Ever wondered what music will sound like in generations to come? Some of it – by Brian Eno, John Cage, La Monte Young and others – is already heading out into time and space, with more waiting to be revealed in both the near and distant future

In August 1977, the Voyager 2 spacecraft left Florida’s Cape Canaveral, followed 16 days later by Voyager 2. Having completed stunning flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the probes are currently deep in interstellar space and heading toward the outer edges of the solar system – a journey that will take them anywhere between 14,000 and 28,000 years.

Assuming mankind manages to survive that long, what will music sound like by then? We have been making sounds from the very start of human existence, but recorded sound has been around for a fraction of that time – a little over a century and a half, in fact. Every 12 months, magazines and websites rush to predict which artists and styles of music will thrive the following year – a single year. Yet NASA figured they might be able to own the music of the future.

On board both Voyager probes are Golden Records, compiled under the direction of Carl Sagan. The discs are effectively time capsules, intended to be “opened” by curious extraterrestrial life forms.

Along with greetings in various languages and field recordings of common Earth sounds, Sagan added several works by Mozart, Bach, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, as well as traditional music from Indonesia, Peru, China and other countries. Should alien beings manage to decipher the instructions explaining how to play them, who knows just what they will make of this assemblage of sonic artefacts.

Considering all the playing styles, trends, genres, sub-genres, advances in technology and socio-political influences that have shaped music in the comparatively brief period since the Voyager probes left Florida’s skies in 1977, or since pop music emerged two decades before, it’s understandable that our scanning of the musical horizon is so limited.

Just as space is theoretically infinite, there are scores of pieces of music or sound that are designed never to actually finish.

Theatre Of Eternal Music founder La Monte Young and his wife Marian Zazeela developed the concept of ‘Dream House’ at their home on Church Street in Lower Manhattan in 1966. The idea behind their “continuous electronic sound environment” was to create music that would exist in perpetuity, using sine wave drones, long tones and Zazeela’s magenta light installation to bathe the listener in a meditative, immersive sound experience that changes as you walk around the room.

Elsewhere in New York, in the messy hubbub at the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the ‘Times Square’ installation, created in 1977 by percussionist and artist Max Neuhaus, is virtually inaudible for most of the day. Located in a steam vent under a subway grill, it was created using homemade electronic sound generators attached to an improvised power supply from a street lamp.

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

The best time to experience ‘Times Square’ is before dawn, when the area is home to only a few jet-lagged, slightly confused tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity entering a TV studio for an early morning interview. It’s only at this point that the piece reveals itself as a serene, heavenly, undulating drone – one that is rapidly replaced by blaring taxi horns and street performers as another day noisily unfolds.

A trip to your phone’s app store is equally rewarding for locating the music of the future. There are plenty of apps available today that deliver generatively unfolding works without end. Ambient godfather Brian Eno’s ‘Reflection’ is among the most notable. It was released in 2017 to coincide with the comparatively short-form, hour-long album of the same name.

Eno has been researching and making conceptually generative music for decades, and his development of pioneering software with Peter Chilvers to achieve that goal culminated in ‘Reflection’.

“My original intention with ambient music was to make endless music, that would be there as long as you wanted it to be,” wrote Eno in 2018. “I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time – ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.”

On Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands, just across the River Thames from the O2 Arena, stands a small lighthouse. It was constructed in 1864, to test innovative maritime lighting, so it’s no stranger to experimentation. Today, the lighthouse is one of three listening posts around the world for ‘Longplayer’, a piece of music composed by Jem Finer (former banjo player with The Pogues) that will last 1,000 years before promptly starting over again. The work – the sound of Tibetan singing bowls recorded onto an iPad – started playing on 31 December 1999.

“‘Longplayer’ began in the mid-1990s, very much a thought experiment,” explains Finer. “I was trying to imagine how one could make something of very long duration, far exceeding many human lifetimes. That interest went back to my childhood, but the catalyst for what became ‘Longplayer’ was the impending millennium and thinking about that 1,000-year time span.”

