August 2008

As Slow As Possible

August 29, 2008 06:39

John Cage’s organ composition “As Slow As Possible” is, at the risk of sounding obvious, intended to be played slowly. Its 1987 premier lasted twenty-nine minutes. A subsequent performance lasted seventy-one minutes. Some musicians have made it last for over eight hours. But a few years after Cage’s death in 1992, a group of musicologists, theologians, philosophers and musicians began to meet regularly in order to discuss and ponder aloud just how slow “As Slow As Possible” could be.

The answer: 639 years.

They came up with this number after much slow, careful consideration. Halberstadt cathedral’s famous Blockwerk organ—granddaddy of the modern organ with its twelve-note claviature—was completed in 1361 (639 years counting back from the year 2000). Therefore the piece should last as long as the modern twelve-key organ has. This made the town of Halberstadt, in eastern Germany, a shoe-in for the location. The venue is the medieval church of St. Burchardi, which, since being built around 1050, has served as a monastery, a barn, a distillery, an abandoned building and an East German pigsty. It has been cleaned up, though. Quite nicely. And in the middle of the empty church sits an organ. It is rather a makeshift sort of instrument, built specifically for this project, currently fitted with only the pipes required for the current notes being played. Taking 639 years to perform a piece tends to lend itself to such flexibility. An electric bellows sits in the organ’s left transept. The right transept houses a wooden frame with six pipes. The pedals producing the sound are held down by weights. And that’s about it.

It was surely an auspicious moment, on September 5, 2001, as the performance commenced, albeit a tad anticlimactic. The piece begins with silence, you see. Several counts’ worth. This is, after all, the composer who brought us the famous, soundless “4’33” composition. From September 5th to February 2003, the only sound was the low whoosh of the electric bellows as they filled with air in preparation for striking that first chord.

Finally, on February 5, 2003, it happened. The first chord. Then, on July 5, 2004, notes were added and the tone changed. January 5, 2006 saw a chord change. (Changes always occur on the fifth day of the month, in honor of Cage and his birth date.)

And here’s where it gets exciting. On July 5, 2008, the weights holding down the organ pedals were shifted. Two more organ pipes had been added alongside the four installed and at 3:33pm local time, the sixth chord change in the piece occurred. The crowd of 1000 gathered for the event murmured appreciatively at the increased tonal complexity. Then, thirty seconds later, upon realizing that was it, that was all that was going to happen that day, that month, they commenced a spattering of uncertain applause that grew heartier as officials confirmed the full change had actualized.

How whimsical, how Zen, to ponder such slowness in comparison to our fast-paced world. Each movement of “As Slow As Possible” (officially titled the less catchy “ORGAN2/ASLSP”) lasts roughly seventy-one years. Think about it. The mind-expanding nature of such an endeavor reminds me of last year’s British cheddar cheese site ( where a webcam allowed you to watch a fifty-pound cheddar age, real time, 24/7. In fact, that’s what the John Cage Project website needs. Think of all the classical music people out there who could tune in to listen to this performance. To say you’ve heard part of this performance, in real time. And not have to pay the air and train fare for a trip to rural eastern Germany for a ten minute visit, because, face it, you’re probably not going to want to listen to that drone for much longer than that.

The point of the John Cage ORGAN2/ASLSP Project, its creators argue, is to challenge our precepts of time, of speed. Challenge the inexorable acceleration of the world’s pace. If it, in turn, challenges the patience of classical music and/or John Cage detractors everywhere, well, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s precisely what John Cage would have wanted.

If you go to the project’s website, you can hear the tone currently being played. It’s a rather horrible sound to sustain—like a dial tone on steroids. Those living nearby have complained, which, in truth, doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the concept of never hearing silence in your home in your lifetime is daunting, another issue that merits pondering by philosophers and musicologists. (They have ample time to do it. 632 more years, actually.) You can follow the exciting action on the score on their website, which is marked with a chronology. According to it, on November 5th you can see the next change—the release of a quarter note. I myself am saving my pennies up in order to witness the Big Kahuna—an entirely new chord, on July 5, 2012.

The performance is scheduled to end in 2640.


The project’s website:
Click here

Here is a link to what is currently being played (recorded, not real time). Click here

A spectator’s glimpse of the auspicious “changing of the notes” on July 5, 2008.
Click here

Just for fun, a televised Barbican performance of John Cage’s “4’33”. High—or maybe just highbrow—entertainment no classical music lover (or detractor) should miss.
Click here

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