Caged music: visitors listen to the organ at St Burchadi Church, Halberstadt. Oliver Hartung/ New York Times/ Contrasto
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.