The composition of Longplayer is built around the application of simple and precise rules to six related pieces of music, each a harmonic transposition of an original 20 min. 20 sec. composition (the ‘source music’). Six 2-minute sections from these transpositions – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses these six sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly 1000 years has passed.
The graphical score is based on a computer’s visual representation of the source music’s waveform. Charting amplitude (volume) against time, the waveform’s shapes can be read as a form of notation, dictating how, when, for how long and how loudly the instruments are to be played.
Looped music is usually represented on a computer as a straight line, read from left to right – at the end of the loop, the cursor or playhead jumps back to the beginning. The graphical score for Longplayer represents these loops literally, turning each waveform into a circle with no beginning or end. Placing each actual physical instrument next to its corresponding section of the waveform sets it beside the necessary information as to how and when it is to be played.
In the Roundhouse, the complete circles of the score are represented by a skeletal outline built of curved wooden tracks. Only the sections which are actually played during the performance’s 1000 minutes are entirely present and playable. These sections take form as curved tables, which support the relevant sections of the graphic score and their associated instruments.
On each table, two musicians collaborate – one plays while the other conducts, and the two exchange roles every 2 minutes. The calculations that give Longplayer its precise 1000-year duration dictate where in the score the musicians start playing at the beginning of each 2-minute period.
Incrementally, and at different rates, each of these start-points shifts during the performance, so that the section of score being seemingly repeated on any given ring is gradually and constantly moving along its ring’s perimeter without ever itself changing length. This is the way Longplayer progresses over minutes, hours and years. At one extreme, in the 3rd circle, the movement is so small as to be imperceptible, while at the opposite extreme, in the 5th circle, the start-point moves 5 metres over the 1000-minute course of the performance.
The instruments on which the score is played are Singing Bowls, an ancient form of standing bell found in many Eastern cultures. A simple form of synthesis arises from the interactions of these instruments’ waveforms, with the consequence that, while Longplayer’s score is deterministic, its music at any given time is unpredictable. Their interaction is equivalent to that of standing waves in organ pipes, or, in a more contemporary incarnation, tone generators in digital additive synthesis. Wired for human energy and elemental sonic technology, Longplayer Live is effectively a vast, Bronze Age synthesizer.
© JEM FINER 2009
This essay originally appeared in the Longplayer Live programme (Artangel, London, 2009), available from the bookshop page.
Jem Finer is a UK-based artist, musician and composer. A short biography is on the overview page.
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