A musical piece that's part long-term sociology experiment

Illustration for article titled A musical piece that's part long-term sociology experiment

And when I say long-term, I mean most-of-the-coming-millennium kind of long-term. There is a church in Germany that will be performing one musical piece until the year 2640. What will it mean if there's an applause as the end?


John Cage is best known for his piece, 4'33", or four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It's an experimental piece that is completely silent. Cage put the "art" in "arts and entertainment" and, some would argue, took the "entertainment" out of it. He aggressively pursued cutting-edge ideas. One of these was the famous score, "ASLSP," or "As SLow aS Possible." He wrote a score for the organ, and neglected to specify any boundary for the time span of the piece. Most of the time, concerts of ASLSP are anywhere from 20 minutes to a little over an hour. They can last for days. The church of St Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany, is playing it for 639 years.

The performance, which first gained momentum at an organist's conference during a griping session about the pace of modern life, officially began in Cage's birthday, September 5th, 2001. Fortunately, no one had to tax themselves too much, since it began with a rest that didn't end until February 2003. Since then, note changes happen every couple of years, always on the fifth of the month, to honor Cage's birthday. Soon there is to be a long note, so the change in October of this year will be the last until 2020. Perhaps.

Or perhaps this note change will be the last one. This is, after all, a performance that's also a test of engineering (the organ), and of society. The reason that anyone managed to get their hands on a church organ at all was the fact that the church, once a nunnery, had fallen into such disuse that it was converted to a pigsty. The church was built in the 1360s, which means that if the performance lasts, the cathedral would have spent about as much time as a concert hall as a church. On the other hand, the order that built the cathedral — the Cistercians — still exist, and are still true to their original vocation of manual labor in the service of god.

It seems that actions hold up better than places do. Perhaps, like the Cistercians, this performance of ASLSP will survive by taking its act on the road — moving across instruments, across countries (or city-states, or giant dome communities, or whatever else the future will bring), and end in an Earth-evacuating space-ship. Or maybe it will be like Christmas, and other traditions that have changed over time — slowly taking on notes of other songs once ASLSP's original score is lost, and morphing into a simple sustained roar.

Or possibly people will get sick of the noise and insist it stop. It all depends on what the future holds.

[Via Atlas Obscura and New York Times]



DRL DeBoer

Who is holding the key down?