Initial response to the concept
This concept and how it was born fascinates me. I remember very vividly the mixture of anxiety – in 1999 the millennium bug was looming on our computers and our lives worldwide and menacing to bring disasters in every area, in a similar way to the apocalyptic fears that our ancestors had felt one thousand years before in 999 a.D. – and of frenzied irrational excitement for things to come.
In that climate an idea like Jem Finer’s seems to me a gem of quiet hope in the future and clear thinking. The concept of creating something and entrust it to the next generations for its care and survival is deeply moving and creates a strong human bond with them. I like the soothing notion that even when nobody is listening, the music continues to play in the background living a life of its own that accompanies us through our days, notwithstanding that we are aware or not.
On listening to Longplayer
While I write I am listening to the sounds in background played on my phone (1) : I hear long-maintained, deep sounds resonating for a very long time, high-pitched trills, little quavers and vibrations either isolated or in short series, quick touches accompanied by very long dragged bell sounds, every now and then there is a short pause, then the combination resumes, very often sounds intermingle and resonate into each other and form complex patterns, here and there flat sounds, then rings that seem to come from old mechanical phones or triangles. Occasionally I can also hear a Whatsup or short message beep coming from my phone and eerily it fits comfortably in! I can distinguish no apparent music or melody, sounds come as a surprise every time, they are very varied and unpredictable, pitches keep changing from very low to very high, sounds do not seem meditative to me since there no repetition, rather cosmic as they evolve and develop freely.
I think that Jem Finder chose this type of sounds perhaps for their colourless, unemotional quality. They seem atemporal and unaffected by time, unconnected to either past or future, not dependent on changing music tastes. They are finite, punctual, well-defined sounds but together they form immense sound waves that propagate through one-thousand year cycles in a potentially never-ending circle.
Performance and context
Although the first and original setting of Longplayer is the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London, from where it started playing at midnight on the 31st December 1999 and will continue to play until the end of 2999 only to start again (2), this conceptual piece is not site-specific, that is it was not made specifically for that particular place and can be listened to in various locations around the world, either on a permanent or temporary base, as in Iran and in Pittsburgh, and very recently also in the open air at Yorkshire Sculpture Park listening post.
It lives also on the Internet through a continuous online audio stream and since 2015 through an iOS app which can be downloaded to tablets and mobile phones.
There have been live performances too, the first one took place on the 12-13th September 2009 in The Roundhouse in London and lasted 1000 minutes (3), followed by a second one of three hours in the same location on the 31st December 2009. In October 2010 another live event was organized in San Francisco (4).
Besides the long composition, Jem Finer has so far created 3 shorter versions of different lengths, named Shortplayers (5). They are based on the same algorithm as Longplayer with changed variables and can be arranged for different instruments and even performed by human voices like in this performance (6). I find the voice version particularly interesting and one that could easily be replicated almost everywhere.
I shall now concentrate on the first live performance in 2009 at the Roundhouse and try as far as possible to consider it also in relation to the other versions.
The computerized quality of sound is neutral and crystal-clear, as if humans were not alive or necessary and it seems that sound would continue also in our absence. The apparently casual and endless arrangement and rearrangement of sounds produce no recognizable music form or melody, and the effect is that of an infinite vast and ever expanding composition. The intended connection with cosmological systems and planets revolving in space is explicit and very well crafted. Sounds produce very rich and complex overtones and flourish unexpectedly here and there like bubbles coming to the surface.
Jem Finer’s original choice to use singing bowls to reproduce computerized sounds does seem very appropriate. As explained in (7) these very ancient Tibetan instruments possibly date back to pre-Buddhist time and can produce two very distinctive basic sounds when rubbed around the rim or stricken on the side. They emit a very pure “singing” tone, hence the name, which is strong and lasts for a long time. Traditionally they were made in a very high-quality bronze alloy that contained percentages of precious metals – gold, silver and also a highly prized meteoric iron. And I can well imagine that the artist was aware of the presence in the bowls of this “spatial” metal that put them in a very specific connection with the cosmos.
If to this we add the fact that, as stated in (2), the singing bowls “can be played by both humans and machines, and [their] resonances can be very accurately reproduced in recorded form”, there are a number of very good reasons for Jem Finer’s choice.
The cosmological connection is enhanced and reinforced by the positioning of the bowls like planets along the six circles of the installation, in a way that echoes from close the Copernican model of the solar system. Although the singing bowls do not revolve around their orbits as planets do, the sounds they emit shift along constantly during the performance and are meaningfully accompanied by the movements of the musicians.
In the Roundhouse performance in 2009 people can move freely around, thus punctuating the space with their presence, like stars flickering in the sky. This evocative effect was not recreated in the live performance in San Francisco which had chairs on the sides (4).
The circular arrangement of the bowls surrounded by the echoing shape of the Roundhouse reflects beautifully the circular potentially infinite structure of the music, with cycles of one thousand years that repeat themselves with no end. This appears to me also connected to the very ancient notion of history as a never ending succession of identical cycles of events, as typical of the first agricultural civilizations which based their lives on natural earth and sky cycles.
Although the music composition is very effective on its own, based as it is on a rich and masterfully elaborate concept, I think that its occasional live performances powerfully reinforce its meaning and that the physical involvement of musicians playing the bowls enriches its human value, creating a bridge between the cosmological vastness and human life.
List of illustrations
Figure 1 http://hendrix2.uoregon.edu/~imamura/121/lecture-3/copernicus.html (Accessed on 09/09/16)
1 Longplayer in Apple Store [Iphone application] downloaded in July 2016
2 Longplayer [website] At: http://longplayer.org (Accessed on 07/09/16)
3 Longplayer Live London 2009 : 1000 seconds on Vimeo [online] At: https://vimeo.com/58274591 (Accessed on 07/09/16)
4 Longplayer Live San Francisco October 2010 on Vimeo [online] At:https://vimeo.com/38768229 (Accessed on 08/09/16)
5 Shortplayer Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, 1 October – 31 December 2010 At: http://longplayer.org/events/shortplayer/ (Accessed on 08/09/16)
6 Longplayer for Voices, Roundhouse, July 12, 2014 on Vimeo [online] At: https://vimeo.com/100633599 (Accessed on 07/09/16)
7 Experience the joys of Tibetan Culture [website] At: https://www.yowangdu.com/tibetan-buddhism/meditation/tibetan-singing-bowls-an-introduction.html (Accessed on 08/09/16)