Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:24 pm

Thanks to Stephen (@idhrendur) for this one: So, apparently, Longplayer* is a musical composition that lasts for one thousand years. It began playing on December 31st, 1999, and will continue until the same date in 2999–when it will “complete its cycle and begin again.” It was composed by a UK-based musician and composer named Jem Finer, collaborating with the organization Artangel and a think tank of artists, composers and writers (including Brian Eno). It’s composed for singing bowls, and can be played mechanically, digitally, or live by human performers, which it will be on September 12th in London: 1,000 minutes of a 1,000 year-long piece of music–“the live debut of the longest piece of music ever written.”

“Okay, but how does it actually work?” you (and I) ask. This from the website (http://longplayer.org):

The composition of Longplayer results from the application of simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed. At this point the composition arrives back at the point at which it first started. In effect Longplayer is an infinite piece of music repeating every thousand years – a millennial loop.

The six short pieces of music are transpositions of a 20’20” score for Tibetan Singing Bowls, the ‘source music’. These transpositions vary from the original not only in pitch but also, proportionally, in duration.

Every two minutes a starting point in each of the six pieces is calculated, from which they then play for the next two minutes. Each starting point is calculated by adding a specific length of time to its previous starting point. For each of the six pieces of music this length of time is unique and unvarying. The relationships between these six precisely calculated increments are what gives Longplayer its exact one thousand year long duration.

So there you have that.

“Okay, but how does it actually sound?” you (and I) ask then. We’re in luck: You can listen to a live stream by clicking here: http://longplayer.org/listen/longplayer.m3u. When you click on the file, you will download an .m3u file (1 KB); once it’s downloaded, it should begin streaming Longplayer live through your default music application (e.g. iTunes).

“Okay, but who actually CARES?” you (and I) ask then. I (and maybe you) wonder if such things are just a fad resulting from the existential crisis of our age; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Bach or Beethoven conceiving of a thousand-year piece, or caring about it, even if the technology to make it possible had been present. Interestingly enough, the website has this to say:

The second and more abstract question about Longplayer’s future is social – who will look after Longplayer as its technological, cultural and social environments change? How does one generation of custodians go about establishing a durable chain of succession, down which the responsibility for Longplayer’s survival can realistically be expected to pass, even over hundreds of years? How many institutions have survived, with their initial objective intact, over the last thousand years?

It’s good and smart of the people involved in Longplayer’s creation to think about such questions; but apart from establishing the Longplayer Trust to oversee and perpetuate the project, they don’t provide any answers. My question is this: as the “technological, cultural and social environments” around Longplayer change, who’s to say that we won’t get to a point where it won’t be seen as art or science or metaphysics or whatever it’s supposed to be, but just as a silly experiment by a less enlightened time, and shut it off? How disappointed would Mr. Finer be if the composition survived for a few hundred years–but then died because no one cared anymore?

* I didn’t place the title “Longplayer” in italics, as I normally would, because it’s not formatted that way on its website. It’s possible that this isn’t a conscious decision, but on the off chance that the creators intentionally left the title without any special formatting other than capitalization, I follow the same convention.



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    Mike Morabito on 08.25.2009

    Weird/interesting. I appreciate how you asked questions on my behalf. Way to investigate!

  2. Gravatar

    AC on 08.26.2009

    The questions on the survival of the project may be dealt with during The Artangel Longplayer Conversation 2009, which is to take place simultaneously with the live musical performance at London’s Roundhouse on the 12th Sept.
    It’s a relay-style conversation on related themes between 24 speakers over 12 hours, including writer Jeanette Winterson, neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, poet Ruth Padel, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and many more.
    Here’s the link for more info: http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/book-tickets/longplayer-live-3543/3544

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    Idhrendur on 08.26.2009

    You should check out some of the other things the Long Now people are doing. I’m also not sure if I agree with them, but I think it’s interesting and kind of cool, at least.

  4. Gravatar

    ajharbison on 08.26.2009

    Hi all,
    Thanks for your comments! I always enjoy hearing from my readers; and thanks to AC for stopping by and providing the link for the Conversation!

    AJ Harbison

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    Ryan Fleming on 08.26.2009

    Interesting…for me, however, I cannot consider this a musical composition. It seems like more of a mathematical experiment than a work of art. It is also sad that the Mr. Finer will never get to hear the piece in its entirety. I guess this is a sort of legacy that he wants to leave behind. (how wierd would it be if bach had written a piece like this and we could still listen to the “original” performance?)

    With regards to interesting musicology (my made up word for a mix between music and technology), has anyone every heard of SLOrk (Stanford Laptop Orchestra)? It is an orchestra that uses macbooks as musical instruments. It is very interesting/wierd and barely qualifies as music. You can check it out at http://www.apple.com/pro/profiles/slork/. Let me know what you think!

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