Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Slow Can You Go?

In Halberstadt, Germany, the medieval St. Burchardi church has become the home of a unique pipe organ designed and built to perform a single piece of music. The performance commenced on September 5, 2001 and is planned to conclude after 639 years, in 2640.

The piece in question is Organ²/ASLSP ("As SLow aS Possible"), written by the influential avant-garde composer John Cage in 1987 and adapted from a work he had developed for piano two years earlier. The revised piece has been performed many times by several esteemed organists, including Gerd Zacher, to whom it is dedicated. It spans eight pages of score, and since the only instruction for pacing is to play as slowly as possible, a typical performance may stretch across several hours.

In 1997, a conference of musicians held a discussion regarding just how slowly the piece might be played. They became inspired to develop a long-term project for such a performance, and wanted to begin in the year 2000; September 5th was selected as it was the composer’s birthday. The location and duration were chosen based on the first documented permanent installation of a modern pipe organ, which was completed in the cathedral of Halberstadt in 1361, or 639 years before the intended starting date of this performance.

The actual start was delayed until 2001. Because the piece begins with a space interpreted as silence which (in proportion to the whole of this performance) spans seventeen months, the first sound was not produced until February 5, 2003. Since then, chord changes have occurred once or twice a year, in keeping with their relative positions in Cage's score, though after 2013 a new chord is not due until 2020. On the dates when such changes are scheduled, hundreds of visitors from around the world gather at the church to witness and celebrate the occasion.

Even aside from the composition being performed, the instrument itself is impressive. Custom bellows, pumped continually by machine, force a constant stream of air through the organ pipes. The positions of the pedals determine which notes are sounded, and these are weighted with sandbags hanging from strings. The weights are adjusted by hand on the designated days. In consideration of the community around the church, a cube of acrylic glass surrounds the instrument to dampen the ongoing sound. Because a well-maintained organ can remain functional indefinitely, it is hoped that generations of attendants will continue the performance through the centuries to come.

While it's clear this performance will be quite lengthy, other compositions are intended to last even longer. A computerized piece by Jem Finer appropriately named "Longplayer" began on January 1, 2000 and is intended to continue without repetition for a thousand years. On a still more ambitious scale, Brian Eno and Danny Hillis have collaborated on a system of ever-changing musical chimes for the Clock of the Long Now, a monumental mechanical timepiece designed to run for 10,000 years. I plan to post more about these projects within the next few decades, so stay tuned.

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