An Unidentified Audio Event Arrives From The Post-Computer Age
Kodwo Eshun

There are these other forms of life, artificial ones,that want to come into existence. And they are using me as a vehicle for its reproduction and its implementation.
Chris Langton [1]

I think one of the changes of our consciousness, of how things come into being, of how things are made and how they work is the change from an engineering paradigm, which is to say a design paradigm, to a biological paradigm, which is an evolutionary one. In lots and lots of areas now, people say, How do you create the conditions at the bottom to allow the growth of things you want to happen?
Brian Eno [2]

Longplayer is a shortcut to the sublime.

Its infinite iterations, sourced from 20 minutes of Tibetan singing bowls offers an instant hit of sublimity. Within seconds of hearing Jem Finer’s composition, you’re immersed in a state of serenity, accompanied by the immediate realization that the unresolved non-linear sonic turbulence you’re listening to will play itself out for another 998 years.

On the 3 occasions of my visit to Longplayer, housed in a neatly built and maintained shed in the upper space of the Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in South London, opposite the exoskeleton of the Millenium Dome, the pervasive mood of peaceful desolation has carried with it a second sense: a humbling precognition of my extinction.

This anticipation of mortality is so palpable it should be distilled and bottled as perfume Eau de Morte. The aroma of death, however, is rapidly eclipsed, in turn, by an awareness of millennial duration. On this cosmic scale, any sense of self-extinction is itself obliterated and this sense of laughable irrelevance, identified by Gaston Bachelard as a state of intimate immensity,[3] is in turn experienced as a grandiose stupefaction.

Stricken with awe, it’s impossible not to stare at the astrogeological visions that scroll through the mind’s eye. Crevices yawn. Strata fold. Crab nebulae wheel. The presence of Longplayer,waveforms scrolling the length of its i-Mac screen, reassures you that these are audiovisions. That you are experiencing an extra-ordinary musical event.

On third thoughts, though, it’s not so clear. It becomes less and less certain that Longplayer is music, at least in the sense that we think we understand it. But just how do we understand music these days, anyway? Pulverised into sound dust by processing power, the condition of music is more deterritorialized and reterritorialized than at any time in history.

Longplayer’s role is not to clarify this pandemonium. On the contrary it’s contained simplicity masks demonic multiplicity. It is possible to identify three of these demons.

Three ways of experiencing and understanding Longplayer, each of which overlaps the other. Longplayer can be understood firstly, as a historicizing engine, secondly as an abstract machine and thirdly as an unidentified audio event.

Those vivid hallucinations that hijack the mind are united by their distinctive temporality. They evoke the ruins of futures past. The paradoxical temporality of futures passed. To hear Longplayer is to experience the vivid foresight of events that have yet to occur in the past tense.

This acute sensation of chronological involution is not imaginary; it’s the real effect of Longplayer’s function as a historicising engine. What is a historicising engine? It is a machine that induces a post historical consciousness. Post-history is the condition that Sixties group the Moody Blues called the days of futures passed.[4]

Sometimes it’s experienced as a nostalgia for a time-yet-to-come. Here it is felt as a confounding sense of the historical future. If pre-history is recognisable through the archaeological and the retrospective then post-history is identifiable through the anticipatory and the precognitive. Longplayer’s ability to induce post-historical consciousness is in no way metaphorical.

The visions that infiltrate the mind stem from a psychosocial adaptation to its processing power. An instinctual response to the hole that it is boring, sinking into time.

These are responses to Longplayer assembling its own ancestry before your very ears. An acclimatization to millienial duration becoming affective. Longplayer, it becomes clear, functions as a primaudial machine. What is a primaudial machine? It is an aural or musical event that induces a primordial state.

A musical event that feels immediately ancient. Longplayer does not invent a tradition in the way that 19th Century state apparatuses used to construct nationalities. Rather it manufactures ancestry instantaneously by iteration. It is an instant ancestor-engine that opens a window into deep time. This is what it feels like to witness the birth of a legend, the assembly of a real mythology.

