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A musical composition designed to play for 1,000 years is celebrating its twentieth birthday

Artist Jem Finer’s ‘Longplayer’ installation has been in a beautiful old lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf since December 1999

Written by
Katie McCabe

At the turn of the millennium, artist Jem Finer unveiled a musical composition designed to play in an old lighthouse for 1,000 years. A 12-hour conversation between 24 people – Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson among them – will mark its twentieth birthday at an online event called The Longplayer Assembly. For now, we catch up with the father of ‘Longplayer’ for a slightly shorter chat.

What is it like as an artist to have a piece of work that will outlive you and all of us? 

‘Lots of things we make will outlive us. What’s different about “Longplayer” is that it won’t be complete until many generations after I’ve passed on. I don’t think I really realised when it started what I was letting myself in for, in terms of how to look after it. It’s like having some kind of weird kid that one’s bound to for life.’ 

Jem Finer
Photograph: Marcia Farquhar

Your new project ‘Sonic Ray’ will project the sound of ‘Longplayer’ across the Thames as a beam of light. Why did you decide to do it?

For a long time, as long as it’s been there, I’ve been wondering how to work with light and “Longplayer”. About a year ago, I discovered it’s possible to encode sound in light, and transmit sound as light, and then at a destination, to decode it back into sound. I was very excited to learn that. I thought well, what could be better than to relight the lighthouse with a beam that actually carries Longplayer? That’s the simple idea. Fortunately, I found a way to do it.’

Have your thoughts on ‘Longplayer’ changed at all, now that lockdown has shifted the way we perceive time?

‘Really, it’s more interesting to ask other people. I’ve had a feeling over the last four years or so that there’s been an increasing interest in “Longplayer”. Four years ago was the Brexit referendum. From that point on, the world really seems to have taken a drastic turn... Maybe that has something to do with it.’ 

‘Longplayer’Photograph: James Whitaker

What do you think London is going to look like when ‘Longplayer’ finally comes to an end in 2999? 

‘I have no idea, to be honest. It could be nothing except rubble and sky and the river. Everyone could be living underground, or it could look quite similar to what it does today, but with different taller buildings, made of different materials. Who knows? That’s beyond the realms of my speculative abilities, I’m afraid.’  

The Longplayer Assembly takes place on Sat Sep 26. Free. Stream online here

Looking for something a little more succinct? The Barbican live concerts are making a comeback.

For more experiments in digital composition, check out The Design Museum’s latest exhibition

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