As it happens6:41 a.m.The organ playing a 639-year-old piece has just changed tuning for the first time in years
About 500 people gathered at an 11th-century church in Halberstadt, Germany, on Monday to listen to an organ move from one chord to the next.
The instrument – a makeshift device that uses sandbags to hold down the keys – has been in the works for 23 years and 639 years of performing a composition by the late avant garde the musician John Cage.
Monday marked its first deal change in two years.
“It was a magical moment,” said Rainer Neugebauer As it happens host Nil Köksal.
As slowly as possible
Neugebauer is the head of the John Cage Organ Foundation, the volunteer group of Cage enthusiasts behind this centuries-old stunt.
The project, he says, dates back to a brainstorming session in 1998, six years after Cage’s death.
Music scholars, art professors and theologians gathered, he said, to discuss how best to interpret Cage’s 1987 composition, Organ2/ASLSP (As slow as possible), which, as the title suggests, is meant to be played as slowly as possible.
Some said any performance should include meal and bathroom breaks for the organist, Neugebauer said, while others insisted that doing so would go against the spirit of Cage’s intentions.
“There was a theologian, a man said, ‘Oh no, the organist has to (keep) playing until he drops dead out of his seat,'” Neugebauer said.
Ultimately, they decided to avoid the problem by staging a performance without an organist.
17 months of silence
To achieve this, they built an organ in Burchardi’s church with metal pipes that can be added or removed with each tuning change, and electric bellows, with a backup generator in case of emergency.
The performance began on September 5, 2001, what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday, with the aim of continuing for 639 years, “to mark the time between the construction of the world’s first 12-tone Gothic organ in Halberstadt, 1361 CE, and the new millennium,” according to NPR.
As it happens0:05The organ changes tuning during 639 years of performance
But for the first 17 months, there were no notes – just the sound of air passing through the bellows. This is because Cage’s play begins with a short pause, which accordingly extends for a centuries-long performance.
The first real note sounded in 2003.
Freeing the sound of meaning
Cage was an American composer and music theorist known for his radical experiments with music and sound. One of his most famous pieces, 4′33″literally asks musicians not to play their instruments at all.
He first composed ASLSP in 1985 for piano, before adapting it two years later for organ.
“He’s trying to teach us, I think, two things. One…that we listen to sound again with open eyes and empty minds. And the second is that he wants to release the sounds – release the sounds of interpretation, of meaning, of intention, of hierarchies,” Neugebauer said.
“This idea was influenced by Zen Buddhism. Each sound had its own value, each sound has its own center. So don’t ask, ‘What does that mean?’ It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just sound and you can enjoy it.
In 2009, Diane Luchese performed ASLSP in just under 15 hours at Towson University in Maryland. In 2022, Christopher Anderson did it in 16 hours at Southern Methodist University in Texas. Last year, organist Alexander Meszler performed it for 24 hours at the Sundt Organ Studio at Luther College in Iowa.
But the John Cage Organ Foundation’s rendition is by far the most ambitious attempt to honor the spirit of Cage’s composition.
Can they get to 2640?
On Monday, volunteers added a new pipe to the organ, producing a chord change that Neugebauer described as “a little fuller” and “a little warmer” than the note that preceded it.
This deal will run until August 5, 2026, but the song won’t be complete until 26:40 – if everything goes according to plan.
“There are a lot of things in the world (that) make me not sure it will last until 2640,” Neugebauer said, citing climate change, war and the rise of right-wing extremism.
But when he’s feeling optimistic, Neugebauer can imagine a future where the song lasts even longer than expected.
“Maybe (people in the future will say), ‘Oh, it’s not as slow as it could be. We can do it a little slower.'”