INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo AUGUST 24, 2008 - by Andrew Male
BRIAN ENO: BELL STUDIES FOR THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW
Back in 1996 computer scientist Danny Hillis had an idea. As western society raced towards the end of the millennium, speeding past one false goal, empty election and financial panic after another, Hillis felt that something was needed to slow us down, help us consider the bigger picture and go back to the idea of a vast, grand and uncertain future ahead of us. To do this he proposed "a monument scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock" as an icon to long term thinking. "I want to build a clock that ticks once a year," he wrote in Wired magazine in 1998. "The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium... for the next ten thousand years", a clock of The Long Now.
Conveniently, on the Long Now board of members was one Brian Eno who, after christening the organisation, set about thinking what kind of sound said clock would make to announce the passage of time. Introducing something of his "hereditary campanological interests", Eno proposed a system of ten bells with three million, six hundred and twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred changes, approximate to the number of days in ten thousand years.
For the CD, Eno decided he wanted to hear the bells of the month of January 7003, halfway through the life of the clock. I don't pretend to understand how Eno did this (there are some terrifying looking algorithms in the CD booklet) but the end result is quite magical, an electronic sequence of clear, dreamlike serenity that somehow suggest both eternal calm and eerie foreboding. It is the perfect soundtrack to that particular kind of hangover where shooting lobe-pain alternates with washes of free endorphin joy. It also slows everything down nicely. On other tracks where Eno emulates "the Russian 'shock and awe' style" and "the German 'hit every bell as often and as hard as possible' approach", calm is less easy to come by, especially when he tries to electronically recreate the terrifying clangs and reverberations of the eighteenth Century Tsar Bell, commissioned by Empress Anna Ivanovna in 1735. The prototype Long Now clock was completed on New Year's Eve in 1999, when it bonged very slowly... twice. This prototype is now at the Making Of The Modern World exhibit in London's Science Museum.
After completing an accompanying orrery, (a planet tracking device) in 2005, the organisation's next step is to build the actual "monument-sized" version atop (or possibly inside) Mount Washington in eastern Nevada. There is no projected completion date. As the organisation put it, "it is an ongoing program". It's not something you'd want to rush. But, then again, what is?