Longplayer is a time capsule that never closes. It rings and rings. It hums, and peals, and rings again. It settles into long moments of near stillness, then rolls back into motion. It continues, without drawing breath. It has done so for nearly ten years now, and should continue to do so for another 990 years at least. It is a window in time that is always open.
Like any time capsule, it is a memorial to the future as much as the past. It could perhaps be seen as a marker at the turning of the millennium, a monument of its own historical moment. But that moment already seems a long time past, and Longplayer lies mostly ahead. Today, it seems more like a testament to a thousand-year-long moment, in which every one of us lives and breathes, and will someday die.
Longplayer has always been about survival as much as anything else. It is about its own adaptability, its persistence and endurance. It has been surviving, somewhere, through every calamity, every celebration, every nightly newscast, every breakfast, lunch and dinner, every weekday, weekend and holiday since New Year’s Eve 1999.
In the years since it came into the world, Longplayer has gradually begun to fulfil its own objective – which is to say, it has made its first small steps towards becoming the self-sustaining human institution which it must become if it is to continue its remarkable survival. It is slowly gathering the momentum it will need to carry it far, far away – beyond the lifespan of its creator, its original producers and audiences, far beyond the form in which it was first cast, and far, far beyond the long-gone world of 1999.
Should it prevail as intended, over generations and over centuries, its beginnings will probably come to be seen as rather humble – the work of one artist, set at first in a fragile, unstable and probably short-lived medium. At the time of writing, the iMacs on which it first played already look like period props. It has been kept alive these last ten years by a few dedicated computers around the world – simply the most reliable, consistent and practicable medium available at the time of Longplayer’s composition. But if it is to endure, it will have to move on into media we cannot yet envision – this fact is central to its very conception as a work of art and a work of imagination.
Longplayer Live is the first of these possible media: a human-powered Longplayer machine. And while, as a performance, it is not in and of itself sustainable over great expanses of time, its medium and necessary conditions – an open space, a small number of trained individuals, a wordless score and a set of tuned bells – are reproducible, widely available, sustainable. It is a first step. But it is a great first step, out of the now-bound medium of digital audio and back into the ever-renewable, universal medium of physical performance.
All of Longplayer’s tones come from one 20-minute piece of original source music, which was and is performed on a set of richly resonant Singing Bowls. There are six differently pitched iterations of this source music playing at any given time. The source music itself has both an ethereality and an earthiness, making it the perfect material for the micro- and macro-scaled play of Longplayer’s machinations. In live performance, the six iterations become great concentric rings, each representing the looped timeline of a single transposition. Along each of these, a team of two players oversees the voicing of a small 2-minute section of the larger loop, with each team inchworming along its circumference at its own unique rate. The source music is thus voiced and re-voiced, in a thousand-year cycle of reconfigurations, by a great system of overlapping, interacting, independent orbits, like the proverbial music of the spheres.
When Jem Finer was developing the work in the late 1990s, he worked on several drafts which used, for their source music, existing pieces of popular or classical music. Of these, perhaps the most telling possibility was Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s ‘Over the Rainbow’. The idea was a dead-end of the most inspired kind, which speaks volumes about the thinking that led Longplayer into the world. Like Longplayer, the song is dreamy, far-sighted and full of a non-specific combination of longing and hopeful imagination. It is also, one might imagine, known in every corner of the world.
These are the very qualities which may well secure the survival of Longplayer in the unknowable future. Over the rainbow, one hopes, there will be listeners looking back through Longplayer’s window, just as we look forward through it. There will be listeners listening for centuries-old echoes of its shifting, singing, soaring tones, every bit as much as we, today, might listen for intimations of the hours, years and lifetimes it has yet to serenade.
© J. MAIZLISH MOLE 2009
This essay originally appeared in the Longplayer Live programme (Artangel, London, 2009), available from the bookshop page.
J. Maizlish is an artist and bandleader, born in California in 1973. Among his works are drawings, videos, installations, interventions and songs. He studied in New York and London, receiving his MA from the Slade School of Art in 1999. His band, Marseille Figs, was formed the same year. Recent works include the installation Desert Bunting, (Amargosa Valley, Nevada, 2006), the book Marcia Farquhar’s 12 Shooters (2009) and the Marseille Figs record Jumbo/The Long Goodbye EP (2009).
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