The longest individual piece of music I’ve heard is a record called Somnium, split into three parts, by ambient composer Rober Rich. The album is seven hours long, and is meant to complement and mirror your sleep cycle each night. Hardcore punk bands often have songs under a minute in length. In any case, Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, has written a piece of music (called Subterranea) that spans 18 days. Four hundred and thirty two hours… or 25,920 minutes. As per second-hand accounts of this opus, no two minutes are the same, and it’s been pieced together using hours (and hours, and hours…) of “atmospheric, experimental sounds and field recordings”.
Subterranea is an accompaniment to The Panic Office, an exhibition that was recently held in Sydney, Australia, over a period of 18 days, featuring artwork created by British visual artist Stanley Donwood for Radiohead, over a 21-year-long collaboration. Donwood’s work has often reflected the cyclically gloomy and hopeful ruminations of the band, and The Panic Office displayed original, rare, unreleased versions of works Donwood made, serving as a sort of retrospective of the artist’s long and fruitful association with the band. One particularly eye-catching stylistic tic Donwood has employed and nurtured time and again is his use of text art over strong colour to depict a gritty, hard-hitting portrayal of urban existence and modern reality, as bleak as it can be.
Yorke, who has also worked with Donwood under his visual artist pseudonym Dr Tchock, fashioned this bizarre piece of music — which was played through the course of the exhibition using a three-layered speaker system and subs to assist and enhance the visual experience — exclusively for it, with no current plans of releasing it to the general public at large. (And how do you? How the hell do you compress that audio file into an MP3 that can be downloaded? Or worse, a WAVE file? Or worse, in a lossless .FLAC format?)
All signs point toward the ambient direction that certain pieces off Yorke’s last release, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, took. But really, from the outside, doesn’t the intention of the piece seem to be clearly not geared toward aesthetics and aural quality? Not the emotions the sounds evoke but how you end up thinking about art itself. Isn’t it as much a philosophical exercise, an intellectual question that’s being posed here? Realistically, how do you listen to one piece of music stretched over that long? You can’t. It seems to me, as the interpreter of the work and not the creator, that the idealism, the thought-experiment nature of the piece, is far more intriguing.
I keep coming back to it; John Cage’s radical (or fraudulent) piece 4’33” — four and a half minutes of silence — was essentially an experiment to suggest the really quite plausible notion that music can be all around us, and doesn’t necessarily need to exist in a bubble or be created within limiting constraints of classical “art”. Could Yorke’s piece, from an academic perspective that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) ever hold as much value as the aesthetics of it, be a further exploration of the idea of sound itself? How it echoes all that happens around, that “music”, a collection of sounds that could be pleasing or annoying, is essentially a fluid, pre-existing phenomenon (but also one that individual thought can shape and construct) that’s a part of life. Or, potentially, it’s none of those and just a really ambitious, maybe pretentious, record-breaking phallic statement. Who knows? Heavy.