When NASA launched Voyager spacecraft to explore the cosmos in 1977, they sent the Golden Record – and with it, music from around the world – as a snapshot of humanity, if ever intelligent life forms it. found. But what if the aliens tune in to the radio instead?
From 1971 to 1998, a man named John Shepherd probed this hypothetical question with astonishing dedication. Aiming for interstellar contact, he streamed everything from reggae to Steve Reich straight from his grandparents’ living room in countryside Michigan, broadcasting between six and eight hours a day. He then expanded his operation, called Project STRAT, into a separate building on his grandparents’ property, with scientific equipment of his own design. Although Shepherd ultimately ended the radio branch of Project STRAT due to the high cost of maintenance, he is now the subject of a touching new short film, John was trying to contact aliens, which recently arrived on Netflix.
Shepherd saw music as a way to invite aliens to connect – to pique their curiosity and draw them close enough to Earth that he could study them. Much of the music he selected pushed the boundaries and took a holistic view. Albums like that of jazz-piano legend Keith Jarrett Mysteries, Give me power! by the roots reggae group the Itals, the classic of krautrock Future days by Can, and a late ’70s Fela Kuti compilation make appearances in the documentary when Shepherd shows off his extensive record collection. He was particularly drawn to instrumental music for his shows, which he organized into hourly programming blocks. These shows varied in theme and tone, but they often delved into styles such as early electronic music, exploratory jazz, and the booming percussion music of Indonesian gamelan ensembles.
There is a certain logic to these choices. âYou don’t need to translate if something can be felt through the soul, through the mind,â Shepherd told me over the phone from his home near Kewadin, Michigan. “There’s always that twilight zone between reality and music that allows you a certain fantasy landscape – you can go in there and figure things out, or just relax and navigate smoothly.” Although he never made contact with aliens, he still managed to convey traces of the unknown through the weird and beautiful music he played.
Pitchfork: Did you start the project from a music fan’s perspective, or did the musical aspect come later?
John Shepherd: I started putting together the equipment to research the phenomenon [of extraterrestrial life]. But then I realized I had to send something to get their attention and bring them closer to the lab, where we had instruments to measure energy missions and stuff like that. The musical influence came from a close friend, Mike Johnston, who owned a huge collection of 4,000 or more vinyl records. It was everything from early British progressive rock to more spatial music like Harmonia, Cluster, Neu !, and lots of acoustic bands. Music from Bali, music from India and music from all over the world. Thanks to him, I was able to hear things that most people have never heard on the radio, at least in this country.
How did you build your DJ sets?
Everything was done on the fly. Whatever shows that night was, I would select the music in that area and then with the stream. I would start, say, with Kraftwerk and maybe move on to Tangerine Dream, then Harmonia, a lot of creative and progressive bands. Or I would do jazz, so maybe I would start with Ornette Coleman and go to Charlie Parker and then Lee Morgan, following that kind of line.