Sunday, December 13, 2015

Longplayers

By Alexander Rehding

Y2K hysteria: Time Magazine on January 18, 1999.

This is a good time, fifteen years into the new millennium, to look back at the phenomenon of millennial music. The dust from the mass hysteria widely associated with “Y2K,” and its horror scenarios of hospital machines failing and planes falling out of the sky, has largely settled. The turn of the millennium, the click of the digital clock from 12/31/99 at 23:59:59 to 01/01/00 at 00:00:00 has had a special psychological magic that the actual turn of the millennium, as pedants pointed out, a year later, simply did not possess. And as the calendars grow thin and we come to the end of the year that is simultaneously the beginning of a new one, it is an especially good time to think about that moment when time folds in on itself.

The turn of the millennium gave rise to some unusual music, notably musical performances that last an exceptionally long time. The John Cage Halberstadt Organ Project (2001) may be the best-known example of such millennial music, but it also happens to be the shortest of them: the performance of ORGAN2/ASLSP (1987) clocks in at a mere 639 years.  The composition Longplayer (1999) by Jem Finer—perhaps better known as a founding member of the Celtic punk band The Pogues—is quite a bit longer.  The composition for (synthesized) Tibetan sound bowls lasts exactly from Y2K to Y3K and then starts again from the top. But the longest by far is Rodney Graham’s Verwandlungsmusik (1991), based on a discarded snippet from Parsifal (deliciously, composed by Wagner’s amanuensis Engelbert Humperdinck) that is looped over a period of thirty-nine billion years.  Graham has produced a CD, charmingly titled Orchestral Highlights from Parsifal (1882-39,969,364,735 AD).

These pieces of music (for want of a better term) are less compositions in a traditional sense than sound installations that happen to be based on musical ideas but essentially ruminate on temporality. What can we do with these pieces? Our conventional battery of terms—musical works, listening, even melodies and rhythms—break down in the face of such vast expanses of time. What exactly does it mean to be listening to those pieces, whose length exceeds a normal lifespan? Can these pieces ever be more than a gimmick?

I call these pieces “millennial music” for two reasons: not only were they started around the turn of the new millennium, but they also took part in the reflections on temporality that were the psychological domain of the transition from one unit of time into another.
The John Cage Halberstadt Organ Project.  © Photo: Haupt & Binder
Longplayer was begun in London at midday on December 31, 1999, at the moment that the new millennium began at the International Date Line over the Pacific. The installation is based in a lighthouse in London very close to the meridian in Greenwich, which marks the longitudinal zero point of the globe and also determines the global time zones. (Despite his geographical and temporal precision, Finer chose the “felt” millennium over the chronological one.) From there, the piece can be heard at a small number of listening stations from San Francisco to Sydney. In addition, a live stream on the internet (recently supplemented by an app) keeps listeners elsewhere up to date with the continuous performance of the piece.

The John Cage Halberstadt Organ Project took up its mission in 2001, largely because its fund-raising efforts were too slow. As a consequence of this late start, the temporal calculations were off by a year and were not corrected until 2005. In a word, the performance began with a rhythmic error writ large.

Verwandlungsmusik is a bit of an outlier: its starting point is projected back onto the opening night of Parsifal at Bayreuth, on July 26, 1882. This final of Wagner’s music dramas, after all, served as the stage consecration festival play for the new musical shrine. In the “Highlights” from this hypothetical performance of Verwandlungsmusik, Graham takes care to point out the precise points in time when we would hear the chosen excerpts, as each instrumental parts shifts phase at its own rate and comes together in kaleidoscopically changing constellations.

Verwandlungsmusik is perhaps most readily understood as a thought piece. Its hypothetical nature is given material expression on the CD recording of its “Highlights.” Despite its projection into the most remote future, it very much exists in the here and now. The technology used here to make the music audible is already as good as extinct, and will probably not survive even into the next generation. If it continues to exist, then only as an algorithm outlining the combination of looping rates.

