London’s Lost Village: The Longplayer’s Faraday Effect

London’s Lost Village: The Longplayer’s Faraday Effect
Trinity Buoy Wharf is home to a musical composition 1000 years in length, heard in the Lantern Room of a converted Lighthouse, and situated next to London’s smallest museum on the Faraday Effect


No Finer or Longer Player

The Pogues were an Anglo-Irish Celtic punk band, and its member Jem Finer that we have to thank for the experimental project known as Longplayer – a piece of music designed to play continuously for 1,000 years without repeating itself.  It began life as an original commission from the arts organisation Artangel, but is currently maintained by the Longplayer Trust.

Finer had a joint degree in computing and sociology from Keele University, and worked in a variety of fields including photography, film, music and installation art. Primarily a banjoist with The Pogues, he occasionally played other instruments including mandola, saxophone, hurdy-gurdy, the guitar, and was the most prolific composer for the band.

Having been an “Artist in Residence” at the Astrophysics Sub-department of the University of Oxford between 2003 and 2005, he created a number of works including two sculptural observatories: Landscope and The Centre of the Universe. The Longplayer as currently implemented exists in both computer-generated and live versions, and represents a convergence of many of his concerns, particularly those relating to systems, long-durational processes and extremes of scale in both time and space.

Longplayer’s first performance began at midnight on the 1 January 2000, and if all goes as planned, it will continue without repetition or interruption until 31 December 2999. It was composed for ‘a single instrument’ consisting of 234 Tibetan singing bowls and gongs of different sizes, which are able to create a range of sounds by either striking or rolling pieces of wood around the rims. The bells are sounded according to a precisely timed score, itself based on 6 algorithms. The resulting music is made up of six continuous, interlocking musical patterns, whose harmonic and rhythmic interactions change gradually over hours, days, decades and centuries.

Longplayer’s score is much like a system of planets which are aligned only once every 1000 years – its movements are calculable, but take place over expanses of time so vast as to be unknowable to any one person or generation. At the same time however, if you can hear it now, you are sharing an experience with listeners who will not draw their first breath for more than 950 years.

Since it began, Longplayer has been performed simultaneously by a number of computers around the world – from its primary location in a London lighthouse, to listening posts in the Brisbane Powerhouse, the Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt, and San Francisco’s Long Now Museum. It can also be live-streamed on the web.

Although the music is effectively performed by a computer, Longplayer is not bound to that or any other technology. It is designed to be adaptable both to ancient technologies, such as human performance or clockwork mechanisation, and to future technologies as yet unknown to us; Beginning with the first Longplayer live performance in 2009, where 1,000 minutes of synchronised sections of its score were performed by ensembles of live musicians, using a custom-built 66-foot-wide instrument.

Longplayer was the conclusion of several years’ study into musical systems by Finer and is written as a self-generating programme. According to Finer, the idea first came to him on the back of a tour bus for his folk band. Tibetan bowls were chosen partly because of their relative robustness and ability to stay in tune without frequent retuning, and partly because they have a long tradition stretching back over a thousand years, meaning they would not sound fixed to a particular musical fashion or become dated. The final piece is described as reflecting on the concepts of time and impermanence from a cosmological and philosophical perspective, and questions traditional ideas about composition, sound and duration.

Longplayer quite literally stands for long-term thinking. How do we plan for continuity amidst uncertainty? Who should be entrusted with such a task? And in what ways should it be deployed? The Longplayer Trust is a group of individuals charged with researching and implementing more sustainable platforms for its future, and making sure that these responsibilities are passed onto its continuum of caretakers, whomsoever they might be. In this regard, the project has a life of its own, and is programmed to seek out new strategies for its adaptability and survival.

More than a piece of music, Longplayer is a social organism, depending on a community of listeners connected across the centuries. With a potent mixture of science and imagination, we can today tune in for intimations of the unforeseeable, just as future generations will someday seek out echoes of us.


The Faraday Effect

Right outside the Longplayer installation is a shed, home to London’s smallest museum: The Faraday Effect. Created by artists Ana Ospina, Cara Flowers and Fourth Wall Creations, The Faraday Effects is a ‘recreation’ of Faraday’s workshop, decorated with antiques, found objects, and fishing ephemera, as well as sound recordings, explanatory notes (mostly about how he was ‘hopping mad’) and personal documents.

