John Cage preparing a piano in 1947, photographed by Irving Penn

As slow as possible, In the silent absence of John Cage

In Halberstadt, Germany, two hours outside of Berlin, a small church is currently hosting an ongoing performance of John Cage’s “ORGAN2/ASLSP”- since 2001. Scheduled to end in the year 2640 the piece celebrates the iconic musical pioneer whose avant-garde compositions influenced an array of genres, movements and artists. Central to the concept of the score and its performance is the idea of slowness, questioning: How slow is as slow as possible?

At the beginning of the month, John Cage admirers, curious locals and international press gathered – socially distanced – in the small town of Halberstadt, Germany to experience the rare opportunity to witness a cord change on an organ. Despite the COVID pandemic, the century- long project continued its planned timeline, with the upcoming chord change scheduled to take place on the 5th of February in 2024. In the meantime, in two years, visitors will gather again to witness a “pause”, the end tone of the chord played this year. The press often describes this project as “the longest musical performance in history”, or as “the slowest concert in the world”. While the chairman of the organisation, Rainer O. Neugebauer, notes his discord with the promotion of the performance through superlative statements, “ORGAN2/ASLSP” is without a doubt is the longest active initiative to perform a musical composition.

Widely regarded today as one of the most influential composers of the last century, John Cage was a figure that during his lifetime polarised the masses. Despite being called “an inventor of genius” by the acclaimed composer and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Cage’s experimental, and at times radical propositions earned him a mixed reputation. His influence today, however, is undeniably present in the development of contemporary music theory, as well as within conceptual art. Fluxus for example, the international avant-garde movement of the 1960s, centred its ethos mainly around Cage’s practice and theory.

John Cage in 1945

John Cage and Marcel Duchamp in 1968

John Cage playing children-sized piano

Born in 1912 in Los Angeles, Cage dropped out of college early and at only 18 years old convinced his parents that travelling through Europe would prove itself more beneficial for his future than traditional college studies. Fascinated by the work of conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who would later become his friend, he began studying various art practices such as architecture, painting, literature and poetry. It was the influence of contemporary composers such as Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky, and his exposure to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, that encouraged Cage’s interest in music. After returning to the US in the early 1930s, he became increasingly invested in the work of acclaimed Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg who is widely considered to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. When it was suggested to him by his peers to attempt to become Schoenberg’s apprentice, Cage travelled to New York to study piano with one of his former students. Once confident enough to approach Schoenberg, the composer asked Cage to take a vow to devote his life to music, mainly because he was not able to afford the high prices of the lessons. Free of charge, the young musician embarked on his studies that would shape the beginning of a storied career.

This faithful promise to fully dedicate himself to the purpose of music would remain relevant to Cage throughout his life. It may also be essential to the understanding of the composer’s devotion to consistently push the boundaries of musical theory. The following decades in his career are defined by the exploration of various artistic and worldly influences that would shape his unique style and technique. During his studies, the composer established the necessity to expand his range. Realising he was struggling with harmony, Cage began experimenting with the definition of the instrument, utilising household objects to create sounds, or customising his instruments, such as the piano by inserting coins and screws between its strings.

John Cage at D. T. Suzuki’s house in Japan in 1962, with Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi

John Cage David Tudor in Japan in 1960

John Cage at D. T. Suzuki’s house in Japan in 1962, with Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi

The latter became known as “the prepared piano”, and it is one of the many inventions that catapulted Cage to the forefront of the musical avant-garde. After his studies with Schoenberg, Cage fully immersed himself in the act of composing, trademarking unique ways to source sounds from everyday surroundings. The composer continuously explored his musical composition through various intersections with philosophy, modern dance, or the visual arts. Pivotal to the development of his musical oeuvre was the introduction to Zen Buddhism through Japanese Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki. It became Cage’s signature practice to be able to abandon one idea to fully devote himself to a new emerging thought or vision. Within the teachings of Zen Buddhism, it was the act of renouncing the ego, a western paradigm that destructively follows a culture of toxic individualism, that aligned with Cage’s own philosophies.

