Here Are Two Tickets To A Concert; The Date Is…

St Burchardi Church; image courtesy of atlasobscura.com

It all seemed so simple. For our weekly Zoom get-together with friends, one woman suggested a discussion of a rather quirky event she’d read about in The New York Times: an organ recital of a work by American composer John Cage

But is it 2 hours with an intermission? No. Perhaps, since John Cage was known for his innovations, it would take place over a day or two? Nope. 

This concert is scheduled to run, non-stop, until 2640. And as offbeat as Cage was known to be, that decision wasn’t made until years after his death in 1992, at age 79. But some cursory research on Cage persuaded me that the idea would have tickled him greatly.

Picture a conclave attended by serious people with expertise in composing, musicology, philosophy, and the organ itself. They met in Trossingen, in Southern Germany, in 1998. What was on their minds?

The Times explains:

“They developed the idea of a performance calibrated to the life expectancy of an organ. The first modern keyboard organ is thought to have been built in Halberstadt in 1361, 639 years before the turn of the 21st century—so they decided the performance would last for 639 years.”

And Then They Made It Happen

The location is the St. Burchardi church in that very town—Halberstadt in eastern Germany. The recital began on September 5, 2001—marking Cage’s 89th birthday. I’m not sure if there’s numerology involved in that commencement date—more likely it just took them three years to put all the details together. 

And the really big deal that occasioned the Times’s coverage was that—for the 14th time since the concert began, there was a single sound change—as per the composer’s instructions.

Yup—that change is actually written into the score. Cage had originally composed the piece for the piano, with the instruction that the tempo should be “as slow as possible.” When he reworked it for the organ two years later, the tempo instruction became “Organ2/ASLSP” (As SLow aS Possible).

Organ2/ASLSP at St. Burchardi Church, Halberstadt. Picture: PA

But the Times article notes that the change “raised questions.”

“On piano, the sound fades after the key is hit; on the organ, notes can be held indefinitely. Or can they? What about when the organist needs to eat, or go to the bathroom? Or dies?” 

All valid questions one never considers in relation to a concert. But perhaps you’ve been thinking about that: 639 years is a long time to go without a bathroom break…

In that case, you’ll be relieved to know that the organ’s sounds originate from pipes receiving air blown from a compressor in the basement of the church; the pipes are worked by pedals—and the pedals are weighted by sandbags. The change in sound occurs via the number of pipes that are added or removed.

A Bit About John Cage

John Milton Cage Jr. Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Many people consider John Cage a leading figure in 20th Century music. One of his best-known compositions, from 1952, was titled 4’33”: musicians enter, are seated on the stage, and remain silent for that length of time.

Would you like to see an orchestra playing 4’33”? Here’s a link.

According to Cage, the audience wasn’t hearing silence; they were instead submerged in the non-musical sounds that surrounded them.

Whether this piece is music or not is beyond my ken, but it became both popular and—as you may have guessed—controversial, as it went against certain basic assumptions people held not only about music, but about “the broader aesthetics of art and performance.” I’m quoting Wikipedia here, which I’ve never done before, but it seems reasonable.

And the quotation below fits into Cage’s stated philosophy that sounds were something distinct from the composer.

“When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. 

“I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound … I don’t need sound to talk to me.”  

But he apparently needed sound to resonate at whatever speed was in his head. And this is how we got to the point that the folks in Halberstadt were adding and removing organ pipes to fulfill Cage’s requirement in his score. The first performance lasted for 29 minutes. A more recent one was 71 minutes long. (That information came from another source: Universes.art)

So this recital, held in the middle of a pandemic, attracted a small crowd of mask-wearing listeners. The organizers limited the crowd size because of COVID-19 but placed a screen outside so others could attend.

Writes the Times:

“…the idea that the performance would make it to 2640 was radically optimistic: That will require hangovers between generations, and it will take effort and money. And that seems even more unlikely now, as the pandemic makes us realize life’s fragility, and the threat of climate change puts human survival in question.”

