Longplayer: Making Music to Last 1,000 Years
2 years ago
When I speak of this thing called ‘Longplayer‘ to people, I tend to get one of two reactions: amazement, or bemusement. Both respectable, because Longplayer isn’t your average piece of music – and Jem Finer, the composer behind it all, isn’t your average musician. While contemporary songs sit comfortably around the four-minute mark, Longplayer is a single composition with a track duration of – wait for it – one-thousand years.
Starting 12:00 UTC on the 31st of December 1999, Longplayer aims to continue without repetition until the last moment of 2999. Composed for singing bowls – whose resonances can be very accurately reproduced in recorded form – Longplayer is designed to be adaptable to unforeseeable changes in its technological and social environments, and to endure as a long-term and self-sustaining institution.
I’ve known of the project for several years and have, in my own way, become somewhat obsessed with it. To me, Longplayer explores time in a neutral medium, one that everyone can appreciate and understand: sound. After repeatedly dipping in and out of the project – occasionally checking back for developments here-and-there – I was left with questions, and Finer, who spoke to me over the phone after an appointment earlier this month, was more than happy to answer them…
‘I’ve always been obsessed with the vertiginous nature of time… It stretches back to being a kid and being told things we can’t comprehend,’ Jem recalls, remembering that, as a child, time just felt longer. Children are ‘at the mercy of adults’, “just a minute” turns in to hours, and years seem to feel like forever. ‘Longplayer was a result of trying to feel and understand time,’ Finer told me. To give time – as ironic as it sounds – space.
Longplayer’s major catalyst was the impending millennium. ‘In the mid-1990’s I started reading about plans to celebrate 2000, none of which seemed to have anything to do with thousand-year long stretches of time – more to do with a few weeks of expensive celebration.’ Indeed, one of the original listening posts for Longplayer, situated just across the river from Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse, where the instillation currently lies, is the Millennium Dome. Finer took real gripe against the Dome’s construction, saying ‘it just didn’t feel right. What’s a building got to do with celebrating one-thousand years?’
Jem came up with the seedling that would eventually grow to become Longplayer at the back of a tour bus. Playing around with computer programs, he was looking to make music that would, in essence, compose itself. Drawing in to MIDI and DAW software like Logic, Finer would create short pieces of noise that would slowly fall in-and-out of time. This is exactly how Longplayer works today. Six twenty-minute audio clips, each a slightly different pitch, progress in stages. Behaving almost like planets – in perfect alignment at the start of the piece – the music works in cycles, each clip restarting every two minutes, slightly advanced from where it left off. When heard in real-time, the result is mesmerising – and moving. It wasn’t until later Finer realised that, in theory, this method of composing music could stretch endlessly.
Nobody needs reminding that one-thousand years is a very long time. You also don’t need reminding that people pass away. Longplayer is currently in the care of a charitable trust, governed by a handful of people. I was blunt – somewhat intentionally so – in delivering my next question: What happens when all those people die? Jem laughed. The project is built with survival methods in mind, from human to mechanical performance – their recently released iPhone app even synthesises the music offline, adopting a biological ‘multiply to survive’ approach – but what I wasn’t expecting was the poignancy of Jem’s answer. This is was his brainchild and the entire purpose of Longplayer: duh, he’s had almost twenty years to think about its survival.
While technological methods are certainly options the Longplayer Trust has begun to explore, Jem admits their not his first preference. That’s not what he sees the project to be. ‘Why should it continue if people don’t want it to?’ he posed. ‘Longplayer shouldn’t play because it has to, it should play because people want it to’. Finer’s seeking active participation rather than passive listening.
This reliance on people has extended far beyond simply thinking of ways to keep the music playing. Finer admits that ‘when the music started, I thought I was done’ but acknowledges his thinking couldn’t have been more wrong. As a matter of fact, the project has spawned all kinds of small additions and spin-offs. In September 2009, Longplayer took a giant step forward with its first-ever live performance. The 17-hour event spanned 1,000 minutes of its 1000-year long duration, from 08:00 on the morning of the 12th until 00:40 on the morning of the 13th. More than 7 years in planning, the debut of Longplayer Live introduced its partially-completed instrument – six rings of singing bowls – played by a twenty-six-strong team of musicians.
‘I won’t ask you what the long-term future of Longplayer is, especially as we’re less than 2% of the way through, but are there any developments planned in the near future?’ I asked. Longplayer is a constant state of flux. It’s easy to forget projects like this cost time and money, and Finer admitted that ‘yet again, we’re at a state where we need to secure more funding’. The core-elements of the project, its website, the internet stream, and its home, all cost ‘huge sums of money’. I’m Head of Technical at a radio station and managing just the audio stream is a feat so know these things aren’t easy or cheap, but I’m sure the idea can inspire philanthropists to donate to its cause, even if it is just for legacy.
Legacy was the last question I asked Jem about. Was this just some vanity project to ensure his name went down in the history books and that his work was remembered, or does Longplayer have real, deep-seated meaning? Let me quash your concerns now. The latter is true. Jem doesn’t see Longplayer as ever leaving a legacy because ‘legacy’ suggests the work is over. Theoretically, Longplayer will never end, it will just repeat in one-thousand year cycles. Conceptual artwork and piece of music combined, with a clear and strong message behind it, whatever ‘legacy’ Longplayer leaves, I believe it to be a powerful one – and Jem certainly isn’t in this for himself.
At the exact second this blog post was published, and as much of the world welcomes 2016, Longplayer ticked over into its sixteenth year.
Longplayer is a permanent instillation at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London. You can visit every Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 11am and 5pm. “Set in the former lamp room of a lighthouse, Longplayer uses the sounds of Tibetan ‘singing bowls’ to take you on a atmospheric journey into time and space.”
You can find out more about Longplayer at longplayer.org. Finer has also written a book detailing its creation. It includes scans of his personal notebooks, meetings of minutes and detailed commentary from inception to creation, plus a 12-inch vinyl record of some Longplayer extracts.