Don’t stop the music: a chord change goes to plan in 639-year-long performance of a John Cage organ composition

Don’t stop the music: a chord change goes to plan in 639-year-long performance of a John Cage organ composition
The special organ built to perform Organ²/ASLSP by John Cage over the course of more than 600 years. Courtesy Flickr Commons | Mano Kellner
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A key change in a musical ensemble isn’t always something to write home about, but that’s certainly not the case for a work by composer John Cage that’s meant to be played “as slow as possible.” For a group of organisers, that direction was taken to heart. Now, Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP is in year 19 of more than 600 and on September 5th, a small group of spectators gathered for just the 14th chord change in the work.

It goes without saying that this performance of Cage’s composition is unique, and it wasn’t stopping for COVID. The playing of Organ²/ASLSP is an ongoing project being performed at St. Burchardi, a church with its own lengthy history, in Halberstadt, Germany. The six-century performance of Organ²/ASLSP is spearheaded by the John Cage Organ Foundation (JCOF) and it took the know-how of a group of composers, musicologists, organists, and philosophers to figure out how to make the work come to life.

In 1998, six years after Cage passed away, those involved in the project convened at a conference and began figuring out how to make the composition work. They decided that this iteration of Organ²/ASLSP would be a performance lasting 639 years as that was the lifespan of the first modern keyboard organ, which is thought to have been built in 1361 in Halberstadt. To run until 2640, without interruption, the group, led by retired social sciences professor and head of the JCOF Rainer Neugebauer, knew it would take the dedication of generations to come.

Organ²/ASLSP was originally written in 1985 for the piano, but Cage adapted it to the organ two years later to allow each note to last longer as organs can, theoretically, hold a note indefinitely. One of the biggest obstacles for bringing the composition to life for more than six centuries was the organ and how would it be played. Ultimately, a special organ without a keyboard was created that would allow for continuous play – thanks to sandbags holding down pedals instead of people – with pipes that could be swapped out to create the needed chords.

On Saturday, what would’ve been Cage’s 79th birthday, a small group of mask-clad music enthusiasts who were able to travel around COVID restrictions gathered at the St. Burchardi. Others watched on a large screen set up outside of the church to witness the chord change. At 3pm, composer Julian Lembke and soprano Johanna Vargas were the ones to add new pipes to the organ changing the chord from a G sharp to an E.

The work and its performance bring up “philosophical questions about how we confront time,” Halberstadt mayor Andreas Henke told The New York Times. “We are all so consumed by our daily working lives. […] This forces us to stand back and slow down.” The works persistence through the years feels more poignant during the pandemic and it, unlike so much else, couldn’t be postponed.

The performance isn’t “for the masses” conceded Henke and many Halberstadt locals aren’t even aware of the ongoing composition, but it’s a “crystallization point for contemporary art,” to use Neugebauer’s words. The project runs off donations alone and is largely volunteer-run, so time and money are the project’s second biggest feat. So far, around €1 million has been given to the project as couples and groups sponsor a year.

This isn’t the first time Organ²/ASLSP has been performed, in 2019, organist Daniel Cooper presented a 12-hour iteration of the composition in New Zealand and in 2015, a performance of the same length was given in Canada. In 2008, Joe Drew performed Organ²/ASLSP over the course of 24 hours during the ARTSaha! festival making it the longest single performance on a traditional keyboard organ of the work to date.