Organ2/As Slow(ly) and Soft(ly) as Possible is a piece of music whose title does not disappoint. It was composed by the musician John Cage and, although he never specified how long he would play it, some think it is meant to last forever and ever. Literally. It has been performed continuously since 2001 in the German church of Saint Buchardi in Halberstadt (Saxony-Anhalt). It is played so slowly, that the last chord change was seven years ago. The church organ, built specifically to play the piece, is intended to play it for 620 years in the far-off 27th century.
This Saturday dozens of music lovers gathered in Saint Buchardi (although many stayed at the doors to avoid concentrations inside) to attend a rare phenomenon: a change of chord in the almost eternal melody. Some bags of sand tied to the organ and two new pipes will now allow to sound a sustained sun and an E. They will last, if no one or anything interrupts it, no less than 2,527 days, until Saturday, August 7, 2027.
The change coincides with an important date. “The sound from October 5, 2013 until past Saturday] September 5, Cage’s 108th birthday, has been the longest uninterrupted sound,” said John Cage-Orge Foundation director Rainer O. Neugebauer, of the 14 who have left the organ. The instrument will be adding new pipes over the years and, if the funds allow it and future generations pick up the gauntlet, of the centuries.
The history of the piece dates back to 1985, when Cage composed it as a reference to a quote from the avant-garde work, the satire Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: “Soft morning city. Lsp!”. At the request of the German organist Gerd Zacher, in 1987 the composer adapted a version for organ. Performances of the work usually last between 20 and 70 minutes, but Cage went to his grave in 1992 without clarifying how slow it should be played.
According to the promoters of the foundation that finances the long performance, ten years after its adaptation to the organ, in 1997, at an organ symposium in the city of Trossingen the question was raised as to what exactly “as slow as possible” meant. Organists, musicologists, philosophers, and even theologians debated it. That the project has been established in Halberstadt is due to the fact that this city hosted the first large organ in the world in the 14th century, with a twelve-note keyboard, a scheme that has lasted until the present. 639 years have passed since the musical instrument was installed until the year 2000, hence the duration of the piece now, which can be heard on the project page. Interestingly, the performance, which began on September 5, 2001, began with a long silence that lasted for a year and five months.