Longplayer: music to last a millenium

Computers create music differently to humans. Here's one project using tech to perform for many lifetimes...
15 December 2020

Interview with 

Jem Finer, Longplayer


The mezzanine level of the Longplayer lighthouse, containing a display of brass singing bowls.


We’ve seen how computers have musical strengths and weaknesses that are very different from those of humans. And Phil Sansom has been to visit a musical project that no person today could ever play; or even fully listen to. Longplayer is a thousand-year-long piece of music - yes, you heard that right, one thousand years - inside a former lighthouse in London. Phil met its creator, formerly of the Pogues, Jem Finer…

Phil - Good Lord. That's incredible.

Jem - Well, this is the sort of mezzanine level. There's a large circular system of shelves upon which are over 200 singing bowls and they are the actual physical instruments from which Longplayer's composed.

Phil - I'll be honest. I feel like I'm about to be reborn into some sort of ancient religion.

Jem - Right, okay. Well, what I was interested in was time as a much longer slower process than a human lifetime and human experience. So how do you keep something going for a thousand years? If it's a piece of music, how do you keep it playing? What technologies do you use?

Phil - How does it work?

Jem - How does it work? There's source music and an algorithm which operates upon that. So the source music is made up of singing bowls, sort of brass handheld bells that are common in many Eastern cultures. And you can play them in two ways. You can either strike them - but more interestingly, you can take a kind of wooden beater and run it around the rim, rather like you could rub your finger around a wine glass. There's six pieces of very short source music - twenty minutes twenty seconds long. And each is composed of singing bowls and silence.

Phil - My maths isn't amazing, but that sounds like about two hours, not a thousand years. So how do you get to a thousand year long piece of music?

Jem - It's not like they're sort of all added together. What happens is that every two minutes, the algorithm chooses a start point in each of those six. So what you're hearing is a superimposition of six different sections. Each plays for two minutes, and then at the end of the two minutes the start points move on. And the amount each start point moves on is different for each of the six pieces. The easiest way to visualise it is to think of a diagram of the solar system. So you see the sun in the middle and the planets arrayed out, and they're all going around the sun at different rates. So once in a few billion years, they might all be in a straight line, but it will take a very long time until they're all in a straight line again.

Phil - So you're saying, if I listen in a hundred years, I might hear five of the pieces that are in exactly the same spot that I heard last hundred years, but the sixth piece is going to be slightly different, and you'll never get them all in the same place for a thousand years time.

Jem - That's what I'm saying. Yeah.

Phil - To be honest, if it was repeating, I'm not sure I could tell.

Jem - I mean a lot of jokers say, Oh yeah, I've heard this bit before. And in a way they probably almost have. It's a bit like weather - you know you've seen skies like that, but you'd never seen the clouds in exactly those shapes in those places.

Phil - Is there a sense that this is more algorithm than composition?

Jem - Well it's certainly algorithm. I think one of the great things that digital technologies afforded is this idea that you can iterate through huge spaces of possibilities in ways that you really couldn't necessarily as a human. So I see it more as a sort of prosthetic aid to the composer to move into realms of music, which are sort of beyond human endurance to actually perform them in some way.





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