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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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