Jack White and Third Man Records have set a record for the highest record ever played.
Along with Students and Teachers in Near Space, the former White Stripes rocker and his label sent a specially-pressed recording of the Carl Sagan-sampling “A Glorious Dawn” nearly 100,000 feet into the stratosphere via a weather balloon. A bespoke turntable on the Icarus Craft kept the record spinning the whole time, allowing White and his collaborators to claim the title for high altitude listening sessions.
White and Third Man Records are notable proponents of good old vinyl, and have staged record-related stunts before, but their latest endeavor really reached for the, well, stars. It wasn’t easy though — to realize their goal of almost three years they would have to construct a super-durable record and turntable to deal with the temperature extremes, airlessness and general jostling that accompany a stratospheric balloon ride.
They coated the record in gold to preserve its integrity under high heat (vinyl melts at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit), and crafted a turntable that doubled as a heat sink. A reinforced phono cartridge and stylus were also used, as well as a system that paused the record if it experienced any rough patches.
It all came together, and Sagan’s voice carried into the cosmos as the Icarus Craft reached its maximum height of 94,413 feet. However, it wasn’t the first vinyl to spin in space. Icarus didn’t cross the Kármán line, some 62 miles above sea level, which is commonly held to be the beginning of space.
The balloon eventually exploded, due to extremely low pressure, and the record returned to Earth via parachute — it was still playing as the craft settled down in a vineyard.
You can watch the entire voyage in the video below (skip to 1:21:20 to watch the record reach its maximum height).
The feat was both a celebration of scientific achievement and a demonstration of what’s possible when art and technology intersect. While it may seem slightly ironic that an anachronistic musical device was chosen to push the boundaries of technology, it has a sort of poetic symmetry — after all, the Golden Record tucked away inside the Voyager craft was a pet project of Sagan’s, who knew a thing or two about using pop culture to communicate scientific ideas.
“Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers,” White said in a statement.
The song chosen to soundtrack the balloons ascent fits neatly into the theme of repurposing old ideas as well. “A Glorious Dawn” is part of the “Symphony of Science” series created by composer John Boswell, which takes bits of speech of from scientists — in this case from “Cosmos” — and melds them into a musical composition, with some help from Autotune.
Stephen Hawking features on the track as well, and the two scientists expound on the wonders of the universe over a smooth wash of synthesizers and percussion. Third Man Records put out a 7-inch recording of the track back in 2009 to honor Sagan’s 75th birthday.
Playing a record in near-space isn’t on the order of, say, sending a satellite into orbit around Jupiter, but the project demonstrates that art and science need not be mutually exclusive.
We think Carl Sagan would approve.