From left, Joe Stickney, Jon Philpot and Adam Wills of the group Bear in Heaven.… (Shawn Brackbill/COURTESY…)
Life slows down around the holidays.
Bear in Heaven is slowing down 400,000 percent.
On Dec. 12, the experimental New York rock group began streaming its coming album on bearinheaven.com, but it’ll take listeners a while to get to the end. That’s because the band used digital software to stretch its 44-minute work into a sprawling, ambient blur that will take nearly four months to play from start to finish.
Think of it as the audio inverse of time-lapse photography. Or like reading a novel in which only one letter is printed on each page. It’s called time stretching, and it’s been one of the most enduring and interesting musical memes on YouTube this year.
The most famous example went viral in 2010, when a Florida DJ, Nick Pittsinger, used a new software program called PaulStretch to transform Justin Bieber’s bubble-gum hit “U Smile” into a dreamy, unrecognizable, 30-plus-minute whooooooosh — the kind of music you might hear when you’re flopped out on a massage table.
Since then, plenty of music has been stretched: megahits from bona-fide pop stars (Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake), viral baubles from Internet punching bags (Rebecca Black, Rick Astley), iconic movie and TV themes (“Jaws,” “The Simpsons”) and more.
“It takes a high-energy song and makes it calm and peaceful, which I think has a novelty,” says Don Caldwell, who writes about Web phenomena for the site Know Your Meme.
But does it have deeper cosmic meaning, too? There are plenty of musical memes on YouTube that tinker with time. You can listen to Black sing the word “fun” from her hit song “Friday” on a 10-minute loop — or you can listen to the chorus on a five-hour loop. Only on YouTube can a fleeting pop song enjoy a sadistic afterlife by being so perversely elongated.
But where looping memes can baffle and irritate, time stretching can also be sonorous and pleasurable. It feels like a distant cousin to “screwed” remixes in hip-hop, the Houston-born trend of slowing music down so that rappers’ voices end up somewhere between Barry White and Cookie Monster.
But time stretching is different. It slows the music down — or pulls it apart like taffy, really — without affecting the pitch. So instead of singing in Satan’s baritone, Bieber sounds like a beatific choir of digital cherubs.
Adam Wills, the guitarist for Bear in Heaven, says his band listened to the stretched version of Bieber’s “U Smile” in its tour van plenty last year. But the group’s collective interest in time stretching dates to 2002, when members first heard Scandinavian sound artist Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch,” a recording that, with the help of software developers, lengthened Beethoven’s Ninth to 24 hours.
Turns out, the guy who invented PaulStretch was inspired by the same piece. He came up with the idea two years ago after hearing “9 Beet Stretch” online.
“I searched for the program or the algorithm, but I couldn’t find anything.” says Nasca over the phone from his home in Targu Mures, Romania. “So I decided to make a new algorithm to stretch any sound.”
Nasca made the program available for free online and was surprised to see how fast it flourished. And although the software developer says he enjoyed the Bieber tune, he prefers stretching classical compositions and songs by new-age musician Vangelis (which is sort of like trying to make a glass of water waterier).
As Bear in Heaven stretches its album over the coming months, Wills sees the project as half art, half joke. “It’s kind of a wild thing to finish a record and wait three or four months before it can be released,” he says. “So this is a fun way of saying, ‘Here’s the music.’ I check [our site] several times a day, and it’s pretty rad. The second song just started.”
And while time stretching has endured well beyond the shelf life of most memes, the end doesn’t seem nigh. Fitting, right?
“It definitely has an evergreen quality,” says Brian Anthony Hernandez, a reporter at Mashable, a Web site that reports on memes, social media and technology. “I think that it’s very comforting to listen to.”
Especially now. As we look back on a year when the Internet’s churn approached food-processor speeds, time stretching offers a moment of tranquillity. It asks us to slow down as we dash through the bandwidth in a never-ending Google search for life’s great answers. It feels like a grand meme-aphor for the extension of human life itself.
“Yeah,” Wills says. “It’s also hilarious.”