As Slow As Possible: The 639 Year Long Song

Feb 14, 2024

Just a few days ago, around 500 people crowded into an 11th-century church in Halberstadt, Germany, just to hear an organ change chords. The instrument in question (a jerry-rigged contraption that uses sandbags to hold down the keys) has literally been playing non-stop for 23 years. And it has another 616 years to go before it finishes the piece it’s performing. The song? Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible) by the late John Cage, which, as the title suggests, is meant to be played as slowly as possible.

And just a few days ago, spectators arrived to witness its first chord change in two years.

“It was a magic moment,” said Rainer Neugebauer, head of the John Cage Organ Foundation.

As Slow As Possible

The project, according to Mr. Neugebauer, originated in 1998, six years after John Cage’s death. In an epic brainstorming session, music scholars, art professionals, and theologians came together to discuss the best way to perform the strange and elongated Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible). Dissent in the group formed quickly. Some argued any performance would need to include food and bathroom breaks for the organist. Others insisted that would go against what Cage had intended with the piece.

According to Neugebauer, the deadlock only broke when one theologian pointed out, “Oh no, the organist must [keep] playing until he falls dead from his seat.”

Ultimately, they decided to avoid this problem altogether by removing the flesh and blood organist.

Therefore, they created an organ with metal pipes that can be added or removed with every chord change and an electric-powered bellows. They also included a backup generator for power outages.

17 Month Rest

With the organ complete, the performance began on September 5, 2001, which would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. The goal of performing for 639 years was meant “to mark the time between the construction of the world’s first 12-tone Gothic organ in Halderstadt, in 1361 CE, and the new millennium,” according to NPR.

However, for the first 17 months of the performance, nothing happened. No sound was produced by the instrument for nearly a year and a half. But this was no mistake; no failure of the organ nor the organizers. Instead, it was simply because the piece begins with a “short” pause. With the piece stretched to 639 years, that rest lasted a long time.

The first note wasn’t played until 2003.

But Why? Separating Sound & Meaning

An American composer and musical theorist, John Cage was perhaps best known for his experimentation with music and sound. One might go so far as to call these experiments “radical.” For example, one of his most famous pieces, 4’33”, has no notes at all and specifically instructs musicians not to play their instruments.

As Slow As Possible, another departure from the musical norm, was initially composed in 1985 for piano and was adapted for the organ two years later.

“He’s trying to teach us, I think, two things. On the one hand … that we hear anew the sound with open eyes and empty minds. And the second is he wants to free sounds — free sounds from interpretation, from meaning, from intention, from hierarchies,” Neugebauer said.

“This idea, it was influenced by Zen Buddhism. Every sound had its own value, every sound has its own centre. So don’t ask, ‘What does it mean?’ It means nothing. It’s only sound and you can enjoy it.”

Of course, while the John Cage Organ Foundation’s ambition may be the longest performance of As Slow As Possible, it is far from the first. Diane Luchese Performed ASLSP in just under 16 hours in 2009 at Towson University in Maryland. More recently, Alexander Meszler took 24 hours to perform the piece in 2023.

Can They Go the Distance?

For those who gathered a few days ago, volunteers added a new pipe to the organ. This created a chord change described by Neugebauer as “a little bit fuller” and “a little bit warmer” than what had come before. This chord will continue to hum until August 5, 2026. But the song itself is only just beginning and will continue on until 2640 – hopefully. A lot can change in 600 years, and no one can predict the future of one complicated organ in Germany.

But, on days he’s feeling especially optimistic, Mr. Neugebauer likes to imagine it will go on even longer than that.

“Maybe [people in the future will] say, ‘Oh, that’s not as slow as possible. We can do it a little bit slower.'”

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