Do You Have Plans For 4 Sept 2640? On Music Of Extreme Duration

Benjamin D. Duvall looks at what the longest musical performances in history teach us about the current climate crisis

Anthony Gormley’s Another Place by Chris Howells

Under the elegant beams of the Victorian roof in Barrow’s Nan Tait centre, musician Charles Hayward addresses the seated audience. Walking up to a single snare drum uplit by a tablet on the floor in front of him, he announces the piece ’30 MINUTE SNARE DRUM ROLL’. A 30 minute countdown timer is started on the tablet and the piece begins.

The double stroke roll, a foundational rudiment of the drum’s vocabulary is stretched, magnified and blurred as Hayward activates and responds to the resonant frequencies of the room. Ghost tones and aural phenomena coaxed from the space by the snare’s shifting accents and dynamics.

“I think sometimes people start out thinking it’s some kind of Guinness World Records endurance test,” Hayward explains. “After about three minutes you can see them looking at their watches and starting to think, ‘Is he really going to play that snare drum for another twenty seven minutes?!’” He is speaking from his home in Lewisham, where he details the work’s construction.

“One of the frameworks of the piece is time: not in a beats per minute sense, it’s more this rigorous social sort of time,” he elaborates. “It’s not the romantic grandeur of time, expanding and contracting. It’s the same sort of time you use to get on an aeroplane or take a bus. People can hear it in thirty minutes in a way that they wouldn’t if it were an hour or 15 minutes. Letting go of the clock for most people doesn’t happen in any deep way in a 15 minute period.”

He says for some audience members, the drum roll evokes the circus or a high wire act. For others, the start of the national anthem. The roll as an anticipatory device in music – propelling us expectantly between landing points – is isolated and used as a vehicle for going somewhere else.

“After about seven minutes you can watch the audience start to let go of the fact that it’s a drum roll or a particular duration of time and just sink into the sound of it,” he continues. “It starts to atomise from one thing into being this very individual private experience.”

With the countdown timer hidden from the audience’s line of sight, the duration of the work becomes a personal zone to be navigated rather than a test of endurance against a ticking clock.

‘30 MINUTE SNARE DRUM ROLL’, makes duration a vital component of its composition. The framing device of a set block of time (“social time” as Hayward calls it) and opaque title invites the audience to draw their own interpretations from its singular focus and spare materials. It is one of a number of musical works that use duration as their main organising principle. Such works treat linear time “not just as an attribute of the medium but as an integral material for the artist,” as Alistair Noble wrote in his 2014 article ‘Extreme Duration In The Performing Arts’.

Charles Hayward courtesy of Lewis Hayward

What are artists trying to say when they make time the focus of the work? Detailing performances by Marina Abramović and Tehching Hsieh taking place over 736 hours 30 minutes and thirteen years respectively, Noble thinks “sitting and disappearing (neither of which are as simple as they sound) became newly interesting by virtue of the extreme duration. The duration is part of the fabric of the work, as much as the artist’s activity (or non-activity).”

Take artist Tony Conrad, who used the slow, yellowing of white emulsion painted inside black cinema screen frames to create his Yellow Movies. The gradual change of colour due to prolonged light exposure playfully blurs the boundaries between still and moving image, painting and film. Similarly, in sculpture, Anthony Gormley’s Another Place situates 100 cast iron figures modelled on the artists’ own naked body along the beach at Crosby in Merseyside. Different levels of saltwater corrosion, colonisation by barnacles and envelopment by sand mark each statue with a unique and thought-provoking record of time’s decaying effect.

Another is composer William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, which offers a musical analogue to these visual works. It’s about the physical effects of time on the materials of the music – in this case magnetic tape disintegrating through age – creating a deeper, mortal significance to a series of simple repeated melodic fragments.

Nearly all music as we understand it depends on duration – sounds following one another in linear time. The history of recorded music has been dictated by the capacity of the recording and playback medium to accommodate increasingly longer increments of time. The first sixty years of the phonograph record saw a gradual expansion of available time from just a couple of minutes at the tail end of the 19th century to twenty two minutes per side with the introduction of the first vinyl record in 1948. The CD pushed this to 74 minutes in 1982 before the proliferation of digital formats in the early 1990s made storage – and therefore playback length – potentially limitless.