In the process of listening to yourself listening to it, you suddenly see yourself as future generations will, as their histories will record you, fustian, ridiculous, endearingly archaic.

These sensations of post-historicity, instant extensiveness and ancient futurism indicate that Longplayer is disturbing linear history. That Longplayer is instigating chronological involution so that the distinction between the retrospective and the prospective goes awry.

As a historicising engine, Longplayer operates as an anachronizer. It creates a temporal condition that is not so much out of date as out of its date. As an event, it slips between times, eluding history through the mathematical precision of its abstraction.

It is peculiarly easy to imagine that these chronic shortcircuits are something Longplayer performs for you, something specific to your state of mind. It’s a form of narcissistic readjustment that denies the memory that Longplayer doesn’t care where you are or what you’re doing. The inevitability of indifference equals the inexorability of its operation. It’s when your not paying attention, when distraction steals your mind, that it’s absolute duration becomes apparent.

Until now we have understood Longplayer experientially as a historicising engine that creates real affective states of post-historical awareness, as a primaudial machine that assembles an instant ancestry and as an anachronizer that disturbs chronology.

If we shift focus towards the conceptual processes that drive Longplayer, then what do we discover? We discover that Longplayer is an abstract machine seeking to ensure its survival. What is an abstract machine? Longplayer can be understood as an abstract machine in the sense that philosopher of science Manuel De Landa uses the term: ’mechanical contraptions reach the level of abstract machines when they become mechanism independent, that is as soon as they can be thought of independently of their specific physical embodiments.’[5]

When an abstract machine is dissociated from its physical apparatus, it enters what the philosopher Michel Serres calls the ‘conceptual technology’[6] of science. It’s core processes become understood as ideas that can be reduced and formalized as equations to be generalized, transferred, applied, reversed.

Coupled with software (or a mechanism or score or program or diagram) that efficiently exploits these ideas, the abstract machine begins to propagate across the technological field, affecting the way people think about machines and eventually the world.

As the abstract mechanism migrates across the media landscape, it gets results. It makes things happen. In so doing, it begins to provide a way of understanding reality. De Landa points out that when clockworks represented the dominant technology on the planet, people imagined the world around them as a similar system of cogs and wheels. The solar system was pictured right up until the 19th Century as just such a clockwork mechanism.

Equally, when motors came along, people began to realise that many natural systems behave more like motors. Today, when the dominant technology is the networked computer, humans increasingly conceive of their world as an information society. The computer forms the horizon of what is thinkable and feasible.

As an abstract machine, Longplayer breaks with this horizon. Against todays dominant tendency, Finer’s distinction has been to conceptualise and build a system that goes beyond the computer. To exist at all, Longplayer has to integrate what Finer calls ‘computer mortality’[7]. In a world in thrall to the next upgrade, a world eager to think of filter psyche and eros through the network, Longplayer hears forward past the death of the computer.

Which is perplexing since your first contact with Longplayer is likely to be as a looped structure coded in Supercollider programming language on i-Mac that will come into phase once every 1000 years. But this digital version is based on a logically prior mechanical version.

Longplayer, as Finer conceives it, is, first and foremost, a score for 6 musicians playing Tibetan singing bowls by hand. Equally, Longplayer is a score for 6 musicians, each lifting and dropping the needle on 6 records on 6 record players.

What unites these ensembles is the abstract machine, the set of essential ideas that places the imperative to survive first. It’s clear that computers in their present form will not exist for 10 years let alone 10 centuries. To thrive for the duration of the millenium, then Finer has to integrate the reality of computer mortality into Longplayer’s design.

This explains why Longplayer’s essential ideas of additive synthesis, loop structure, iteration and duplication are pre-digital. Far from new, the loop as a sonic process predate the computer by decades. Synthesis precedes digitality by centuries.

