Music For Alien Civilizations is a project in collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation and Space Port Esrange in the very north of Sweden. Specially composed music was sent out in space from Esrange’s 13 meter antenna, as a business card from humanity. 12 artists were given the challenge to compose music for non-human ears – or whatever sensory organs possible non terrestial civilisations might have. Now that we have decided to actually send as message, what should we send? Images, language, code? Or maybe the content of the internet? Music seems like a good idea as it’s unique for us humans on earth, maybe it’s a common thing for all technologically advanced civilizations throughout the Universe. Maybe it’s what once made us human.

Itsatrap Magazine 2008

On June 4, 2008 the Swedish Space Corporation will broadcast the new compilation "Musik för främmande civilisationer"/"Music for alien civilizations" deep into space from the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden's northenmost city. Compiled by Håkan Lidbo and Andreas Tilliander, the two gentlemen behind Swedish Radio channel P2's electronic music program "Ström", the collection features 10 of Sweden's best, most forward-thinking electronic artist/ambassadors, each of them composing a piece to extend as a greeting card to whomever might be listening.

Naturally I was intrigued by the premise of the project, so when presented the opportunity to ask Håkan Lidbo a few questions about it, there was no way I could say no.

Who came up with the initial concept and how did it evolve?

I came up with the idea and its the third conceptual record in a series of three. All of them were first presented in a radio show I have on Swedish National radio called "Ström". The Swedish electronica producer Andreas Tilliander, a music journalist called Mats Amlegård and a DJ called Anna Gavanas are my partners in this radio show.

Last year we did a CD called "New music for national grief" [aka "Ny musik för landssorg", one of my favorite records of 2007 /ed.] where 12 artists wrote music as an alternative to the music that is played on the radio and on TV when something terrible happens to our nation. Like when the ship Estonia went down with hundreds of Swedes aboard. Or when Prime Minister Palme was murdered.

The year before that we asked electronica artists to remix the sounds of Swedish birds ["Pausfågeln remixad"]. The whole thing was an homage to the nerdiest radio show ever on radio called "The Weekly Pause Bird"; two guys talked about the sound of a bird for 30 minutes. This show was shut down the same year we started our programme after more than 40 years on the radio. It was like a celebration of the geekiness that drives both electronica artists and ornithologists.

My idea with "Music for alien civilizations" was to give electronic music the greatest assignment possible. Many people still think making music on a computer is easy, you just press a button. And in a way you do, anyone can make a computer sound like music, but to make it sound unique and personal, it takes as much practice and visionary thinking as with any other musical instrument. One would probably primarily consider giving this job to the great contemporary composers of orchestral music rather than some kids with computers. But if you instead give the task of expressing the whole humanity in a piece of music to computer musicians, something interesting happens.

How did you decide on the lineup? Did you have any particular criteria for selecting artists?

Not more than finding people that are cutting edge producers, very flexible and open minded. But also people that can speak for their music. The artists were interviewed and presented in the radio show "Ström" as their music was presented. And each programme had a theme, a question about space, possible alien life, our existence on earth - and the nature of music. That has been a question that we came back to many times; music seems to be so integrated with humans that it's almost a part of our genetic code. Ideas like music are a part of the creation of the Universe. So we were looking for people with an open mind, both towards more philosophical questions and also their own music and creativity.

You have said that the potential audience for this project might have artistic taste that has evolved 10,000 years beyond ours - what exactly does that mean to you and what challenges does that pose to you as a composer? Do you think all of the artists involved in this project approached it in the same way?

The task was really too big for anyone to handle; to express the whole humanity in music, our culture(s), history and dreams, and to do this for species that might be thousands of years ahead socially, technologically - and musically. So most artists chose themselves as a good sample of humankind, they used the same inspiration they always do when they create music. And that's fine as well. If you read about all the artists and how they approached the problem, you will find many diffent solutions and viewpoints on humankind. Somewhat to express our greatness and some think it's more honest to present our shortcomings like greed, stupidity and dishonesty, and some prefer to send a message as a cry for help.

Why did you only choose electronic-based music? Is it simply a matter of personal taste or are you attempting to convey something else with that decision?

Primarily because the computer is the most amazing musical instrument invented by man - thus far. It's the ultimate manifestation of our greatness as engineers. But electronic music also has a history as the soundtrack to space. Most sci-fi movies have used synths in different ways, from the 50s UFOs with theremin sounds to the psychedelic 70s sci-fi films with synths-through-space-echo sound effects. Electronic music can sound like nothing on Earth and therefore it makes it easier for us to fantasize about space. And maybe this music can have the same effect on aliens. But we don't have a clue. What sounds beautiful in our ears might be terrible in alien ones. And the other way around. There is no music that I would like to hear more than the one made in other civilizations. If they make music at all. It might be that music is totally unique for us in the universe. And if it is, music is not we something should take lightly. It might be a key to something amazing that we are not yet aware of.

Ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish with the project? What kind of response are you hoping to get, both from us earthlings and from our potential alien audience?

Well, to be honest, the signal we send out has to travel for a long time, many many light years. And as the Sun also sends out radio waves in all directions, our signal will most likely drown in the Sun's radio waves. But we can't be sure, maybe the aliens have equipment way beyond ours, so that they can filter out the signal from the rest. So if they do, then I hope they will interpret this music we send out as a friendly "hello". That we, at our best, can be friendly, nice and pretty smart. And that we are interested in making contact. For earthlings, for human ears, I hope that this music will stimulate the listeners to think about our place in the Universe. About the vest distances in Universe that makes intergalactic communication very very hard, almost impossible, and the importance of keeping this planet as wonderful as it was given to us, not destroying these perfect environmental conditions that might be very unique in the Universe. And I hope earthlings will think about where music comes from and what life would be without it. Would language exist without music? Would our society exist without music? Would we dream and create and invent the way we do without it? What would we be without music? Maybe not humans.