Music and the Long Now

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.

So the redesign of the web which is much needed and which, perhaps as a futile exercise, I am working on, must address the requirement for permanence and document stability. This is one reason why I like XML and semantic tagging, because documents should be stored in a format which is possible for a machine to dynamically parse, but which a human can read. Any use of XML which violates the human readable part of the equation, as HTML really does, fails. Javascript and CSS get broken every time a new browser version is introduced. The web is impermanent.

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.

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  1. It would be wise to socially adopt a long term perspective. Such a perspective could radically improve the human condition, since disease, poverty, and the environment represent global long term challenges. However, the reverse is occurring. Global time and perception of time is compressing rather than expanding. The global economic system is inter-dependently entwined into an eternal “now”. This trickles down into all aspects of life, increasing stress and forcing response to the tyranny of the immediate. Strategic time windows compressed within ten years from a 10-20 year outlook to 2. Success is calculated in quarters of a year rather than long term. While time compression is here consigned to the business and economic realm, it becomes a metaphor for our social perspectives. We don’t save anymore. We want things now…on credit. We’ll figure out how to pay for it later. We have a microwave, disposable mindset and an insatiable search for instantly gratifying novelty. Our values and beliefs become as obsolete as last year’s computer. This years storage medium and entertainment format can’t talk to last year’s. Of particular concern is the overload in information. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but in all of human history, there was something like 1.5 trillion words written. In the last ten years, the internet has accumulated 5 trillion words. What will this information be like to sift through in another ten years, or 100 years? How will we sift through the 100,000 hits that come up on Google? How will we make sense and meaning of such a deluge? A long term perspective is particularly crucial to adopt relative to the environment. Our national dependency on oil was chastised 35 years ago, and in a century the US went from being the world’s leading oil producer and producing all our domestic oil needs to producing only 2% currently of our domestic needs. Our instant, immediate mindset balks at sacrifice, but unless sacrifice is made, change will not occur….and things will get worse. Atmospheric carbon is 400 times the level it was in 1970. What will it be like in another 40 years? What are the implications to our environment and security if sacrifices and changes aren’t made? Can we afford not to change? How will we answer future generations? It is indeed greatness to work towards the long now. It is also wise leadership which plans and lays aside for future generations. A story is told of the Great Hall at Cambridge. The great roof beams had been attacked by worms during WWII and the entire structure threatened collapse. Great effort was made to raise funds for repair, but no funds could be had in wartime. Then someone remembered the groundskeeper, quietly living in his cottage. He said that when the institution was constructed centuries ago, a special grove was planted to provide the massive trees needed to replace the roof beams when the time came. What are we laying up for future generations?

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