An Organ Recital
for the Very, Very Patient

by Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
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.

In fact, you have about six more centuries to hear developments in the work being performed, a version of the piece 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 that will last for more than half a 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 - sometimes at even longer intervals - 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 heard 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 sounded.

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, this Cage organ piece 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, it 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 project.

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 which was once Communist East Germany. "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.

Cage wrote the piece for piano, titled "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. Voila. Problem solved.

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."

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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