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).
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
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.