Michael Faraday was a British scientist that contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry despite having little formal education. He’s become a household name for many things, including the Faraday Effect which was the first experimental evidence to shed light on the ways in which light and electromagnetism are related, as well as for inventing an early form of the Bunsen burner.

A modern Centre for Arts and Culture known as ‘London’s lost village’, Trinity Buoy Wharf has a historical connection to the Victorian electromagnetist, because Faraday worked as Scientific Advisor to Trinity House for nearly 30 years (after 1836). He conducted many tests in electric lighting for lighthouses, using the Experimental Lighthouse positioned at the Wharf in the 1850s (now home to Longplayer).

One of the problems Faraday solved at the site, was the issue of gas powered lanterns becoming blackened by soot, which reduced the amount of light emitted. Faraday developed a chimney which sent the products of combustion up the inner glass cylinder, and then down between the inner and outer glass cylinders, and away into an outside flue. This ingenious chimney was so successful it was installed in all lighthouses, as well as other buildings such as the Athenaeum and Buckingham Palace.


Container City’s Cargotecture

Putting the “mod” in “modular” since 2000, Trinity Buoy Wharf’s Container City is a cargotecture complex that has been installed and expanded over the course of the last four years. Originally destined for the incinerator, these retired shipping containers have now been repurposed as affordable, ecological homes and workspaces.

The community is comprised of two structures: Container City I and Container City II, with both “cities” linked by interconnecting bridges. Though development took years, installation of the buildings took just four and eight days, respectively. The compartments are fitted out almost entirely with recycled materials, and additional floors were added over time.

The Container City of today is a functional marvel of glass walkways, porthole windows, communal ponds, and sunny balconies. Its units house everything from living quarters to offices and artists’ studios at a relatively low cost. Two cafés and a parkour academy have also moved into ground floor containers.

The concentration of these Arts and Culture facilities is part of the legacy handed to Urban Space Management. A mishmash of odds and ends, perhaps the first or last thing you’d expect to find in such a situation is the Fatboy’s Diner – a genuine 1940s American Diner from New Jersey, which was bought over from the States and had a few short stays in different areas of London before finding its present home. The Diner itself is a bit of a celebrity, featuring in the film Sliding Doors, music videos and magazines.

The site has yet to be fully developed, but if you want a great view of the Thames and the O2, while drinking a milkshake at an original American Diner opposite an eccentric lighthouse, to the ancient sound of modern algorithms, this is the only place for you.


Quantum Clouds

On the other side of the river from this warped Wharf, is a view of Sculptor Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloudusing chaos theory and fractal growth to design his creation, the cloud stands on a cast iron platform along the Thames, right next to the O2 Arena. Completed in 1999, it was built from a collection of steel tetrahedral units that together form a “cloud” with a human figure at its heart. Apparently the idea behind the creation is to convey how the presence of a person can be even greater than their actual appearance.

The towering sculpture, which at 98 feet is Gormley’s tallest, delicately portrays a human figure entangled in a chaotic cloud that appears to vibrate with energy. To help with the design and structure, Gormley turned to the Elliott Wood Partnership: a London-based structural and civil engineering practice, as well as the LUSAS consultancy: specialists in engineering analysis and design software. Together, they came up with the technical wizardry required for the creation of a Quantum Cloud.

On the software side of things, LUSAS first made laser scans of Gormley’s body. This provided the raw data to define the 3D boundary of the body that would appear at the centre of the creation. They also had to calculate the size of the body, as it would require a large enough footprint to help the entire sculpture resist the force of London’s prevailing winds.

The software engineers then used chaos theory and fractal growth techniques to create the outer tendrils that would represent the cloud structure. These were “grown” from the core, extending out in a series of up to five organic expansions.

Once LUSAS had finished with its complex design process, someone had to build the thing. This is where the Elliott Wood Partnership came in. It was up to them to find a structural solution that would actually support the design of the Quantum Cloud. To achieve the correct look while also maintaining stability, they designed a structure of 325 interconnected, distorted tetrahedral units.

In total, the sculpture was created using 3,600 square hollow sections of galvanised steel. These were welded together in what appears to be random form, but which actually follows a computer-generated design, artfully producing an ellipsoidal cloud. The density of the steel sections was increased in the core, in order to give form to the human figure found at its heart.