantic composers, and even early plainsong.

2. The crescendo in the opening line, along with the rising melody in the sopranos, gives the impression of a graceful launch.

3. The final words are sung so quietly they can barely be heard – fading into the depths of space.

Recommended listening activity:

Whispering someone’s name to yourself.

Buy it here.