Nevertheless, the show went on. 

“At 3 pm, the composer Julian Lembke and the soprano Johanna Vargas, both wearing white gloves, lowered two new pipes onto the body of the organ, which sounded a G sharp and an E. These created a new, seven-note chord, together with the five notes that have been sounding since October 2013: C, D flat, D sharp, A sharp and E.”

According to Lembke, the change brought “a new softness” and denser sound to the chord.

If you access the Times article online, you can actually hear the chord. Or if you’d like to hear the next chord change in person, you can visit St. Burchardi on February 5, 2022. (Date from Axios)

Though the event has brought tens of thousands of visitors to a town whose population is aging, the mayor, Andreas Henke, said most of the people who live there either don’t know anything about the music or call it “that cacophony.” But he welcomes Cage’s recitals for bringing a measure of fame to Halberstadt.

In an effort to raise the much-needed funds to keep the recital going (it’s run by volunteers), the organizers offer private donors plaques that are displayed in the church and specify the year of their choosing.

One couple purchased the year 2580, in celebration of their 600th wedding anniversary. I imagine that would be quite the party! How do they decide when to order the cake?

Some Philosophical Questions

Mayor Henke said the recitals raise “philosophical questions about how we confront time. We are all so consumed by our daily working lives. This forces us to stand back and slow down.”

Essentially, the continuation of what has become a musical ritual can be viewed as a paean to optimism.

“It is very special to be a part of an art project that will connect generations and last for generations,” Henke said, adding that “his great hope” is that it will continue until 2640.

I will acknowledge that when my friend suggested this story as a topic of discussion, I responded that though it wouldn’t have been my first choice, or even my 368th, I would be interested in seeing where our discussion took us. We had a very nice, thoughtful discussion. 

Now, further pondering this piece as I write in the shadow of COVID-19 and the ravages of climate change, I find myself heavily invested in the hope that this recital—or, indeed, any piece of art or creative work—can continue to capture people’s imaginations so that they’ll want to be a part of it in the future. 

And that’s a future for which we shall all have to work much harder today—if we are to ensure it will actually be there in 2640 and beyond.

I look forward to hearing your reactions.

Annie

17 thoughts on “Here Are Two Tickets To A Concert; The Date Is…

  1. I wonder what happens if a player in the five-hundred-and-somethingth year makes a mistake. Do they start over?

    Rather than attend the concert, I think I’ll wait for this piece to come out on CD. I figure the CD would be about 300 yards in diameter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m picturing the size of the CD tower needed to accommodate that particular CD…

      Have you clicked on the link for the performance of Cage’s 4’33” magnum opus? If not, I would love to have you “attend” that performance and let me know your reactions.

      Like

      1. I watched the video, but truth to tell, I’m not a fan of this kind of quasi-art. It gives me nothing to listen to, and it takes no skill or effort to just sit still and do nothing. It’s as if I posted a blog post that was completely blank — nothing there for the reader, no effort involved on my part.

        It’s fine with me if some people find this kind of thing interesting — I’m just not one of them. Chacun à son goût, as they say.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m so sorry: you took my request seriously. I was being much less broad minded, to my shame. When I watched it, I couldn’t get past the conductor’s periodic directing of the immobile musicians, seated with their opened music in front of them—and the occasional rustling of programs by audience members. Also the concept of the soloist. Chacun a son gout, indeed! I do appreciate your spending 4’33” at my request.

        I wish I could hear from a Cage fan to enlighten me. I know what Cage said, but those flourishes made me feel I was viewing farce. Perhaps that was the intent?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree. But there seems to be something very attractive about including oneself in a quest for the continuity of art and human connection to it and to fellow participants. I see a sort of hopeful defiance of acceptance of our current dire situations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Unlike light, sound needs a medium to continue its travel. Sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It needs air or more solid materials to keep it reverberating and travel. I know this has little to do with your well written article. However, there always seems to be an however, the sounds created by what might be the second musical instrument, after those created by someone banging on a hollow long, are those from a rams horn or similar animal body part. I need to discount, finger snapping as it was most likely a way to get someones fading attention and not create any harmonies. The horn is an original way before the One Note Samba. It has one note. Like the more modern bugle. The sounds can be varied by the lips expressions and the force of the air flow by the instruments player.

