World’s longest song drones on

World’s longest song drones on

Chord change in 639-year John Cage composition is the first in seven years

The organ at St Burchard church in Halberstadt, Germany was built especially to play John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) which will last until 2640. (Photo by Clemensfranz via Wikimedia Commons)
The organ at St Burchard church in Halberstadt, Germany was built especially to play John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) which will last until 2640. (Photo by Clemensfranz via Wikimedia Commons)

A momentous event is scheduled to occur on Saturday in a German cathedral, when a chord changes in the world’s longest musical performance.

It will be the first chord change in seven years in Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) by John Cage, the American composer who died in 1992.

The next new chord will begin to sound on Feb 5, 2022, and the music played on the custom-built pipe organ will drone on … and on … until Sept 26, 2640 if all goes according to plan.

Cage is perhaps best known for 4’33”, which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. He considered it his most important work.

ASLSP had modest beginnings in 1985 when Cage first wrote it for the piano. In its original iteration, it had a duration ranging from 20 to 70 minutes. He adapted it for organ in 1987 but in his lifetime he did not specify how slow "slow" ought to be.

A conference in 1997 debated Cage’s instruction to play the piece “as slow as possible”, since an organ in theory could sound for centuries. They settled on 639 years. 

A special organ was constructed in the former St Burchard church in Halberstadt, Germany, the site of the first documented use of a permanent organ in 1361 — 639 years before the turn of the millennium.

However, setting up the organ took longer than expected and the performance did not start at the beginning of 2000 as planned. When it did begin, the piece started with a 17-month rest on Sept 5, 2001, which would have been Cage’s 89th birthday.

The first actual sound emerged on Feb 5, 2003, with subsequent chord changes occurring roughly every 9 to 12 months up to 2013, when the eight-page composition called for the notes to be held for ... well, a lot longer. Saturday’s chord change was to be the 15th.

The last time the notes changed, on Oct 5, 2013, around 1,500 people crammed into the church around the organ. “It was way too full, it wasn't safe at all,” Rainer Neugebauer, director of the John Cage Organ Foundation Halberstadt, told Deutsche Welle

So even before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, project organisers knew they'd somehow have to restrict access to the small church for the 2020 event, though a live video stream is also planned. 

The actual chord change requires the installation of two new organ pipes to allow a G sharp and an E to resonate for the following 518 days, thanks to sandbags holding down the keys.

While ASLSP appears to have no challengers when it comes to duration for a mechanically generated piece of music, a computer-aided performance scheduled to last 1,000 years has been playing since 2000 in London.

Longplayer, by the British musician Jem Finer (a founding member of The Pogues) is based on an existing piece of music that lasts 20 minutes and 20 seconds. But when processed by computers using a simple algorithm, the result is a huge number of variations that can last for 1,000 years without being repeated.

The original Longplayer was performed on 234 Tibetan singing bowls and gongs of varying sizes. While computers as we know them will certainly be obsolete long before the piece ends, Longplayer is designed to be playable using any new technology that comes along, its composer has said.

And yes, there is an app, available for Apple devices.

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