At the time, Finer was experimenting with sound on an early Apple laptop.

“I was playing loops of different lengths against each other,” he recalls. “So if you play a three-second loop and a five-second loop, it’s going to take 15 seconds to get back to where it started. And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, hang on, if I just keep layering up loops, one on top of another, I could get to 1,000 years before they resolve themselves’.

“That was a eureka moment. That’s how I came to make a piece of music that’s 1,000 years long, even though the way I eventually composed it isn’t like that at all. That was the spark.”

To create ‘Longplayer’, Finer wrote a score for Tibetan singing bowls lasting precisely 20 minutes and 20 seconds.

“I find singing bowls really fascinating,” he says. “In effect, they’re like tone generators or complex sine wave oscillators because of their harmonic overtones. When you play several of them together, you don’t necessarily hear the distinct different bells – you hear a sound synthesised from the interaction of the respective sine waves. It’s a form of additive synthesis. What they give sonically is an unpredictability.”

In its final form, ‘Longplayer’ consists of six short pieces of music – one is from the original score and the other five are transpositions of the score at different pitches. The six pieces are played concurrently for two minutes, with an algorithm choosing which sections to play in a way that ensures nothing repeats itself until 1,000 years have elapsed.

The composition was originally installed in the short-lived and egregiously costly Millennium Dome. Finer calls that location an unwelcome Faustian pact with the Millennium Commission, but it was the only viable source of funding at the time. He persuaded the management board of Trinity Buoy Wharf to install a separate listening post in the lighthouse opposite the Dome, and after a year, they agreed to host it there indefinitely. You can also hear ‘Longplayer’ at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in London, at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, and via an internet stream and an app.

“The composition isn’t rooted to any technology,” says Finer. “It can be performed by human beings or by devices we haven’t imagined yet. At its root, it’s an abstract score which can be realised by many different means. It can survive different scenarios and find new ways of being performed.”

Meanwhile, over in Halberstadt, central Germany, in a disused church that was previously a brewery and a home for pigs, a piece of music is being performed on a very traditional instrument in a very traditional setting. This performance will last until 2640.

‘Organ2/ASLSP’ – the acronym stands for As SLow aS Possible – was originally composed by John Cage in 1987 for the German organist and elder statesman of the avant-garde, Gerd Zacher. The overriding instruction to the performer was unambiguously there in the title – that it should be played “As slow as possible”.

“Neither tempo nor dynamics have been notated,” wrote Cage in his performance note. “Time proportions are given (just as maps give proportional distances).”

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

The Halberstadt version, devised by town’s John Cage Organ Foundation, arose from a discussion at the second conference of new organ music in Trossingen in 1998, coordinated by organist Christoph Bossert. Bossert would later be involved in recording a version of ‘Organ2/ASLSP’ lasting a compact 78 minutes – the maximum length possible on a CD.

The discussion focused on the unique ability of the organ to sustain a note for infinity so long as the bellows are providing air.

“One of the participants of the symposium was Heinz-Klaus Metzger,” explains the Foundation’s artistic director, Dr Rainer Neugebauer. “Metzger was a very important theorist of music and a friend of John Cage, and he asked the question, ‘What does “as slow as possible” mean for the organ, when time is no limitation for it?’.

“They began brainstorming. A theologian said the person must play until he dies, so the piece should last the lifespan of a man. Someone else suggested the lifespan of an organ, because if the organ breaks down, the music is over.”

Eventually, the group formulated the idea of performing ‘Organ2/ASLSP’ in the disused St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt on a specially constructed organ. Its duration was determined as 639 years and this was by no means random. At the cathedral in Halberstadt in 1361, the organ builder Nicolaus Faber constructed one of the first large organs in the world.

“It was the oldest-known organ with the keyboard that we know today, consisting of the seven white and five black keys,” explains Dr Neugebauer. “It was also the first example of dividing the octave into 12 half-tones, which became one of the most important decisions in the history of music.”

