An Organ Recital for the Very, Very Patient
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: May 5, 2006
HALBERSTADT, Germany, May 4 — If you miss Friday's musical happening
at St. Burchardi Church in this eastern German town, no worries. There
is always 2008. And the next year. And the one after that.
"It doesn't sound like Beethoven," said Rainer Neugebauer, a member of
the foundation behind the performance, scheduled to last 639 years.
In fact, you have about six more centuries to hear developments in the
work being performed, a version of a composition by John Cage called
"As Slow as Possible." A group of musicians and town boosters has
given the title a ridiculously extreme interpretation, by stretching
the performance to 639 years.
Like the imperceptible movement of a glacier, a chord change was
planned for Friday. Two pipes were to be removed from the rudimentary
organ (which is being built as the piece goes on, with pipes added and
subtracted as needed), eliminating a pair of E's. Cage devotees,
musicians and the curious have trickled in to Halberstadt, a town
about two and a half hours southwest of Berlin by train known as the
birthplace of canned hot dogs and home to a collection of 18,000
"In these times, acceleration spoils everything," said Heinz-Klaus
Metzger, a prominent musicologist whose chance comments at an organ
conference nine years ago sparked the project. "To begin a performance
with the perspective of more than a half-millennium — it's just a kind
of negation of the lifestyle of today."
The only limitations on the length of the performance are the
durability of the organ and the will of future generations.
For anyone keeping records, the performance is probably already the
world's longest, even though it has barely begun. The organ's bellows
began their whoosh on Sept. 5, 2001, on what would have been Cage's
89th birthday. But nothing was heard because the musical arrangement
begins with a rest — of 20 months. It was only on Feb. 5, 2003, that
the first chord, two G sharps and a B in between, was struck. Notes
are sounding or ceasing once or twice a year, always on the fifth day
of the month, to honor Cage, who died in 1992.
There are eight movements, and Cage specified that at least one be
repeated. Each movement lasts roughly 71 years, just four years shy of
the life expectancy of the average German male. There is no need to
wait for the end of a movement for late seating: St. Burchardi is open
six days a week, and the notes have been sounding continuously.
A whine can be faintly hard outside the front door of the church, a
1,000-year-old building that was once part of a Cistercian monastery
and served as a pigsty when Halberstadt was a neglected industrial
town in East Germany.
A cool blast of air comes through the open door, and the sound grows
louder. After one spends some time within the bare stone walls, the
urge to hum in unison proves irresistible. An electric bellows — about
the size of three double beds in a row — sits in the left transept.
Underground piping brings air to the organ in the right transept,
which at this point is a wooden frame with six pipes. Small weights
hold down wooden tabs: the keys. A plexiglass case muffles the sound.
Neighbors complained that they could not sleep after the first notes
The place attracts people seeking a peaceful moment or communion with
Cage's spirit. One student from the Juilliard School asked to spend a
night in the church, said Georg Bandarau, the town's marketing
director and manager of the Cage project. A Canadian writer who is
going blind and making journeys to experience his other senses arrived
The project's spirit is firmly in keeping with the proclivities of
Cage, whose works pushed the boundaries of music and sought to meld
life and art. One of his cardinal principles was to give the performer
wide leeway. His most famous work may be "4' 33" " — in which the
performer or performers sit silently for 4 minutes 33 seconds. Some
consider him as much a philosopher as a musician.
Indeed, the Cage organ project is part serious musical endeavor, part
intellectual exercise and part tourist attraction, the sort of thing
that happens when the local worthies of a European town join with
ambitious artists. And it has come to mean different things to
For Christof Hallegger, the performance is a statement more about time
than about music, and a reminder of mortality. "It's man-made, and
it's longer than your own life," said Mr. Hallegger, the town's
leading architect and a board member of the foundation behind the
Mr. Bandarau sees the performance as a tourist draw. "This town can
profit from this project," he said.
Hans-Ola Ericsson, a Swedish organ professor who helped arrange the
score, called it a symbol of possibility to a depressed region. "It
brought hope, to very many people, of a future," he said.
But its signifcance is lost on some. Rainer Neugebauer, another member
of the foundation, said it was hard to convince some local people of
the project's value. "It doesn't sound like Beethoven," he said.
With German reunification, the government poured money into
Halberstadt's renovation, but the East's economic problems continue to
dog the town. Unemployment runs at more than 20 percent.
Cage wrote the piece for piano as "As Slow as Possible," or "ASLSP,"
in 1985, then adapted it for organ two years later, when it became
known as "Organ2/ASLSP." The idea for the latest version was born in
1997, at an organ conference in the Black Forest town of Trossingen.
At a panel before a performance of "ASLSP," Mr. Metzger posed a
question: since, in theory, an organ note can sound indefinitely, as
long as a key is pressed, what is the limit for a piece like "ASLSP"?
Days? Weeks? Years? Cage had not specified a length.
"I mentioned that almost as a joke," he said.
Organists took up the discussion. "It means as long as an organ
lives," Mr. Ericsson shouted, according to others present. Some
suggested 1,000 years, but that idea was quashed.
"We have not had a good experience with 'a thousand years' in
Germany," said the composer Jakob Ullman, referring to Hitler's Reich.
The other question was where to perform the piece. Mr. Ullman had an
idea. As a boy, he would visit churches with his father, and he
remembered clambering over the ruins of St. Burchardi. He knew
Johann-Peter Hinz, a prominent sculptor in Halberstadt, and took the
idea to him. Mr. Hinz, who suffered a stroke and fell into a coma
shortly after the first chord sounded, agreed to push for it. A core
group of organizers was formed, and the town let them use the church.
But the question remained: How long should the piece be? The first
organ performance was 29 minutes. A recent recording lasts 71 minutes.
The group hit on a serendipitous fact: Michael Praetorius, a composer
of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, had written that an organ
with the first modern keyboard arrangement had been built in
Halberstadt's cathedral in 1361. Subtract that number from the
millennial year 2000, and the result is 639. Voilà. Problem solved.
The project has not been without disagreements. Some supporters wanted
to build the organ all at once. Others wanted to pursue major
contributors. Individuals can now sponsor one year of the piece for
1,000 euros and receive a plaque; nearly 100,000 euros ($127,000) have
been raised, including other donations. A local businessman on the
board was ousted for trying to take over the project, Mr. Hallegger
Others objected to what they saw as commercialization, and even to the
establishment of the John Cage Academy, a center for the study of
contemporary music, next door. "Only John Cage's piece is the thing
that should be realized," said Mr. Ullman, who dropped out of the
project early on. "I did a lot of work to think about what this
performance could mean. Nobody read my papers."
All agree that nothing should interfere with the music. Solar power
cells and a backup generator are on hand in case the electricity is
interrupted. So far, the notes have flowed unimpeded.
"It's very important," Mr. Bandarau said. "It's what John Cage wrote."