Composer Max Richter’s 2015 album Sleep gamely illustrates the potential of digital playback for investigating extreme duration. The recorded work runs continuously for eight hours – corresponding to a decent full night of shut eye – and would be impractical to play via any other recorded medium. The series of concerts organised around the album’s release saw Richter and ensemble performing to audiences bedded down on mattresses around the performance space, with the piece’s neat concept and night-long length actively encouraging them to drift in and out of consciousness.

In 2016, Bletchley noise rock group Action Beat attempted a far more extreme challenge: a sleep-defying 24 hour performance at Salford’s Islington Mill, through a combination of shift-work and ad-hoc contributions from audience members to keep the momentum going. Speaking of the monumental task, guitarist Harry Taylor recounts: “For my part, I remember having done some ketamine, and realising I was the only person on stage, and that I had to somehow hold it all together. By that point there was something just automatic about it… just sat down on stage, strumming my detuned guitar in a trance. It was awful. But [it] felt honest, strangely.”

Bandleader Don McLean adds: “There were certain rules that out of nine of us, three had to always be playing. You could only take an hour’s break and when you tapped in, you were in for at least an hour, which would normally turn into three or four hours. Some of the guys buckled and went to sleep but I think at least four of us managed to do the full 24 hours. We were drinking and toking all night too, fucking idiots.”

Don McLean at 4am by Emma Thompson

McLean’s language of tapping in, buckling, staying the course suggests a band setting a deliberately punishing challenge and finding out if they could measure up to it. The steady intoxication serves as a challenge within the challenge – loading the odds in favour of the musicians falling asleep or not being able to play and seeing if they could be beaten too. Was this sense of group suffering and perseverance the main factor driving the work forwards? Did the graft and the sweat of completing the journey have more meaning to the people involved than the actual music created?

“Perhaps it was trying to recapture who we were when we were doing those 20+ hour drives, the 10 week tours playing nearly every night,” Taylor replies. “We took real pride in being able to endure the kind of mental and physical torture of that. Which, now, I think is a little misplaced and… off. But, at the time of the 24 hour gig, we weren’t that band anymore, so maybe this was a way to get back there.”

Ecka Mordecai – a London-based artist working with film, text and sound – performed for a full 24 hours as part of Kev Nicholls’ Hàkarl24 project at Brighton’s Rose Hill Tavern in 2017. Nicholls’ instructions to the ensemble said: “All players committed to being in the same space for a full day, no looping, no cycling of members.”

What motivated Mordecai’s involvement? “It is valuable for artists to break from the usual rhythm of life and stretch the limits of their practice,” she explains. “Since my practice is performance-based, it was an opportunity to explore something.”

A photograph of the performance shows Ecka asleep, clutching her cello whilst the musicians carry on around her. On the physical experience of performing for such an extreme duration, Mordecai says she felt “mild excitement” at the beginning but felt “destroyed” at the end. “The following morning I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. Listening for that long is painful,” she explains.

Ecka Mordecai and Hàkarl24 by Agata Urbaniak

Live performance of music of extreme durations is bound by the limits of the human body. The performer can only play for so long before the needs of their body and mind prevent them from continuing, just as the audience can only listen for so long before exhaustion, boredom and hunger necessitate an end to the experience. The performance exists as a space for enduring, persevering – a zone for reflecting on musical and human time.

Two pieces are currently taking the idea of duration in music to extremes that push beyond human time. In a church in the German town of Halberstadt, a pipe organ has been playing continuously for 22 years. Its pedals are weighted with sandbags, the instrument having been chosen for its simple operation and ease of maintenance. The six austere, sustained pitches steadily droning in the transept will be joined by a seventh in 2024, with an eighth following two years later. The piece is ORGAN²/ASLSP (As Slow aS Possible) by American composer John Cage. It is set to end in the year 2640.

Professor Rainer Neugebauer, artistic director of the project at Halberstadt explained that what they were doing was <a href=”The John Cage Organ Project & the Climate Change”target=”out”> “simply air and time. Everything you feel, your thoughts and reactions, your criticism – that comes as a bonus.”

