In 1987, avant-garde composer John Cage wrote a piece of keyboard music entitled “Organ²/ASLSP”. The score has eight pages. But Cage left an unusual instruction for those who wanted to perform it: “As Slow As Possible”.
What is “possible”, of course, is subject to interpretation. One performer played it at 29 minutes, another at 71 minutes, and another at 8 hours. One performance lasted 14 hours and 56 minutes.
But now – well, not now, exactly, but 21 years ago – a group of Cage lovers decided to do better. So they built a special organ, placed it in a dilapidated medieval church in the town of Halberstadt, Germany, and announced that they were going to play “Organ ²/ASLSP” really, really slowly — over a period of 639 years. The performance must end in 2640.
So what are we going to make of this? Is it an empowering experience worthy of the work’s creative author – or a ridiculous prank played on his memory and on the rest of us?
Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
Here’s what you need to know about performance so far. It started in September 2001, but nothing happened. This is because the score opens with a silence, a musical notation that indicates the absence of sound. It was 17 months later that the first chord was heard, and since then the concert has been going on non-stop, 24 hours a day. I read about it in a Wall Street Journal article in 2003 and found it intriguing and funny, but then forgot about it for 18 years. Luckily I didn’t miss much. Only 12 chord or note changes have occurred since then.
The performance just started.
The next change – and it’s the topical point that makes this column so timely – will be on Saturday, February 5. The note in question is a G sharp, which will cease to sound that day. It will have been played regularly for 518 days, which is possible because an organ note (unlike a piano note) can sound indefinitely as long as the key is continuously pressed, which happened in this case thanks to the use of sandbags.
Some notes or chords in the performance sound for several months, others for a year or significantly longer. The most recent change, in September 2020, was the first in nearly seven years.
I’m not usually the avant-garde type. I generally prefer my books to have plots, my art recognizable or at least evocative, and my music more melodic than cerebral.
But I try not to be too narrow-minded and irritable. John Cage is one of the most radically innovative musical figures of the 20th century. Born in Los Angeles (his mother wrote a regular column on “Women’s Clubs” for The Times in the 1930s and his father was, unsurprisingly, an inventor), his influence is global and enduring.
I wanted to know more about the Halberstadt project, so I called Times classical music critic Mark Swed, who knew Cage before his death in 1992 and has written extensively about him. Swed is a huge Cage enthusiast, so I was intrigued to find that he’s strongly — perhaps vehemently is more accurate — angered by the 639-year-old event.
“What they’re doing goes against everything John Cage stood for,” he told me. “It’s a marketing gimmick. Everything there is fraudulent. They use it as a tourist attraction. It’s not about the music at all.
Swed says Cage wrote music to play. And that’s not a real performance. Not only can no performer play the piece – Sandbags is the current organist – but the piece cannot be heard by an audience from start to finish, for obvious reasons. Plus, says Swed, Cage was all about freeing himself from ego — but it’s about the ego of the town of Halberstadt, about grabbing attention and attracting tourists.
On the other hand, of course, Cage also aimed to break the rules and challenge preconceptions. He used vegetables, toys and radios in his work. A card game. A mixer. A toaster.
Ambient sound, noise, silence, chance, time and duration, these were his themes.
One of his best-known works is “4’33”, a composition from 1952 in which the musicians appear on stage and play nothing at all for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, then retire. The piece is divided into three movements.
So it’s really no surprise that there are people who think a 639-year-old gig would have been right up Cage’s driveway.
Of course, I’ll defer to Swed when he says Cage wouldn’t have liked that idea. And when he calls it a gimmick. Of course it is.
But I can’t help it – this performance makes me smile. It’s a stunt, but it’s also a challenge to our dull human tendency to think only in terms of the ticking of our own lives, the monotonous passing of our days, the hours and minutes of our own short existences.
That “Organ²/ASLSP” can still play in Halberstadt hundreds of years after my death – assuming the organ holds up and the funding lasts – reminds us that sometimes we have to think in terms of generations, centuries and millennia. .
And it’s a reminder that sometimes there’s value in taking it slow, even very slowly, through our busy, overstimulated, hyper-accelerated world.
How humans will experience the next six centuries depends a lot on how we treat the planet in the years to come. But there’s something refreshingly optimistic (though most likely delusional) about believing that 600 years from now people might still gather in a 12th-century church in eastern Germany to hear a single piece of strange music by a 20th century composer, played as slowly as possible.