I read a book a while back that my mind often goes back to, called The Clock of the Long Now. They are trying to build a 10,000 year clock, and the basic idea is to force us to think in terms of the impact of our work and our mistakes in a longer term sense.
We live in a world where the disposability of things is accelerating. Great mountains of work and data from only 20 years ago are unreadable by today’s machines, or are readable only with great effort. I’ve had years of my best work on databases unceremoniously thrown out when new technologies came along. Our work and creative output seems to become obsolete in increasingly small frames of time. We look at culture from “the 70’s” or “the 80’s” as being hopelessly different and perhaps backwater to our present society. Do things really change that much in 30 years? The American revolution was only about 230 years ago, which in the scope of history is a tiny blip. Yet we look on those times as hopelessly alien and long ago to us, like a completely different epoch. We are surprised when their ideas and work retain their relevance to our society.
The idea that we could do some kind of work which has lasting impact on human history and society seems impossible anymore. Will anything I do today have any relevance at all even 20 years from now? We are at a moment when our information based society needs to address the extreme transience which it fosters.
But even if this document stability requirement were met, it would mean that our society, our “information society”, depends on incredibly complex machines and a vast interdependent web of power and information lines, to exist. We communicate via immensely complex protocols and standards. We live in a house of paper perched on gossamer held together with dabs of glue and tape. We are at home with impermanence. I’m not sure this is bad; I once wrote a series of poems in the sand on the beach which were completely washed away by the tide, and life is surely like that. Perhaps we are wise to embrace this impermanence.
What does all of this have to do with music? Music is a great art form to look at when thinking about the relationship between the extreme present and the long term or even eternal. Beethoven said that music should be at once surprising and inevitable. It is fascinating to me that Brian Eno is on the board of the Long Now foundation, his work is to me pretty much the icon of ethereal impermanent almost ghostly one-time performances. In fact, I think Brian Eno coined the phrase “Long Now”. How could MUSIC of all things relate to the long now?
I was thinking that a lot of pop music is very focused on the fashionable and present tense moment. This is not bad or evil, Bach carefully studied the Italian Baroque music of his time and even wrote in the style. Music is a cultural activity, and culture is wed to the present time; in my opinion when John Cage tried to destroy this connection, he ceased making music. (I still find Cage’s work interesting, I’m not criticizing his experiment.) The music of Bach survives because there is a depth and a level of architecture and value to his work that transcends the Baroque or the German Lutheran society of his time. Look at the Art of Fugue; Bach wrote this specifically to take couterpoint as far as it could go, to teach future generations what music could be. There is an eternal sense to this music, it is no longer baroque – he wrote it thinking toward the long now. If human society survives 10,000 years, they will find a way to preserve the music of Bach just as we have.
If we are going to build and work toward the long now, we need to determine that we are going to work according to a high and deep aesthetic; the lesson we learn from Bach is that it is not necessarily permanence which speaks to the long now; it is greatness. We build to the long now when we do work that would be tragic to lose.