    I can only guess, that the horn as an instrument was created when an early hunter gatherer came upon an animal with the end of its horn sheared and blowing for the air to flow from the tip to its base once the horn was dislodged from the original owner.

    It has been noted that the Jewish shofar was used about 1300BC. That would make it at least 3300 years in use. I am sure the its original use was to sound warnings, create fear or maybe a lonely Shepard on a mountainside and once he had disbursed any wolves feeling hungry for an easy meal, tooled with the horn ‘till it was born a blue note’ (credit and respects to Ray Henderson, American song writer. Birth of the Blues).

    The idea of someone creating a continuum of sound(s) that will build upon an earlier note is knew to me. Cage, I do not know his work, but will further engage to do so, must had been a person that thinking something through could make a future to a past. Hints of RBG are everywhere.

    If sounds are the way we first expressed our wants, desires and communicated, then he is correct. Wether vocalizing or with the use of some instrument to get attention, amplify the message or just, once the wolf pack has been disbursed, finding a way to create sound is the first we do to connect.

    The sounds we hear daily are mix of the audible environment we experience. Air takes those sounds to our ears. They are the experience we build on, research and of course respond to. It is why I am am responding to your question. Your story helps fill my early morning hours before the fuller part of my day will start to ignore the sounds surrounding me.

    If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Just because I was not there, doesn’t negate the trees existence and because it does exist, so do the sounds it creates as the wind bristles it leaves, the sun pulls it brunches towards its heavenly source and the creatures that inhabit the tree create their own sounds.

    Sounds build only to again dissipate. Cages sounds, As SLow aS Possible, are designed to interlink one note into the other as it starts its decent and get carried along in a different tone. Thus creating a new and completely original sound.

    No. I could not stand to be there and experience this for any greater length of time than my already wandering mind and desire to see if the new AC cover will truly fit as designed or the dining room ceiling light is centered over the table. The radio is now on or should I say I asked Alexa to put on a station that is filling my ears with stories of politics, covid 19, BLM. Sounds that are part of my environment. However, there’s always another a however, if I stop everything. Quite my mind. Take it to ‘a worlds quietest places’, I think I do hear a horn forming a second note. It just a very faint low hum just ready to disappear or maybe just pass thru to the next quietest place.

    Thanks for the story. As always, opens my mind and fills in the early hours of the day. Peace and love.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This fits with what I know about John Cage. I’m still getting my brain around his “silence” piece, but this certainly takes composition far, far into the future (in more ways than one)! Perhaps the lesson here is that whatever is going on now, in whatever discipline, it can turn on a dime.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I struggle with music (or other art) of this kind. Among the musicians I am familiar with there is a constant tension between pleasing an audience and pleasing yourself as a musician. This, it seems, pegs the needle at the extreme of self-satisfaction. This is clever, but it is the kind of clever that musicians should laugh about over a drink rather than to put into practice.

    I guess I find art like this to be self-centered and pretentious. Nobody is ever going to listen to the entire thing once, let alone twice. I think it takes a certain kind of narcissism to believe that this is so good and so important that 10 or 12 generations will go into enough of a swoon over it to keep it alive for even a single performance. Any appreciation for this piece isn’t about the music itself but about the concept behind it. I don’t think this emperor is wearing any clothes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m inclined to agree with you, JP, and I defer to your considerably broader and deeper background in music than I possess. I do, however, find the optimism behind working to continue a musical tradition so far into the future appealing.

      When I discussed Cage’s 4’33” (silent orchestra—and soloist (!)—with my older daughter, who had been a serious and talented pianist for some time, she remembered once having been called upon to participate in a performance of the piece. She termed sitting at the piano through those 4 minutes and 33 seconds “just silly.”

      Liked by 1 person

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