The question of musical technology is a central concern in any of these millennial projects. Looking back onto the vast rate of technological change since Y1K, it is obvious that any technology that we consider cutting edge will be obsolete in only a few years or decades. (Homer Simpson’s quip: “Internet? Is that thing still around?” rings true in the face of these time spans.) Jem Finer knows that the computer technology his piece relies on will not survive even a fraction of the duration of the music, and has begun to think about alternatives. Everything points back to human performers as the most reliable and the most lasting medium. He has staged live performances of his piece, at a vastly sped-up rate, lasting a thousand minutes—or 16 hours and 40 minutes, still a considerable amount of time.  What remains are merely the temporal ratios between events.
The first live performance of Longplayer at The Roundhouse, 2009.  © Photo: Longplayer.com
The Halberstadt John Cage Organ Project has perhaps thought through the technological challenges most carefully: their performance takes place on a traditional instrument. The organ has a vast life span, and it can produce sounds that are in principle unlimited in length—provided enough energy, manual or electric, to sustain sound production. The duration of 639 years was determined precisely because it marked the life span of the previous organ in Halberstadt, which had been installed there in 1361.

In its playful nature, Graham’s “Highlights” CD also makes clear a second point: these pieces, whose length exceeds any lifespan by an order of magnitude, are not meant to be listened to in total. More importantly, they cannot be listened to in their totality, but the totality is there to be imagined. As novelist Michael Chabon noted, a propos of another millennial project, the “Clock of the Long Now,” projected to tick for 10,000 years:

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.
The Clock of the Long Now. © Photo: Longnow.org
These vast timespans engender hope, optimism, and what is more, a call to take responsibility for the future. (It is hardly a coincidence that the “holiday from history”—the short window between the 1989 and 2001, between 11/9 and 9/11—also fell into that exceptionally optimistic period.) Responses to the musical millennial pieces are characterized by the same spirit of faith in the future. They are “future monuments,” to use Evander Price’s felicitous term. Several musical commentators have remarked, semi-seriously, on how they want to be around to hear the end of the piece. The Halberstadt John Cage Organ Piece is even described as a musical “apple tree” —referring to an aphorism usually ascribed to Martin Luther: If I knew the world were to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.

The impossible length of these pieces, the associated sense of awe and profound amazement, opens the view to the vast field, the experience of sensory overload, that usually goes by the name of the sublime. Not only is it impossible to hear these pieces as a totality, but their whole point is that they cannot be listened to in total. The purpose of the vast timespan is to direct our attention to the most distant future, mindful of human finitude, and to contemplate the passing of time. There is a distinct ethical factor, which is also inherent in most reflections on the millennium, and which was hammered home by Al Gore and his much-derided but prophetic Powerpoint presentation, during that fateful millennial election year 2000: Will there be another millennium to celebrate?—Put drastically, those pieces of music invite reflections on matters of life and death.

It seems easy to laugh off these millennial pieces as gimmicky. True, their extreme timespans lead us far out of our disciplinary comfort zone and leave us scratching our heads. Is this even music? (True also, the techno-fetishism, mixed with a good dose of new-agey inspiration, that characterizes much of The Clock of the Long Now can be a little hard to take.) But with a little more digging, the phenomenon of millennial music leads on to new questions of musical listening, of musical technology, of the nature of music, and of temporality. These are questions that we do well to pose—and, if there’s time, to try and answer.


Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University and recipient of the 2014 Dent Medal from the Royal Musical Association.

2 comments:

  1. See also (Thanks to Alex Ross's blog for the pointer) the story by John Darnielle in the current Harper's: "There are Other Forces at Work: John Cage comes to Halberstadt"

    http://harpers.org/archive/2016/01/there-are-other-forces-at-work/

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    1. Thanks, Bob, for the link - I hadn't seen that yet.

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