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21 years ago, on the stroke of the midnight that shifted us into a new millennium, a musical composition started playing in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf on the north bank of the Thames. It’s still going, and because of the way its score is constructed, applying simple, precise rules to the performance of sections of six short pieces of music, it won’t repeat for 1,000 years (well, 979 years now, I suppose). The piece is Longplayer, a meditative instrumental work using singing bowls which was commissioned at the turn of the millennium by the public art wizards Artangel (it can also be heard at several other listening posts around the world, and online).
Now, the artist behind it, Jem Finer (better known globally as the banjo player in The Pogues, though he thinks of himself more as an artist than a musician, which probably resonates slightly differently depending on your feelings about the musicality of the Pogues) is trying to explain to me the workings of his new 20th anniversary commission - delayed, inevitably, from last year - Sonic Ray, which will send the sound of Longplayer across the river on a beam of light. He is, it must be said, being very patient indeed.
“So, it’s encoded in the beam of light.” He takes in my pained expression. “Sound fluctuates, yes?” OK. “Well you can very simply run that through a small circuit, which tracks those changes, right? And the light is powered by those fluctuations; the light fluctuates. It mirrors those changes.”
Those pulses (I think I get it) will be transmitted via a laser beam (still so cool) to another, light sensitive circuit on the south bank of the Thames, which will translate it back into sound and put it through an amplifier. That amplifier is housed in Richard Wilson’s sculpture Slice of Reality, commissioned in the same year, which is literally a full vertical slice cut out of the centre of the sand dredger Arco Trent. I’m sitting on the top floor of this surreal structure – still very much a grubby boat where you have to step over and around all sorts of mysterious crap to get anywhere, though it is being painted and cleaned up in anticipation of visitors – to talk to Finer about it.
The laser beam, in case you’re wondering, is green – apparently the warm yellow he was envisioning is much more expensive. Who knew?
The distance from north shore to Slice is less than a kilometer, but of course, the speed of light being what it is, the relay is basically instantaneous, so you and someone in the lighthouse hear Longplayer at the same moment. Well, “as good as,” says Finer. “Obviously, nothing is ever instant. You know, as I’m speaking to you, I’m already in your past, and vice versa. But, you know, for the sake of perception…”
The walls of the room below us have been covered over the past couple of weeks with drawings – reproducing “a sort of mind map of Longplayer that’s been compiled over the years, from the moment I first thought of it to right now,” he explains. He’s always been fascinated by technology – he studied computer sciences at Keele after considering accountancy for about three minutes – but looking back to those days in the mid-Nineties when he first conceived of the idea has been mind-boggling, he says.
“The lengths I was having to go to, to do things you can now do with your phone. And a lot of that has to do with clocks.” Eh? Apparently one of the biggest issues at the time was how to broadcast Longplayer, “how different places could listen to it and it always be totally in sync.” For a long time the idea was that there would be a radio signal, “so it wouldn’t necessarily have a home anywhere, but it would be everywhere. I still love that idea.” Now of course, there’s an app for it – “1,000 years of music in your pocket!” says the blurb.
The addition of light to the project is a long-held wish for Finer. “I’d always wanted to find some way of using light with Longplayer, it being in a light house, but I could never sort of figure it out. In the early 2000s, we spent some time in there trying to work out whether we could make some kind of camera obscura that somehow mirrored the score. But it was really an amazing discovery to find out that you could you could transmit sound within light.”
The work really isn’t about sound, he says, but about time - as it’s experienced by us, and as it is understood from the point of view of philosophy, physics and cosmology. He’s fascinated by the idea of a work that continues when he and anyone he has ever known is dust. And though, for technological reasons Longplayer has to be tied to the clock (otherwise the simultaneity of it would go haywire), he’s more interested in what he calls “the time before clocks - if you think of being a kid, there’s a bit of your life when you don’t know what the hell a clock is. It’s just this this thing on the wall it doesn’t really mean anything. And I like that much freer sense of time, you know, when time is sort of more natural ebb and flow.”
Light, I suggest, adds an imaginative dimension as well: there’s something about the concept of the speed of light that, when you hear about it for the first time, usually, again, as a kid, makes you go – woah.
Finer agrees. “That’s one of the things that always fascinated me from when I was a kid. You know, being with my dad looking at stars through his telescope and him saying, those [events] are millions of years old. I didn’t really know what millions of years meant, but there was this idea that you’re looking at something and what you’re seeing, actually happened way before you were born. It is kind of boggling.”
The line of Sonic Ray, then, becomes “this measure of time and distance as well”, he says. He likes this “beautiful minimalism”, especially at this point on the river – just a few yards from where we’re sitting is the discreet steel stripe of the Greenwich Meridian, tastefully marked on the ground on the Thames Path so that passers-by can find themselves at the very moment where time starts.
Well, sort of. “Right here is a real zone of imaginary lines,” Finer says, indicating the steel stripe. “There’s this line chopping up the world into time zones, which is completely fabricated, and has all kinds of connotations, not all of them good. It happened when Britain got their hands on zero degrees in the 19th century, because to draw a line around the earth, apparently you can’t just do it, you have to mathematically construct a sphere, because the world isn’t exactly spherical. So that [line] worked fine, for choosing that point. But it’s completely arbitrary.”
So arbitrary, in fact, that, he tells me, “it’s not even there anymore. When GPS started, they had to construct a different sphere. And zero degrees didn’t occur quite in that place. So it’s sort of just over there slightly.”
He waves his hand vaguely at a point somewhere out of the other window, which seems appropriate. Just a random, man-made line, invisible, conceptual, existent and non-existent, marking and not-marking time, while time itself ebbs and flows around it, beautiful and inexorable. It’s an oddly comforting thought.
Sonic Ray will be visible from dusk until late, from September 30 to November 21, Wednesday to Sunday