Jem Finer: From here to (almost) eternity

How do you construct a piece of music which will take 1,000 years to play? And what do you perform it on? The composer (and former Pogue) Jem Finer talks about his Longplayer project
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The Independent Online

The Longplayer art project is related to technology in various ways. First, using the computer is an immediately practical and cheap way to make the project work. Longplayer uses a 20 minute and 20 second recording as source material upon which a system operates playing six different segments simultaneously. The position of these is updated every two minutes in such a way that no combination will repeat until exactly 1,000 years has elapsed, at which point everything will be back at the exact point at which it originally started.

The Longplayer art project is related to technology in various ways. First, using the computer is an immediately practical and cheap way to make the project work. Longplayer uses a 20 minute and 20 second recording as source material upon which a system operates playing six different segments simultaneously. The position of these is updated every two minutes in such a way that no combination will repeat until exactly 1,000 years has elapsed, at which point everything will be back at the exact point at which it originally started.

It took a lot of time to explore possible directions for the project and investigate ways to make the music. I started working on it in 1995, creating different systems to compose the music in real time. A lot of ideas I've borrowed from Artificial Life and Complexity and I've written lots of computer programs and learned different programming languages until eventually discovering SuperCollider (a real time synthesis language) three years ago, which is what I've used ever since.

In fact, though, for the work to last such a time I actually need to develop a music player from simpler technology than a computer. I'm initially running it on an iMac, and that's not yet given any problems, but a computer chip will only last so many years. And whilst it's possible to keep replacing the computer, a more realistic solution would be to create something sustainable that will not be effected by developments in contemporary technology.

So going back to simple technology, I'm now creating for Longplayer a mechanical musical instrument that will make the music using simple mechanical parts, shafts, cams and levers, etc. There was great care taken when considering how to make the transition from computer sound to mechanical sound. An obvious example of something that wouldn't work would have been to use strings. Something that would work, on the other hand, is tuned percussion. We settled on the Tibetan singing bowls, which are ideal because they're robust and so stand a chance of lasting a long time before disintegrating or losing their tuning. Strings would quickly go out of tune and be more vulnerable.

Again, using simpler instruments enables the piece to have more longevity, to deal with the fact that tastes and perceptions of music are always changing. If I'd used the latest sounds from contemporary music, the music would soon sound dated. My solution was to use instruments that are already very old - the singing bowls have a history stretching back over 1,000 years. They act like oscillators in a synthesiser and in their various combinations produce sounds that aren't there in the source music.

So out of what began as a practical concern to ensure the longevity of the piece of work there has grown the possibility for a far richer sounding version. Instruments playing in close proximity to each other in a small space influence each other; resonate in sympathy with one another in a way that doesn't happen within a computer. Having started work on Longplayer, I discovered other projects dealing with deep time. One that has been influential in my thinking about how to make Longplayer sustainable is "The Clock of the Long Now", designed by Danny Hillis, an American computer genius. The clock is basically a Bronze Age computer, built to last 10,000 years. The prototype is ticking in London's Science Museum.

In Hamburg Modern Art Museum is a stalactite machine, a 600-year project to grow a stalactite, and in Budapest there's a film running which is counting endlessly toward infinity made by an artist called Eike.

'Time and Place', a seminar about architecture and sustainability in relation to Longplayer, takes place tonight at 7.30pm at at the Longplayer Lighthouse, Trinity Buoy Wharf, London E14. The website ( www.longplayer.org) has details on the location of listening posts, updates and further information.

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