The piece is run entirely by volunteers and subsidised by a private foundation. “Do you have plans for September 4th 2640?”, their website wittily asks, and offers a chance to buy a ticket that is transferable to your descendants for the final night of the performance.

Neugebauer says they have “10,000 visitors a year” who are “fascinated by its use of time” and the fact that “its time frame will go way beyond their own lifetime.” He continues: “I know that I personally might just live long enough to hear out the 36 year long note played by the C bass pipe, but the end of the D flat note is out of my reach. You are made to reflect upon yourself; One is made to feel part of a huge continuity.”

With its liturgical setting, generation spanning chord changes and patient, humble group of volunteers led by the charming Professor Neuegebauer, the Halberstadt realisation of ORGAN²/ASLSP (As Slow aS Possible) deals with a sense of commitment, past and future thinking more often found in religion than music. An avowed Atheist, Neuegebauer views the work as a “sort of utopia foreshadowing a future society in which not everything is exploited and bound to a purpose or valued in terms of its financial worth.”

Rainer Neugebauer by John Cage Organ Foundation Halberstadt

Several miles west of the Thames Barrier in London, situated in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, another composition has been playing for 23 years. Chiming, droning and freely floating in extended periods of quiet, Longplayer is a self-extending composition by Jem Finer, due to finish in 2999.

Finer explains how the work is put together, saying it “exists as a sort of bronze-age synth.” He continues: “The source music is 234 bronze singing bowls and silence. An algorithm selects a starting point in six different chunks of source music, and this start point is always being moved. The window of playback is nudging its way through the material at different rates. Nothing will repeat for exactly a thousand years. It isn’t conceived of as a linear piece of music – it’s a closed circle. A 1,000 year long loop, really.”

With time spans unfolding through several generations’ worth of births, lives and deaths, Longplayer and ORGAN²/ASLSP function on a scale almost impossible to conceive of for the individual. The pieces will play whilst the societies around them and the people listening will navigate changes and challenges we can only guess at. The demands of the two works’ performances, the practical and philosophical questions they throw up and their sheer scale gives them a dual purpose alongside the music they are making – they become a framing device for conversations about the past, present and future. It is this framing function that makes works of extreme epoch-bridging duration particularly suitable for addressing the climate crisis.

What does Finer think will become of the piece when the Thames Barrier ceases to be viable? Furthermore, if the systems that follow it also fail, submerging the works’ original listening post and the location of its sound sources, what happens then?

“There’s a few ways of trying to make Longplayer go on, technologically, but I’m not really interested in that,” he explains, saying the piece “can be adapted easily to changing technology” and “exists as a graphic score that can be played acoustically.” These responsibilities, Finer says, are placed in the hands of the Longplayer Trust, tasked with overseeing the work’s continuation into the far future. “I’m interested in humans having to take responsibility for it continuing,” he explains. “I don’t want it to carry on playing if no one wants it to play.”

Neuegebauer says stopping climate change involves “systematic change” and argues that without “social and economic justice”, it won’t happen. He says in terms of ORGAN²/ASLSP and its relationship to climate change, “without action, this piece, this place will be underwater, or under sand maybe, we don’t know,” he says candidly. “A better future is possible and the piece provides the patience, endurance, empathy and discipline needed to reach that.”

Longplayer Installation photo by James Whitaker

The current performances of Longplayer and ORGAN²/ASLSP are dependent on their technology, favourable geography and human interaction. If they have any real chance of successfully playing for their full duration, they are reliant on the continuity of all of these elements. The ethics of artworks with 1,000 year carbon footprints, the future of the ground they sit on and the survivability of the species that created them are all to be considered when weighing up the works’ chances of surviving. A piece of music designed to push towards even greater extremes of duration – playing across several millennia for example – would have to be constructed in a way that negated these things. No electricity, moving parts or human maintenance required.