The tape recorder provided the impetus for the phased loop structure of Steve Reich’s early voice works such as Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain in which complexity appears from molecules of voice. Cornelius Cardew’s instructional text compositions such as ‘Paragraph Seven’ of The Great Learning harvested the energy of the error iterated through performance.[8] As David Toop has suggested, these examples can be understood as social software organized to maximise the emergence of unanticipated musical matter.

On first hearing then, 31st December 1999, the date of the inauguration of Longplayer, appeared to be a triumph for digital technology. A moment when the Sixties tradition of systems music was upgraded, networked and streamed. Listen again. Now, it’s audible that 31st December 1999 announced the opening of the post computer era.

At a point when music equals digitality as never before in history, Finer has conceptualized music in the post-computer age and then built a medium to delivers post computer music right now.

Longplayer is an unidentified audio object that has arrived from the 30th Century. What is an Unidentified Audio Event? It is a event that disguises itself as music, using other media as a Trojan horse to infiltrate the landscape with diguised elements of untimeliness and atopia.

In the midst of the Information era, Longplayer hymns the death of the computer. It undermines the self-satisfaction of the digital moment by historicising it, actualizing it’s limits, giving us a forewarning of dead media to come.

Conceptually speaking then, Longplayer inhabits the digital but is not in itself digital. It is a post computer music that happens to be incarnated in digital form. Computers are the host because they are the cheapest, easiest and most practical media for creating music at this point in history.

If Longplayer is post digital in its process, then this abstraction is only one side of this 31st Century UAE. The abstraction must be materialized. It needs to be incarnated. And this incarnation is pre-digital. To be precise, it is pre-industrial.

If Longplayer harks back to a pre industrial material, it simultaneously looks forward to an era in which the digital has reverted to its initial meaning of manual. It anticipates a post-electric era, an unplugged age when electric current no longer powers the planet. It is this post-Windows world, a world that cannot but strike us as post nuclear that Longplayer is designed to survive and flourish.

The medium of the far future becomes equivalent to the history of pre-electric storage media. In a move that we now recognise as characteristic of Longplayer, the future pivots and turns towards the past. As an UAO, it operates in the conjoint tense that the Art Ensemble of Chicago named as ‘ancient to the future.’[9]

Until now, our analysis of Longplayer has assumed the perspective of the human historian. But to understand the full implications of Longplayer as an abstract machine, it is necessary to assume the long range perspective of the robot historian.

Why assume this point of view? Because we want to scale several dimensions further up so as to percieve Longplayer’s impact on evolutionary process as much as on time and affect. Abstraction does not only help us to explain the inauguration of post computer era, As a rule, abstract process allows us to gain insight into the mathematics of nature.

Since the Seventies, as Manuel De Landa writes, computers have allowed scientists to investigate the deep mathematical foundations of the natural processes of self–organization. These processes, in which order emerges spontaneously out of chaos, are essential components of the machinery of the planet.

When we say machinery, however, we do not only mean mechanical, technological or robotic media; we mean the overall set of self-organizing processes in the universe. From this perspective, first outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, biological and inorganic matter alike can be found to be generate structures capable of evolution.

Looked at in this way, an abstract machine is a way of harnesing behind the emergent properties of the self-organizing processes of organic and non-organic life. It is a means of tapping into the material flows of the planet.

Taking our cue from De Landa, we can imagine a generation of robot historians from the millenium’s end, dedicated to understanding their historical origins. Within this group, there might be a specialised sect of robot anthropologists. They are dedicated to tracing the technological lineages that gave rise to the machinic species known as Longplayers.

Our robot anthropologists would not be so concerned about the difference between programming language, record players and Tibetan singing bowls. For their purposes, all three technologies would be hosts that allowed Longplayer to propagate across the planet. They would understand singing bowls, record decks and computers as equivalents. The distinction between ancient and modern would be lost on them.

It is worth asking why the inharmonic frequencies of the Tibetan bowls sounded so good as the source music for Longplayer. It is almost as if the iterative system of the latter had been waiting for the sinusoidal waveforms of the former. Finer term for the alloy bowls is Bronze Age synthesisers. It is a name that captures Longplayer’s collapse and reconciliation of ancient and modern eras.

