By: Ricky O’Bannon
In a digital era of immediacy and three-minute pop songs, projects like Longplayer try to push back against a rising tide of instant gratification.
The brainchild of composer Jem Finer — who is better known as a founding member of folk punk band The Pogues — Longplayer was born as a contemplation of time that would last the entire 21st Century. The piece is composed for Tibetan singing bowls, which can be played both by musicians and mechanically via computers — and presumably whatever will make computers obsolete during the lifetime of the project.
“In the mid 1990s, as the year 2000 approached, I started to wonder about how to make sense of a millennium… and how to possibly focus the mind on time as a longer and slower process than the frenetic jump-cut pace of the late 20th Century,” Finer writes on the project website.
Longplayer was commissioned by the British group Artangel and launched at the start of 2000 in a lighthouse at London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf. The tone of the Tibetan singing bowls was chosen in part because it was easily transmitted electronically for listeners who can stream the ongoing live performance from the Longplayer website.
Finer and the Longplayer project have launched a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter to develop a choral version that will last 1,000 minutes. The arrangement would use 240 voices and allow the piece to be performed in its entirety all over the world, a scant 16 hours and 40 minutes at a time. At time of publication, the campaign has raised £7,684 of its £8,000 goal.
Longplayer elicits comparison to American John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP, which was also intended to push the boundaries of musical duration. Part music philosopher, part composer, Cage spent much of his career exploring the extremities of the ingredients most take for granted in music — including duration, harmony, what sounds we consider to be musical and whether written music needed a pre-determined outcome.
Organ²/ASLSP or “As SLow aS Possible” offers no suggestion to the intended duration of the piece outside of the title’s instruction. Organ²/ASLSP is a revision for organ that Cage wrote two year’s after his 1985 ASLSP for piano, which was commissioned by The Friends of the Maryland Summer Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts. Solo performances of the work have lasted up to 24 hours, including a nearly 16-hour marathon performance by Diane Luchese at Towson University.
Still, that is blink of the eye compared to the ongoing performance of Organ²/ASLSP at the Sankt Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, which will take 639 years to complete. The last tone changed in May of 2013, and the next change is scheduled for 2020.
The Halberstadt performance began in 2001, which means Longplayer has a slight lead in the absurdly-long-concert category, even if Cage’s sheet music was written a decade and a half prior. But beyond who claims credit for launching the idea first, the fact multiple such projects exist shows a shared interest in our relationship with slowness as a pushback against an era that privileges immediacy.
As Margaret and Christine Wertheim wrote in a book produced by the Longplayer project, “Clock time becomes a double-edged sword, extracting a price while simultaneously bringing about new possibilities.
“Time, it seems, always brings insecurity – fear of its loss or fear of its continuation, fear it will end or fear that it won't. On this cross the modern world swings.”
The impulse to push back against speed has more than a few supporters. Netflix might have offered a 73-minute “original documentary” of a rotating rotisserie chicken as an April Fool’s prank, but “slow TV” is a growing trend in Norway where an 8-hour program showing knitting in real time can garner an audience of millions.
In some ways the technology that is speeding us up also allows participation in the slow. The pitch drop experiment — where bitumen or asphalt slowly drains from one container to another to measure its viscosity — has produced a cult Internet following. University of Queensland in Australia has a 24/7 livestream where viewers can hope to see the 10th droplet of pitch fall since the experiment was started in 1927. More than 350,000 hours have been logged by viewers watching the stream, which suggests it will be “only 14 or so years” until the next drop falls.
Slow might never be popular, but as many turn out to support Longplayer’s Kickstarter, hear a single note change in Halberstadt or just watch asphalt drip, the gospel of slow has its fans.