Case study Interpreting sound – Longplayer

This case study looks at a piece by Pogues member Jem Finer. It’s really a musical work, but could also be considered an installation and a performace piece. It started playing at midnight on the 31st December 1999 and will play for a thousand years. The ‘song’ is made up of 6 different versions of a 20 minute, 20 second score written for Tibetan singing bowls. One of the pieces is the original, and the others are transpositions. One is an octave below, one 7 semitones below, one 5 semitones below, one 5 semitone above and one 7 semitones above. These transpositions alter the length of the original piece, with the lower toned pieces becoming longer and higher toned becoming shorter. The score can be written as a series of concentric circles, as seen below:

The piece started at the beginning of every track and played for two minutes. From then on, the starting point for the next two minute clip is determined by a unique and unvarying amount of time added to it’s previous starting point. These two minute sections are illustrated by the yellow highlighted areas on the diagram above. The reason the piece is a ‘one thousand year long musical composition’ is due to the fact that it will take a thousand years for each of the six tracks to come back together and start at the beginning again. The rates of change are so that the track on the third circle will take the full thousand years just to play once, while the track on the second circle takes just 3.7 days to play fully before starting again.

More information can be found on the Longplay website, along with link to listen to the piece streaming. The score diagram that is hosted on the website updates every two minutes to show which section of each track is playing. The piece is mostly played by computer, but there are occasional live performances carried out by groups of 12 people, stationed at six benches on which the singing bowls sit. One plays while the other conducts, and then they swap over. You can watch a replay of one of these live events here.

  • In a few words, what is your initial reaction to the idea of this piece?

Like most contemporary art, I didn’t really get it. I didn’t look at anything about the piece before listening to it, other thank what’s written in the course book, and knowing that Jem was a founding member of The Pogues, I was expecting some kind of modern music.

  • What do you think about the sounds in the piece?

They are ethereal, eery even. It’s relaxing though. I listen to meditations with the same kind of feel. I think that the lower toned bowls sound almost like chanting voices. At other times, the bowls sound like church bells chiming.

  • Why do you think Finer has chosen these particular sounds?

I know that singing bowls have been around a long time, and I maybe the thought is that if they survived this long with us still being able to appreciate the sounds, then they could last another thousand years. As well as this, the facts that the bowls sound like chiming bells just adds to the theme of time, as it is reminiscent of clock bells chiming the passing minutes and hours.

The case study asks us to find out what ‘site-specific’ means:

Site-specific is art that is designed especially for a particular location, and it has a inter-relationship with that location. If removed, it would lose all, or a substantial, part of its meaning. Site-specific is often used to describe installation works, and land-based art is site-specific almost by definition.

Longplayer is not technically site-specific as the performances take place in different locations, but Jem Finer has produced site-spefic art, for example, ‘Score for a Hole in the Ground‘, which is a permanent installation in a forest in Kent.

We are then tasked with analysing the performance of the piece, looking at how it’s presented to the audience, thinking about:

  • the quality of the sound used and the choice of singing bowls

As mentioned above, the sounds are very much like clocks bells (keeping with the ‘time’ theme), as well as being relaxing, promoting stillness, and reducing stress. I think it’s a piece people would sit and listen to for a while as background noise. It’s something you can dip in and out of – starting to listen at any point without having to know what came before. Another feature of the sounds of the bowls is that they can be played in any configuration over the top of each other, and it will always sound fairly harmonious. Obviously this is a major benefit when the whole song is different parts of the tracks being played at the same time. Also, as mentioned above, the bowls have already stood the test of time, and there’s a good chance the sounds they make will still be appreciated in another 1000 years – there are no words to understand or meaning to decipher, it’s all just sounds.

  • the positioning of the bowls

The positioning of the bowls on the six tables, themselves sat on top of six circular tracks, mimics the circular score of the piece. The way the performers move along the tables reflects the way each individual track moves only forwards along its score until it comes back to its start, as opposed to jumping back and forth. I think all the movement makes it interesting to watch, as well as representing the constant movement of the piece itself.

  • the positioning of the spectator

The audience can come and go as they please, and sit/stand/lie anywhere around the outside of the circular performance area. This allows them to see the performance from any angle they choose, as well as being able to see the whole circle. There are places you can stand where all six tables overlap each other, and there are places where you can look straight through the middle. This reflects the way in which the tracks themselves, although always playing on top of each other, don’t always overlap at the same point on the score. Another point is that Finer himself said the conception of Longplayer was based on his preoccupation with time ‘as it is understood from the perspectives of philosophy, physics and cosmology.’ Knowing that Finer was interested in cosmological time and the universe is interesting, as the layout of the performance piece and musical score could be said to reflect the orbiting path of the planets round the sun. In fact,  the circular score bears a resemblance to The Copernican Planisphere (below). This 1661 work by Andreas Cellarius illustrated Copernicus’ idea that the 6 known planets of the time revolved in their own orbits around the central sun, with each planet taking longer to complete it’s orbit than the last.

  • the time length of the piece

The inspiration for Longplayer was the approaching millennium in the year 2000, and producing a piece of music that lasts the length of the next millennium was Finer’s response to the milestone. 1000 years is a length of time that none of us can really imagine, and we’ll never be around to see, but here, time has been given some sort of tangible form.

There is an added layer of time entwined in the piece, represented by the six different versions of the same score. Some versions are stretched to last longer and some shrunk to be shorter. To me, the unique ‘time based’ rules, represent the way time feels to us – sometimes it seems to fly by, and other times it’s practically standing still.

  • how the piece is performed

This has been mentioned above, but the performers’ movements along their benches is a nod both to the visual score and the entire concept of the project. All the performers’ positions won’t sync up until 2999, just like the 6 pieces of music they’re playing.

Some of the performances last many hours, and you can see the passing of time in the videos as the natural light of day gives way to the darkness, with the performers being lit by their own spotlights. This adds to the idea of the layout being like the solar system, and reminding us again of the passage of time.

The final instruction in the case study is to write a short interpretation of the piece, so here is mine:

The way the singing bowls are positioned during the performance mirrors the circular score of the piece which, itself, is very much like a visual representation of the planets’ orbits around the sun. The fact that Finer chose to use singing bowls that have been around for thousands of years seems to me to be both practical, in that their many combinations of sounds are always harmonious, but also symbolic. It is hard for us to imagine 1000 years in the future when the song will end, but here it is being played on an instrument that has been around long before the common era began.

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