From the perspective of a robot anthropologist, the Bronze Age synthesizer/sine wave oscillator confirms their research. It affirms the robotic sense that Longplayer has existed on Earth, for centuries, in the shape of alloy bowls. More exactly, Longplayer existed in the sum of emergent processes that gave the alloy bowls their unique ‘singing’ property.

Looked at more closely, it’s clear that hundreds of years experience of the physical thresholds of metallization allowed the Buddhist monks to harness the inharmonic frequencies of bronze. Over centuries, this skill led to the manufacture of finely pitched percussion.

By multiplying the number of bowls, the metallurgist monks transposed and combined the layers of sound through the emergent process of additive synthesis to create unforeheard new timbres.

Through the trial and error that constitutes the first historical stage of abstraction, inventor-musicians have harnessed the resource of additive synthesis to create music technology ever since. Deleuze and Guattari considered synthesis to be a fundamental planetary process: ‘It unites disparate elements in the material and transposes the parameters from one formula to another. The synthesiser, with its operation of consistency, has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgement: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force.’

Philosophy, to their ears now operates like ‘a thought-synthesiser functioning to make thought travel, make it mobile, make it a force of the Cosmos that moves faster through addition, transposition and combination.’[10]

The robot anthropologist would be keen to track this technological lineage from the Buddhist singing bowl to the Christian medieval pipe organ to the postwar synthesiser up to Longplayer. 31st December 1999, then, would be the point at which the natural resource of additive synthesis met the capabilities of the iterative start point system.

As Finer points out ‘These bowls have been around for hundreds of years. I’ve made a way for them to have a different kind of life. I’ve filtered this whole tradition of 20th Century music with my take on it and somehow they’ve come out with this new sophisticated life.’[11] The infinite variation of the former converged with the timestretching capabilities of the latter.

Our anthropologist would not be disturbed by the fact that the human Jem Finer had conceived, programmed, scored and assembled the first Longplayer. From its perspective, Longplayer as we know it,is not new; rather it would be poised between ancient and modern, drawing on the resources of order out of chaos.

Musicians, the robot would regards as surrogate reproductive organs that functioned until the point when the Longplayer species acquired its own self-replication capabilities. The species depended upon a support system of six people that played the bowls for three shifts a day.

Those eighteen people would need a support team to feed and support them, giving a total of twenty four people chosen for their sense of generational responsibility, their understanding of themselves as cultural filters, and as channels for human-machine co-evolution.

We have suggested three ways of understanding Longplayer; these can be understood as the same processes approached at different angles at different scales. If the animal kingdom can be seen as the place where evolution has experimented to create our own sensory and locomotive machinery, then our robot archaeologist would regard Longplayer, its makers and keepers as ‘channelers’ or ‘filters’ for evolution. Longplayer acts us a gateway, not into the Divine but the underlying mathematics of nature. These processes whereby order emerges out of chaos, these are the true ancestors, of our robot-anthropologists and of ourselves.

1. Chris Langton, p120, Artificial Life, Jonathan Cape, 1992.
2. Brian Eno in David Toop, ‘The Generation Game’, The Wire, May 2001.
3. Gaston Bachelard, p190, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1994.
4. The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed, EMI, 1967.
5. Manuel De Landa, p142, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Zone Books, 1991.
6. Michel Serres, p141, quoted in De Landa, 1991.
7. Jem Finer, Longplayer: Computer Mortality and Duration, Mediated Music Conference, Enschede, Twente University, Holland, 2002.
8. David Toop, ‘The Generation Game’, The Wire 207, May 2001.
9. Art Ensemble of Chicago, Artist Statement, 1969.
10. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, p343, A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
11. Jem Finer, In Conversation with the Author, 10 December 2002.


This essay originally appeared in the book Longplayer (Artangel, London, 2003), available from the bookshop page.

Kodwo Eshun is a cultural critic, arts consultant and author of the theoretical text More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (Quartet, 1998).

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