Can It Really Be THAT Slow?
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Here's a Concert Even Diehard Fans Can't Sit Through

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four.
If still boring, then eight.
Then sixteen.
Then thirty-two.
Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

- John Cage

Played slowly, John Cage's Opus will last for 639 years; intermission in 2319.

by Annick Moes ans Neal E Boudette

Halberstadt, Germany - Six years ago, Heinz-Klaus Metzger gave a short talk about a long piece of music - Organ2/ASLSP, by John Cage.

Speaking at a conference on organ music, Mr Metzger wondered what the late avant-garde composer meant by ASLSP, his designation for "as slow as possible."  Mechanical organs, like the ones Europeans have built in churches for centuries, can hold notes indefinitely.  "One could imagine playing the organ piece so slowly that it would take years to come to an end," mused Mr Metzger, a music theorist who knew Mr Cage.

"Does that mean the concert ends when the organist dies?" a voice in the audience asked.  "Or when the organ itself finally gives out?" another ventured.

Mr Metzger and a group of supporters are now seeking an answer in the forlorn eastern German city of Halberstadt.  Here, in a crumbling medieval church used as a pig sty until a few years ago, they have started a performance of Organ2 so slow that is supposed to continue for at least six centuries - until the year 2640.

Fans of Mr Cage haven't missed much so far.  The concert officially started on September 5, 2001, but since Organ2 begins with a rest, or silence, there was nothing to hear for the first 17 months except the wheezing of the organ's solar-powered bellows.  In fact, at the time, the bellows were the only part of the organ that existed.  It's being assembled as the recital goes on.  The first three notes started on February 5 of this year, when the organisers hung weighted sacks from the organ's bare, wooden levers.  Within the church's crude stonewalls, a steady, unvarying chord can be heard 24 hours a day.  Two more notes will be added in July 2004.

Many experts on Mr Cage's work applaud the project.  Mr Cage's "ethos as a composer was to bring people's attention to the present, and to use whatever means necessary to accomplish that," says Lawrence Rinder, curator of contemporary art at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.  "Boredom was one of his tools to push people past the conventional sense of time."

"It's in the spirit of Cage," adds William Duckworth, a composer of contemporary music who knew Mr Cage well and wrote several books about Mr Cage's work.  "I think John would find it amusing."

Gerd Zacher, the German organist for whom Mr Cage wrote Organ2, disagrees.  He says Mr Cage told him the piece should be played slowly but also like a "soft morning" and then "should be gone."

A nondescript city of 40,000 people and a 20% unemployment rate, Halberstadt hopes the concert will bring some renown. If it lasts a long time, it will gain imporance that will have a positive marketing effect for the city," says the departing Mayor, Hans-Georg Busch.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Mr Cage believed random tones or ambient noise :ould be music.  He wrote some pieces by laying music paper over astronomical maps, and placing notes where stars stood.  One of his best-known pieces, called 4'33", is performed by a musician sitting silently at a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds.  Occasionally, he gave eccentric instructions to performers.  One composition was to be sung preferably by 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens.

In 1985, Mr Cage wrote a piano composition to be played as slowly as possible.  Two years later, Mr Zacher asked him to write a version for the organ.  Mr Cage's only written instruction besides ASLSP was that one of its eight movements had to be repeated.  When Mr Zacher first played Organ2 at a contemporary music festival in Metz, France, it lasted 29 minutes.  Mr Cage died in 1992.

Mr Metzger, a 71-year-old music theorist, met Mr Cage in 1958 and once had him write a score for the Frankfurt opera.  In 1997, a music institute in southern Germany asked him to give a talk on Organ2.  It electrified the dozen or so attendees.  Soon a few began trying to arrange a performance lasting years or decades.  One supporter, Jacob Ullmann, lobbied for Halberstadt, a former East German city that has a collection of 18,000 stuffed birds and is the unheralded home of canned sausage, which was invented here in 1896.  Halberstadt also has a place in music history: An organ built here in 1361 was the first to arrange its keys as they are today, organised according to musical scales with the black ones raised.

The city also had an old monastery with a possible venue.  The St Burchardi church was built in the 11th century and turned into a barn around Napoleon's time.  During the Cold War, it housed pigs.  After German reunification, the pigs moved out, though their troughs, hay and stench remained.  The city council agreed to turn over St Burchardi to a newly formed John Cage Foundation, as long as the project didn't cost the city anything.

Halberstadt inspired the concert's length.  Messrs Metzger, Ullmann and other foundation members counted the years back from 2000 to when the city's famous organ was built, and decided the concert would last that long: 639 years.  Stretching Mr Cage's composition fell to a Swedish music professor, Hans-Ola Ericsson, 44.  Each movement lasts 71 years.  The shortest notes last 6 or 7 months, the longest about 35 years.  There's an intermission in 2319.  Since Mr Cage put no limits on how many of the movements can be repeated, the concert could conceivably last longer than 639 years, Mr Ericsson says.  "It's really limited by how long the organ holds up, if worms eat into the wood, or the lead pipes begin to decompose."  The biggest challenge is fund raising.  A full church-size organ costs more than $500,000.  Michael Betzle, a local physicist whose firm builds tunnels, stepped forward as a benefactor.  He says he was moved by the concept and saw it as a tonic for business executives, in these frenetic times.  The recent accounting scandals, the collapse of Germany's Neuer Markt stock exchange, failed mergers, ruinous investments in 3rd-generation cellular telephone networks - "all these were done because of decisions that were made too quickly," Mr Betzle, 60, explains.  "My wish is that this project causes people to slow down and think out decisions more."

He donated about $45,000 to the foundation.  That was enough to clean up the church and start building the organ.  On September 4, 2001, about 350 people paid $17 each to attend the start of the concert.  At midnight - September 5 marked Mr Cage's 89th birthday - two bare-chested men began pumping the bellows, the way it was done centuries ago.  The solar-powered motor later took over.  Since then, the foundation has raised money by selling commemorative coins and letting donors sponsor particular years.  Eighteen years have been sold at $1,135 (1,000 euros) each.  The year 2222 has been taken but plenty of years like 2100 and 2500 are still available.

The foundation has also applied for grants and asked big companies such as Volkswagen AG, headquartered nearby in Wolfsburg.  So far, the only corporate sponsor is Thyga AG, a Munich electric company, Mr Betzle says.  It has pIedged $1,135 a year for the duration of the concert.  At the moment, the foundation has around $17,000, but needs to raise more than $100,000 within 2 or 3 years.  In addition to building the organ, it has plans to turn a building next to the church into a contemporary music centre named the John Cage Academy.

Mr Betzle would like to link the concert to museums around the world.  "There could be a room where people could hear a tone from Halberstadt," he said.  "It would be like an eternal name."

Source: The Wall Street Journal Friday 11 July 2003

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