One Thousand Years from Now

Five hundred years from now, Jem Finer’s Longplayer project will have recently passed the half-way point in its 1000-year-long performance. Mr. Finer is seen in the installation in the photo at top.

Longplayer is a musical composition that is calculated to take precisely 1000 years to perform from beginning to end and has been in performance in England continuously since midnight on December 31, 1999. This means it has been going nonstop for seventeen years and a day as of today. You can tune in at any hour and listen. It will begin its second cycle as the clock ticks the last moment of December 31, 2999.

In my limited understanding, the composition is six pieces of music that are interlinked, with each one serving as a trigger to start some of the others at set intervals. They overlap. They trigger each other. The calculation provides that these intervals will allow for the first-ever repetition of music, a second-ever thousand-year cycle, to start at midnight on December 31, 2999. The composition is programmed to not repeat itself until then.

If you do listen in live, you will notice that you are not encountering anything like a “tune” or a piece of a song. For reasons that are very understandable, this is slow. This is not hum-able. You may only hear a note or two, made by someone touching a Tibetan “singing bowl”—a very ancient instrument—and then a shift up or down from that note. And then that note drifts into silence. It is a human-made project that is attempting to become environmental and outlast its creator(s). Patterns are measured in decades, not moments.

An explanatory video:

 
One of the challenges for any thousand-year-long project is the knowledge that we can not anticipate what technologies will be in use a millennium from now, which languages will be common and how they will develop, or how to make certain that the project will not be forgotten, soon or in 1000 years. Less than two decades years after its launch, one of my laptops (a Chromebook) does not recognize the Longplayer Live app (get on it, Google Store). Thus the anticipation of technology is hugely important and it must be ignored all the same.

The app is available from iTunes.

Two decades ago, none of the above would have made sense. Brands (iTunes) are ephemeral, but tools like “apps”? When the project was launched in 1999, there was no such thing. Will we need apps—will we be online—two decades from now? Technology changes rapidly and it can ratchet in different directions, even backwards, just as rapidly. Technologies that seem necessary one year become discarded objects of nostalgic reverie the next year.

We must anticipate deeper changes in society. A mere five hundred years ago, the English language was undergoing the “Great Vowel Shift,” which brought the language from the Middle English of Chaucer to the Modern English of Shakespeare and Kim Kardashian: “The vowel in the English word ‘same’ was in Middle English pronounced ‘psalm’; the vowel in ‘feet’ was similar to ‘fate’; the vowel in ‘wipe’ was similar to ‘weep’; the vowel in ‘boot’ was ‘boat’; and the vowel in ‘mouse’ was similar to ‘moose.'” English speakers of that era did not know they were a part of a great change; to this day, we still deal with the Great Vowel Shift in some of English’s odd spelling rules and in the accents and dialects that did not shift, such as in Scotland. Linguists did not identify this change until about (“aboot?”) 100 years ago. Might we right now be in the midst of a similar shift in the language, or culture, or politics, or at the beginning of one, one that linguists or other future scholars will not be able to identify for centuries? Five hundred years from now, will people understand the instruction manual for operating Longplayer?

To meet the almost certain changes in language and technology, Longplayer’s creators set out to include all such anticipations from the start; they call it a “social and biological strategy of survival.” Whatever new technology comes into existence, the Longplayer project will be available on it (except a Chromebook, obviously). Whatever social rules or laws people of 1000 years live under, if art is still legal, then …

No matter what, the composition is 1000 years long, by design, so if Longplayer is forgotten and then rediscovered, the discovers can pick up the performance from where it ought to be based on calculations.

So can this song to the future that won’t ever leave the here and now last its 1000 years? This is certainly not knowable, but with the amount of attention and support it has gotten in these seventeen years, it seems likely it will play continuously for several more generations. Jem Finer has programmed into it as much adaptability as possible.

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Jem Finer is a founding member of the Pogues who has assembled a fascinating list of environmental music projects. Longplayer is his most famous.

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Some of this first appeared in 2014.

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