Case study Interpreting Sound – Longplayer
- What is your initial reaction to the idea of this piece?
- What do you think about the sounds in this piece?
- Why do you think Finer has chosen these particular sounds?
Roundhouse Performance 2009 – Look at how it is presented to the audience. Think about:
- Quality of the sound
- Choice of singing bowls
- Positioning of the bowls
- Positioning of the spectator
- Length of the piece
- How it is performed
Write a short interpretation of Longplayer
1. Initial reaction
I think the idea is an interesting one. The thought that a piece can sustain itself without repetition for 1,000 years feels original. The website likens it to a planetary system where 1,000 years might pass before the planets return to their original alignment. Finer is quoted as saying that the preoccupations that led to its conception were not of a musical nature, rather “…they concerned time, as it is experienced and as it is understood from the perspectives of philosophy, physics and cosmology.” From a cosmological perspective, however, 1,000 year is no time.
My main reactions are questions. Does a good idea necessarily translate into an interesting piece of art? In a piece such as this, is the art the thought and/or conception? If so, does the idea actually need to be executed? If I were to be honest, I think I have more questions than opinions about this piece.
2. The sounds in the piece
The singing bowls have a fascinating sound quality. The combination of pitch, tone and decay allows for an interesting combination of sound, sometimes pleasingly harmonious at other times uncomfortably discordant. The sounds being produced would not be out of place accompanying images of spacecraft in deep space in a film. They certainly convey a sense of emptiness.
The lack of rhythm underscores the sense of continuous change in the sound. This combined with its slow tempo produces a mood that is contemplative and meditative.
3. Why these particular sounds?
I suspect Finer is using these sounds precisely because of their sense of space and of being otherworldly.
The Longplayer website states that the bowls are “… an ancient type of standing bell – which can be played by both humans and machines, and whose resonances can be very accurately reproduced in recorded form.”
It probably needs to be recognised therefore, that there may be a very practical reason for using these sounds too. As the millennium passes the use of technology will enable the physical decay of the bells themselves to be more easily managed, as the bells could be replaced by electronic devices.
4. The Roundhouse 1999
The points raised at the beginning are followed in the order they were originally presented:
- The sound is clear and precise and sustains the contemplative mood mentioned above
- The choice of these bowls seems both musical and symbolic. The bowls are “played” in different ways in order to produce a different sound. This difference is not just a question of pitch. In certain cases the sound resonates and/or has a much longer lasting delay. The bowls themselves are old and so this adds to the sense of time being at the core of the performance. This, combined with certain aspects of the performance (see final point below), add to a sense of timelessness of the piece. It is not of any particular time.
- The positioning of the bowls is very interesting (refer to figure 1, below). They signify where they are to be played but also produce a pattern reminiscent of diagrams of atoms (for an example of such a diagram, refer to figure 2, below). As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the definition of time within the SI system of units is based on the movement of electrons in a caesium atom. Hence the position of the bowls is another reference to time. It is interesting to further compare these diagrams to the diagrammatic representation of the music on the longplayer site (refer to figure 3, below).
- The spectators are outside the circle with the largest diameter. There probably are practical reasons for not wanting spectators moving in and around the circles. It does make it clear, however, that the spectators are not part of, and have no involvement in, the piece; they are experiencing it.
- The choice of 1000 minutes may be to emphasise the scale of the piece. One minute of this performance equates to one year of the whole piece.
- The piece is performed in a calm almost mechanical way. The pairs of musicians are timing themselves. It is difficult not to think of the circular motion of the gears, cogs and springs in an old fashioned watch. The musicians’ dress is black, possibly grey. The outfits are quite bland and reveal neither culture nor fashion. This frees the performance from being tied to a particular time or place.
5. Longplayer – an interpretation
Our concepts of time are inextricably linked with motion; planets around the sun, moon around the earth, hands around the face of a clock and electrons around the nucleus of an atom. And traditionally that motion is circular. The positioning of the performers in and around concentric circles represent all of this motion and so confirms that time is at the centre of this piece. As if to emphasise further the time span of the piece, Finer uses old instruments yet positions them to reflect the inner workings of an atom.
The bland clothing of the performers removes any reference to time or place. Their carefully timed motion is also mechanistic. This combination of position and uniformity suggests that they are parts of a much greater whole. The enormity of time in the universe around us is emphasised by the duration of the piece itself. It is long and yet each minute represents one year of the whole, emphasising how brief our time will be.
The sounds themselves present a mood that is contemplative and meditative, possibly even spiritual. The varying harmonies and tones suggest the ebb and flow of our individual journeys through life.
Finer was concerned with time as it is understood from the perspective of philosophy, physics and cosmology. Each of these perspectives is offered to the viewer in this performance by the elements described above.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Bird’s eye view of Longplayer live at The Roundhouse, 12 September 2009. At: http://longplayer.org/listen/longplayer-live/ (Accessed on 7 April 2017)
Figure 2. A diagram of a tin atom showing the electron shell. At: https://www.thoughtco.com/atoms-diagrams-electron-configurations-elements-4064658 (Accessed on 4 April 2017)
Figure 3. This diagram represents how the longplayer is actually played. The solid rectangles represent the two minute sections playing at a particular time. The unique increments by which these six sections advance determine their respective rates of change. At: http://longplayer.org/about/how-does-longplayer-work/ (Accessed on 7 April 2017) This link will also take you to a fuller explanation of longplayer.)