The incommensurable magnitude of Wikipedia’s recent changes

A (first) note on very, very, very long pieces of music

I love infinity.

One of the truly revolutionary contributions of the web’s digital machinery to the arts is that it has made the infinite potentially accessible. There are no longer any practical objections to conceiving of a piece of music that, in theory, will continue to develop and sound forever. Infinite compositions are algorithmic: their description (the score) is of finite length. They are tiny machines which continue to play until we no longer are able to provide the power needed to keep them going. The objection that a single human being will only be able to hear an insignificant, an almost-nothing, part, of an infinite composition, and that such a thing therefore can not be called ‘music’, is interesting, but philosophical.

In practice,‘accessible infinity’ will remain highly limited. Along with the rest of you, I would not put my stakes on a bet that there is even one thing in this universe that takes forever and ever; something that maybe once had a beginning, but that is without an end. In view of the little time that we are given: ‘very, very, very long’ for us mortals counts as a good enough approximation.

As there is little reason to believe that the growth and modification of our favorite online encyclopedia will soon come to a grinding halt, the sonification-in-real-time of Wikipedia’s recent changes is a good example of a potentially infinite piece of music. Sonifying the 24/7 world wide editing processes of Wikipedia is also an interesting idea: one might be able to fine tune it to convey useful information, like signaling edit wars over debated and controversial topics. So far, however, it makes for a lousy piece of music. The endless stream of MIDI bells and strings sounds as stale as the soundtracks in the corridors and hallways of a New Age & Wellness center. I’d imagine the industrious sculpting, molding, writing, re-writing and re-re-writing of our world’s collective knowledge to emanate a music quite a bit more uplifting and energetic.

Infinitely less infinite, but still very, very, very long is the 24 hour music format, which continues to gain in popularity. Over the past couple of days I managed to hear almost all of Incommensurable Magnitudes (Cумеречное Cостояние Cознания), a newly released 24 hour album by Andrew Liles, who, among other things, is known as a sometime member of Nurse With Wound. The mention (on Twitter and elsewhere) of Incommensurable Magnitudes had me fantasize about a lot of different things. They all sounded fast ‘n’ bulbous. But already after less than a mere couple of hours I realized that but little of Liles’s Incommensurable Magnitudes would be fast. And that even littler would turn out to be bulbous. Like almost all of the very, very, very long pieces of music that I know, also these 24 hours consist in lóóóóng slow stretches of ambient droning, with lots of looping, with little variation and with a lot of repetitions. Its sole real ‘difference’, like in Tangerine Dream’s Alpha Centauri from 1971 (which back then seemed to go on forever, though — hè, hè — it lasts but a little over 20 minutes), is the sudden appearance, like a deus-ex-machina, of a reciting voice about halfway the 22nd track (20:00).

But why? Is there one good reason why a very, very, very long piece of music should be of the slow and ambient droning kind? (Except for the obvious, psychological, reason; which I do not consider a valid one. I will come back to this in a next note on very, very, very long pieces of music.)

Originally it was little more than childish mischief that earlier today made Wikipedia’s Recent Changes blast from my speakers at the same time as Liles’s Incommensurable Magnitudes (around its 11th hour). But in these mashed streams, the self-similarity of Wikipedia’s random bells and strings functions as a unifier for Liles’s collection of 26 long ambient drones. It provides all parts of this 24 hours album not only with a single sonic horizon but also with a firm, relaxed but steady, pace. This makes of Wikipedia’s Incommensurable Magnitudes a very coherent mash. Bigger than the sum of its parts.

Go on now!
Give it a try!
If not for the full 24, then at least for a couple of hours…