Ways of thinking about such a work would need to bring together many fields of expertise to consider the material and societal challenges in a way that we rarely think of at present. A blueprint for this type of thinking is provided by the fascinating report compiled by Sandia National Laboratories in 1993: Expert Judgement On Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Compiled by two teams of experts in the fields of history, future studies, economics, physics, climatology and other disciplines, the report sought to develop a system of markers that would last for 10,000 years – beyond the potential extinction of our present day languages and cultures – to warn future generations of the lethal radioactive waste buried beneath a facility in New Mexico. The concepts explored in the report centre around communicating layered messages of differing levels of complexity across a vast gulf of time and have attracted much interest in recent years thanks to their strikingly original solutions and millennial reach.

If we want to think about extreme durations – of materials, of message, of meaning – the Sandia report is a manual for doing so. The report’s concept art shows pictograms of suffering human faces, massive concrete structures redolent of the surreal psychic landscapes of JG Ballard or the ancient dead cities of H.P Lovecraft and huge earthworks symbolic of energy, pain or wounding to the body. Another proposed solution is the use of wind driven “Aeolian structures” producing “dissonant sets of harmonies using tuned air masses to create an atmosphere of unease”.

Such an Aeolian structure currently sits in the Pennine hills overlooking Burnley. The Singing Ringing Tree designed by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, which funnels the wind to produce a sighing, mysterious chorale through a mass of galvanised steel pipes. It is a continuous musical response to the landscape that surrounds it, protected from encroaching development and human destruction by its inhospitable location and superbly realised design. The piece won’t last forever – perhaps another 160 years from now based on the projected lifespan of its materials – but its self sufficient means of making sound offers a glimpse of how a musical performance of extreme duration might actually be realised.

Tonkin Liu’s Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, UK. Photo (C) Mike Tonkin

Jem Finer offers more information about how autonomous, low tech structures represent a way forward for exploring durations even more extreme even than Longplayer. He reveals that work on such an undertaking has already begun: Finer and artist Jimmy Cauty are in the process of designing and building a field of stone wind flutes intended to sound for the next 50,000 years. The period of time has been chosen to coincide with the next appearance of the comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), which prior to January 2023 last passed this way when Neanderthals were still walking the planet.

The stone flutes, like Longplayer or the Cage Organ Project at Halberstadt, are expressions of a will to communicate our hopes and culture forward in time whilst asking us to consider how things can be done differently now. This underlying message is one that needs to be included in our thinking if we are to urgently address the climate crisis facing our species. If any of these works make it to their projected end, we should consider who will still be here to listen to them and what the music will say to their time.

If our species doesn’t make it to Finer and Cauty’s ambitious 50,000 year mark, it is just possible that their proposed field of instruments might be one of the final physical remnants of our musical culture. Speaking of the Longplayer Trust, established in the hope of seeing that particular piece through to its conclusion, Finer talks about the idea of creating “an intergenerational community.” The stone flutes seem to consider the same notions as the 10,000 year messages in the Sandia Report. The languages, cultures and technologies needed to sustain such an intergenerational community may cease to exist altogether.

What happens then, with no one around to hear the last of the stone flutes falling silent as they crumble into dust? Human made music will still be out there somewhere, awaiting a listener. Every radio transmission ever broadcast from Earth will travel through space indefinitely until hitting a receiver. If you were tuning in 110 light years from our planet right now you’d be catching the most popular songs of 1908 somewhere on their journey into deep space. Beyond radio waves the last tangible remnant of our culture could be the small probe gliding silently through interstellar space – Voyager 1 – launched in 1977. Attached to the side is the Voyager Golden Record, a gold plated phonograph record of our culture’s sounds and music with an ambitious for the era global selection of sounds and songs.

Within the next ten years, the probe’s onboard battery will die and it will be out of tracking range of any of our current technologies, flying outwards from our solar system at 17 kilometres per second. Thankfully, the record won’t even need electricity to be played back – just an understanding that the disc needs to rotate, like planets around a star, and the application of the NASA-supplied stylus. The forms of the spiral and the circle – a representation of infinity present in our species’ earliest graphic art and visible in the distant galaxies of the solar system – will become the final physical repository of our sounds. A locked groove on the disc itself would have made the metaphor beautifully complete but sadly the one pressing has left the plant.

Maybe the new owners will consider a re-issue.

Donations can be made to the John Cage Organ Project at Halberstadt and also to the Longplayer Trust. Jem Finer and Jimmy Cauty’s ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Song’ is out now on Heavenly

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