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Clip: One more note in John Cage's longest composition

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  • Carl Z.
    An Organ Recital for the Very, Very Patient By DANIEL J. WAKIN Published: May 5, 2006 HALBERSTADT,
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2006

      An Organ Recital for the Very, Very Patient

      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
      stuffed birds.

      "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
      different people.

      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."
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