It is at this point that the composer embarks on the exploration of yet another unconventional sound, silence. The exploration of silence and the active non-activeness of the performer became one of the key signatures in the composer’s body of work. In the core values of Zen Buddhism, which directly originates as representative of Chinese Buddhism, Cage found his own musical efforts reaffirmed. In its most simple definition, the Zen, or Chan Buddhism emphasises that emptiness is not nothing, that emptiness is not a void space, but rather that it is filled with endless possibilities. Everything contains its own existence and is its own centre. This line of thought contributed significantly to Cage’s musical manifestations that dismissed the application of value or sense but rather promoted active listening to the sound as a pure entity. In one of Cage’s most acclaimed, and at the same time most radical works, “4’33’’” the composer sitting in front of a piano does not play one single note or make one single sound for four minutes and 33 seconds. By removing the hierarchies between sound, noise and music, the piece explores the core notion of what we constitute as music. As a listener, the performer’s stillness, inactiveness and non- conduct, forces us to reflect on the emptiness created through the silence that fills the time. The void that is created is subsequently filled with the arising external sounds produced by the physical surroundings, but most importantly, the internal sounds that are our thoughts, emotions and our spirit.

Similar concepts have been investigated within conceptual art, for example with the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who Cage deeply admired and whose series of White paintings even served as the backdrop for some of his performances in the 1950s.

“There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.”

(John Cage)

This brings us back to Germany, where in 1997, five years after the death of John Cage, at an organ symposium, his composition “ORGAN2/ASLSP” was discussed. Ten years prior, Cage had rewritten an earlier version for it into a score for an organ. Initially intended for the piano, the composer modified the score upon being approached by Gerd Zacher, who requested it to be adjusted for the organ as its instruction to have it played as slow as possible would be more suitable for the pipe instrument. Titled ORGAN2, Cage added the instruction ASLSP, an abbreviation for “As Slow As Possible” and a reference to another avant-garde work by James Joyce, whose “Finnegans Wake” contains the quote “Soft morning city. Lsp!”. During his lifetime, a performance of the piece “ORGAN2/ASLSP” typically varied between twenty to up to seventy minutes. However, at the symposium in 1997, a group of philosophers, organ builders and music theorists gathered to challenge and to reflect on the unanswered question: how slow is as slow as possible? They concluded that an organ would be the ‘most appropriate instrument to execute an endeavour of this kind. Aside from the organ’s ability to have a note resonate for a long time, a well-maintained pipe structure would also allow for the structure to survive for decades, making it theoretically possible for the score to be played forever.

Organist Julian Lembke adds a pipe to the organ of the John Cage Organ Project during a chord change

Visitors queueing in front of the Burchardi, September 2020

During the symposium, the church St. Buchardi, an abandoned Romanesque building structure in the southern city Halberstadt became topic of discussion as a possible location for this permanent performance. Known to many music theorists because of its world-famous organ, built by Nicolas Faber in 1361, the church lent itself perfectly to the purpose of the project. The organ is the first instrument built of its kind that applies the same twelve-tone traditional keyboard layout that we are familiar with today. The organisers are reactivating its forgotten importance to music history as the birthplace of the modern instrument. Harriett Watts, one of the board members of the organisation previously noted that: “Halberstadt itself was transformed into a structure, both of time and space, pointing simultaneously backward and forward as is manifested in both directions via the duration set for the performance of the piece.”

In order to determine the length of the performance, the founders of the “John Cage Organ Foundation” took the year 1361 when the organ was built and subtracted it from the year of the new millennium, 2000, determining that the piece should be played for 639 years. When the performance started in 2001, on what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday, the piece started in the spirit of John Cage with a brief moment of silence that lasted for two years. The posthumous realisation of “ORGAN2/ASLSP” is emblematic of Cage’s efforts to investigate the boundaries of the performative and the exploration of music’s existence between time and space. By endlessly stretching a musical score, all formal aspects such as notes, tone and rhythm are removed to the bare minimum. The listener experiences the chord’s fully realised presence within the context of time and space. Similar to the experience of viewing minimalistic paintings, stripped of any formal elements such as colour, figuration or form, the realisation of the work is activated solely between the viewer and the instrument. “ORGAN2/ ASLSP” fluctuates between tone and silence every couple of years, silence and pause thus become part of the noise, the volume.

Reliant on the financial support of its devoted admirers, project coordinator Georg Bandarau notes that the demographic of the project’s audience varies. It ranges from interested locals to enthusiastic music students, to John Cage admirers from all over the world that every couple of years gather together. He notes that most people that join the events actively reflect on the concept of time and wish to share this act of contemplation with their children, or grandchildren. One way they can do this is through the patronage that allows one to become a patron of one of the chord change days. Some have reserved their birthdays in a few hundred years to come, hoping to share this experience with their descendants. In contrast to the breathless pace of our modern-day world, this project offers the rare experience to realise ones ephemeral and fleeting existence in the context of a music score that was made to exist longer than any individual.