Longplayer – Jem Finer

This publication requires a bit of a preamble, as the project it relates to is seemingly simple, but has both conceptually and technically quite some complexity within it.

In short, Longplayer is a 1,000-year musical composition that runs continuously and without repetition from its start – 1 January 2000 (mid-day in Australia, but mid-day 31 December 1999 in London, when it was switched on at the same time at both locations), until its completion on 31 December 2999. Conceived by musician / composer Jem Finer, Longplayer is an attempt to make sense of such a span of time. Jem was commissioned by Artangel to do a project some time in 1994, so it took nearly 6 years to come to fruition.

Through an exploration of generative forms of music, rooted in notions of artificial life and complexity, Jem developed a system that resulted in an ever-evolving piece of music. To cut a rather long story short: six sound waves, generated by the use of differently sized Tibetan singing bowls, interfere in such a way with each other that the sound generated is never the same for the exact period of a 1,000 years.

The piece has had various listening posts (where the one in London, based in the Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf is still running), is streaming through the web, and has also been performed in analogue form at the Roundhouse in Camden for a period of exactly 24 hours in 2009. (I wrote about that previously on another blog.)

The publication does not only give us a taster, by way of a vinyl record (the pun to include an actual LP was too much to resist for both Jem and me), but also engages with the process of development. I spent many an hour looking at and talking about Jem’s note books, from which an extensive selection of pages features in the text Jem wrote about the process of development, and the many stop-starts and turns and diversions it took to materialise. One element that I personally found great to be able to include was an extensive mind-map, which was constructed on a long roll of paper, but which for the book has been cut into page-sized samples. It also explores the connection between a work like Longplayer and its reliance on mathematical and technological sciences, and the role of change, through both Jem’s own text, and several commissioned texts. Contributions are from Kodwo Eshun, Janna Levin, Christine & Margaret Wertheim, and Michael Morris.

The texts and the mind-map are incorporated in a square book that is embedded in the gatefold sleeve, which holds a 12″ vinyl record with three 20-minute fragments of the music.

This project was finalised when I’d already left Artangel, and had moved up to Glasgow, so was published in 2003. The design was by Fraser Muggeridge, who has often referred to it as being his first ‘proper’ book design commission.

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