Case study: interpreting sound—Longplayer

The performance of Longplayer at the Roundhouse in 2009 was an invitation to step out of regular time. The piece represents a break from music most of us are familiar with in terms of pace, rhythm and lack of discernible repetition.

The sounds are rich and varied with a purity of tone created by Tibetan singing bowls that have likely been made of materials built to last. A team of musicians travels from bowl to bowl, striking them at intervals that might be scripted.
The music produced is reminiscent of long, interplanetary voyages in sci-fi films. It is contemplative and in no great hurry: the notes reverberate, have a slow decay, combine and overlap. There is no sense of the “progress” that we usually expect in a piece of music—we’re not building toward the resolution of a melody or theme.

We play no part in the performance but observe it from above. And in this position we can see that the bowls are arranged in a series of concentric circles that do remind us of the planets in their orbits. Or perhaps we are looking at the inner workings of a vast lock, with the bowls spaced at irregular intervals in their courses. Designed to run without repetition for a millennium, Longplayer’s orbits are independent of one another and, like any circle, have neither beginning nor end.

The music lulls the listener for a time but leaves us with more questions than answers. Where does the movement come from? Are musicians or listeners necessary? And how long can we listen without a sense of direction, achievement or satisfaction?