Music is well-known for being a floodgate for memories to pour forth. A new album, called Summer is Gone, from musician Bill Baird not only taps into this and reflects on memory as a theme, but also uses the transitory nature of memory—and in turn, time itself—as a way for people to experience the album. To do this, Baird spent 300 hours creating a ten-song album, and another 150 hours producing 250 remixes. These are then reworked into unique sequences for each visitor on a custom website conceived by Baird and the site’s designers, Peter Browse and Caleb Al-Jorani from One Pixel Wide.
Each time someone visits the site a new version of the album will be generated created specifically in that moment and influenced not just by the time but your location too. This bespoke mix just for you will last one hour before it disappears. Essentially, every person who visits the site will get a different album tailored for them, which is then lost to time—just like our experiences of the world. The artwork on the site will also evolve through the passage of the day and depend on where you are located.
The idea was to initially create mixes for each time of day, an early morning mix might be dreamy and evoke the feelings of coming in from a club, a mid-morning version more jarring and fresh, a lunchtime one lethargic—mixes tailored to the typical feelings associated with those parts of the day.
“But [then] I thought it’d be cooler to marry form and content.” explains Baird to The Creators Project. “To take the song’s themes and make that the actual structure. Since the song’s are (to me) meditations on our ephemeral existence, why not make the sequence itself ephemeral? I thought of the album’s 10 tracks as cogs in a large machine, slowly turning on the hour, until all possible sequences ran out. Like code-breaking. You can achieve immense complexity by interlocking just a few simple parts.”
To generate the singular album for each user the site uses the user’s local time and an arithmetic sequence formula to select a track from the bank of 250 remixes made by Baird. It takes one selection for each of the 10 tracks on the album to create a unique sequence. The site will check the database of albums already created to see if, by a small probability, it’s a repeat, and will generate a new one if so. “If it hasn’t it gets stored forever more against the user’s visit,” explains designer Browse. “From here on in, past the hour lifespan this unique album is accessible for, it becomes a visual and audible experience, that they can sit back and enjoy.”
Baird cites the San Francisco-based The Long Now Foundation as an influence on the concept. The group values long-term, considered thinking as an antidote to the short attention spans that modern society tends to foster. Baird mentions The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-year clock which the nonprofit are currently building deep inside a mountain in Texas. The clock will tick once a year for 10,000 years, the century hand will move every hundred years, and the cuckoo will come out for every millennium.
Baird wants his project to encourage similar meditations on time and patience. “I think allowing things to unfold over long periods of time—and risk being bored—is valuable,” notes the musician. “The mind wanders and comes back round again with new ideas. Being bored all the time would obviously be a drag but boredom has a useful place in the life of a creator.”
The music itself is dreamy, haunting, melancholy, lulling you with lyrics summoning fleeting experiences and absent time. Musical influences, Baird says, include Wally Stott and Scott Walker, Björk’s Vespertine, Vangelis’ L’apocalypse des Animaux, and many more. For the remixes Baird says he changed “the timbre, the color of the sound, the shifting backdrops and the overall sonic density. In some cases, I added drum machine, or the sound of a ranting televangelist preacher. In some cases I ran the mix through ten echo units.”
So how many different versions of the album can the site produce? Through intense calculations (“A fair few number-related pub chats and beer mat scribbling sessions on this very subject,” notes Browse) the guys think that with 250 different remixes, around 25 for each of the ten tracks on the album, the site would be capable of generating around 11,861,676,288,000 unique albums. Which they estimate is 1,354,072,635 years worth of listening. “Which essentially is 1.35 billion years,” concludes Browse.
With so many variations, does Baird have an intended way it should be heard? “I hesitate to define it in absolute terms,” notes Baird. “I can suggest a good approach though. Take a long walk across your city while listening on headphones. If the album works as intended, you will notice things on your walk you haven’t noticed before.”