A piece of music lasting 639 years

As the performance started, there wasn’t much to see or hear, because it began with a 17-month-long rest.

On 5 October at 4pm, I will be standing in a German church, bearing witness to a remarkable act of faith. Faith not in an eternal, higher power but in something much more precarious: a future in which one man’s playful idea can be carried to sublime, ridiculous lengths.
 
The church of Sankt Burchardi, in the small town of Halberstadt, Germany, is – at this very moment – playing host to an extraordinary musical performance. And if the faith of its organisers proves well founded, you will be able to reread that last sentence at any point in your life and it will still be true.
 
The performance is being given on a purpose-built pipe organ, and it isn’t due to finish until well into the 27th century.
 
Electric bellows will keep the air moving through the organ during the intervening years as small white sandbags depress wooden keys for decades on end. The concert has been designed to progress so slowly that whole lives will be lived in the space of a single note.
 
The piece of music that is being granted such unhurried attention is the enigmatic ORGAN2/ASLSP by John Cage, one of the most influential and infamous composers of the 20th century. He wrote 4’33 – a piece consisting of just over four and a half minutes of silence. It has since been recorded by Frank Zappa, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 2010 became the subject of an internet campaign to make it the Christmastime number one instead of the X-Factor winner’s song.
 
In 1985, Cage wrote ASLSP, a composition for piano whose title also serves as a rough acronym for the intended pace of performance: As SLowaS Possible. (It usually lasts between 20 and 70 minutes.)
 
Two years later, he adapted his piece for an instrument better suited to the intended tempo, and ORGAN2/ASLSP was born. Because of the way an organ works, each note can, in theory, last for an infinite moment.
 
Taking advantage of this, a group of composers, organists, musicologists and philosophers – including a number of Cage’s former collaborators – developed, over the course of 1997 and 1998, the notion at the heart of the current performance, namely, that to present the piece as Cage instructed, it should be played over an instrument’s entire natural lifespan.
 
In Halberstadt, the group found the ideal venue for their idea, the abandoned St Burchardi Church. The next question was: how slowly should the piece be played?
 
The answer came from a quirk of history. The first organ known to feature a modern, 12- tone keyboard was completed in Halberstadt’s cathedral in 1361, 639 years before the end of the second millennium.
 
To mirror this, the John Cage Organ Project’s version of ORGAN2 /ASLSP will last for 639 years. It began on 5 September 2001 –what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday – and is scheduled to end on 5 September 2640.
 
As the performance started, there wasn’t much to see or hear, because it began with a 17-month-long rest.
 
Since then, notes have been added to or subtracted from the organ’s powerful drone 12 times.
 
Each change now draws thousands to Halberstadt. Visitors stand inside the bare old walls of the church and experience the fleeting moment when the project’s faith in future generations is resoundingly restated.
 
Next month’s change will see a D-sharp, an A-sharp and an E sing out above the organ’s currently thrumming bass notes.
 
If you want to experience a sound change for yourself, try to be there that Saturday. The next change isn’t due for another seven years and that’s quite a long wait.
Caged music: visitors listen to the organ at St Burchadi Church, Halberstadt. Oliver Hartung/ New York Times/ Contrasto

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories