In 2016, Laurie Anderson recreated the experience of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in Saint Mark’s chapel in Brighton. The five-day-long performance piece involved “some eight unmanned guitars leaning on a similar number of vintage amps,” Mark Sheerin writes, all of them cranked up, feeding back, and echoing around the Anglican church’s vaulted ceiling. It was a fitting tribute to Reed, a sustained, dissonant drone that also invokes “the mysteries of faith and the incarnation of rebel angels.”
If five days seems like a long time to hold a single note, however, consider the performance of John Cage’s composition “ORGAN/ASLSP” or “A Slow as Possible” that began in the St. Burchardi church, in the German town of Halberstadt, on September 5th, 2001, what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. The artists staging this piece intend it to last for 639 years. If the organ doesn’t fall apart and if a new generation of curators continues to take the place of the old, it will play until the year 2640.
Those are some big Ifs, but as long as it lasts, the piece should draw crowds every few years when a chord changes, as just happened recently, despite the pandemic, after the organ had played the same chord for almost 7 years. The change occurred on September 5th, 2020, Cage’s birthday, 19 years after the performance began. Lest we think its length insanely perverse, we should bear in mind that Cage himself never specified a tempo for “As Slow as Possible.” The score itself only “consists of eight pages of music, to be played,” writes Kyle Macdonald at Classic FM, “well, very, very slowly.”
Typically, organists and pianists have interpreted this direction within the space of an hour. Some have stretched single performances “up to, and beyond, 12 hours.” Obviously, no single person, or even team of people, could sustain playing the piece for 233,235 days. Nor, however, has the extreme slowness of the John Cage Organ Project version been made possible by digital means. Instead, a group of artists built a special pipe organ for the task. Each time a chord changes, new pipes are added manually. On Saturday, a masked crowd gathered “to see the G sharp and E notes meticulously installed.”
The organ is automated, by mechanical means. No one needs to sit and hold keys for several years. But can the long-term coordination needed to maintain this solemnly quixotic installation extend over six hundred years for a grand finale in 2640 (IF the organ, the church, and the planet, survive)? The question seems almost irrelevant since no one living can answer it with any degree of certainty. It depends on whether future generations see the St. Buruchardi “As Slow as Possible” as a phenomenon that should continue to exist. But why, we might ask, should it?
Maybe one way of thinking of the John Cage Organ Project is through the lens of the Long Now Project’s 10,000 Year Clock, a device being constructed (“no completion date scheduled”) to radically change humans’ relationship to time, to push us to think beyond—hundreds and thousands of years beyond—our meager lifetimes. Cage, I think, would appreciate the effort to turn his eight page composition into a musical manifestation of the future’s longue durée.