Discover the Longest Song in the World: A 639-Year Performance of the John Cage Composition Called “Organ/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible)”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Impres­sive Audio Archive of John Cage Lec­tures & Inter­views: Hear Record­ings from 1963–1991

Nota­tions: John Cage Pub­lish­es a Book of Graph­ic Musi­cal Scores, Fea­tur­ing Visu­al­iza­tions of Works by Leonard Bern­stein, Igor Stravin­sky, The Bea­t­les & More (1969)

John Cage’s Silent, Avant-Garde Piece 4’33” Gets Cov­ered by a Death Met­al Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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