The beginning of the new millennium was chosen for the commencement of the piece and provided a “mirror axis” in time – it was 639 years after Faber unveiled the instrument which gave us the modern 12-tone structure, and the performance of ‘Organ2/ASLSP’ would run from 2001, for 639 years.

Each of the eight individual pieces in Cage’s score (plus one additional repeated piece, chosen by the performer) was given a length of 71 years. On 5 September 2001 – what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday – the piece began with a “rest” dictated in the score. The only sound that could be heard in the church was that of the bellows. That rest lasted 17 months, after which sandbags were placed on the organ’s pedals to play the first sustained chord. The chord lasted 518 days.

Between 29 August and 4 September 2001, a project called Teen Age Message sent transmissions from the Yevpatoria planetary radar in Ukraine towards six solar-type stars. Chosen by a group of teenagers from four Russian cities, the content of each transmission included a signal designed to attract the attention of any listening extraterrestrial, some binary data and a theremin concert. Like most of the songs on the Voyager Golden Records, the theremin performances were of resolutely old pieces, including traditional Russian folk songs and compositions by Rachmaninoff, Gershwin and Vivaldi.

TAM was humanity’s fourth Active SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) broadcast and the first musical interstellar radio message. The transmissions are scheduled to reach their destination constellations between 2047 and 2070. Whether listening aliens send their own analogue synthesiser song back to us will be a concern for generations to come.

Since then, NASA’s interstellar radio message (IRM) of 2008, consisting of The Beatles’ song ‘Across The Universe’, has been sent off in the direction of Polaris – a star over 400 light years away. What recipients make of that will also remain a mystery to you and me.

In the slightly nearer future, although still beyond our lifetimes, Pharrell Williams has a single coming out in 2117. Maybe. The song, which deals with the complicated symbiosis between nature and the passage of time, is called ‘100 Years’. Recorded in 2017, it has been played once to an audience of 100 people in Shanghai and will survive only if climate change is addressed.

The impetus for the planned release came from the drinks conglomerate Rémy Martin, with the idea reflecting the 100-year gestation of its premier cognac, Louis XIII. The song was recorded onto a disc made from the chalky clay of the Cognac region of France (an area itself under threat from rising sea levels), where it’s now stored in a specially constructed safe that will protect it from everything except water. Time – and tides – will determine if the rest of the world gets to hear it.

Projects that extend far out into the hereafter are fraught with uncertainty. ‘Times Square’ ran from 1977 to 1992, largely uninterrupted, but ongoing electricity supply issues forced it to shut down. It restarted in 2002, but was temporarily hushed again in 2020 because of the pandemic. ‘Dream House’ was threatened with closure in 2020 because of rent arrears that accumulated when no one could visit. And in 2017, a bomb-shaped time capsule, buried in 1984 by the clientele of the fabled Manhattan Danceteria nightclub and filled with Walkmans, Rubik’s Cubes and other 80s ephemera, almost fell victim to a controlled explosion when a construction worker dug it up a mere 9,967 years earlier than planned.

The twin Voyager probes might enter an asteroid field and be completely destroyed. Times Square might be redeveloped and ‘Times Square’ seen as irritating and irrelevant. Someone might forget to play the next chord on ‘Organ2/ASLSP’. Apple’s iOS might be updated so extensively that ‘Reflection’ ceases to be compatible and no one will know how to update Eno’s app. An alien might reply to a “Teen Age Message” and no one will notice. And perhaps BBC Radio 1 has got it wrong with its prediction that FLO will be the sound of 2023.

“Ours is a project of hope, and we know that hope can be disappointed,” concedes Dr Neugebauer of ‘Organ2/ASLSP’. “We must hope that we have a future… that we can reverse climate change. Maybe in 200 years, people will have no more energy for our performance. Maybe there will be a huge flood. Maybe no one will be alive. We don’t know if our project might end in 2640. So for me, something like this always needs to be a project of hope.”

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