This Organ Is Playing a 639-Year-Long Song. It Just Changed Chords for the First Time in Two Years

The instrument has been playing composer John Cage’s “ASLSP” since 2001—and it’s scheduled to conclude in 2640

Organ in 2013
Volunteers from the John Cage Organ Foundation conducting an earlier chord change in October 2013 Peter Förster / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

An organ tasked with playing a musical composition “as slow as possible” is living up to the challenge. It just changed chords—for the first time in two years.

Crowds gathered at a church in Halberstadt, Germany, this week to observe the instrument as volunteers added a pipe to slightly alter its song. The wooden-framed organ is currently 23 years into a performance of American composer John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible).”

Set up and maintained by the John Cage Organ Foundation, the piece began playing in 2001 and will conclude in 2640—over 600 years from now. As BBC News writes, “Looking at that period of time in the other direction—the Renaissance was starting to rumble into existence in Europe.”

Cage, who died in 1992, was known for his experimental works. He once wrote a composition entitled “4’33”,” which calls for four minutes and 33 seconds of musicians’ silence. His 1987 debut performance of “ASLSP” in Metz, France, lasted just under 30 minutes. Later renditions have been even slower, such as Diane Luchese’s 2009 performance of the work, which lasted nearly 15 uninterrupted hours. The Halberstadt performance, though, outdoes any other.

John Cage
Composer John Cage in 1988 Rob Bogaerts / Anefo via Wikimedia Commons under CC0 1.0 DEED

As NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports, when the John Cage Organ Foundation—a group of professors, scholars and theologians—gathered in the late ’90s to plan the longest possible performance of “ASLSP,” they disagreed about how to honor Cage’s wishes.

“They said, ‘Oh, the organist must sometimes go to the loo or sometimes to eat,’” foundation member Rainer Neugebauer tells NPR. “And then one person—he was a theologian—said, ‘No, the organist must play until he dies from the seat.’”

The group eventually decided to place small sandbags on the organ’s keys. They also set a composition runtime of 639 years: the length of time between the year 2000 and the 1361 construction of the world’s first 12-tone Gothic organ in Halberstadt. The city offered up St. Burchardi Church, an 11th-century convent, to house the performance, and it began on September 5, 2001—Cage’s 89th birthday.

The organ’s sound has been sustained for so long because of careful engineering. The instrument is “a work in progress,” writes NPR. “It’s being built as the piece progresses, with metal pipes added or taken away with each chord change.” The bellows are powered by electricity—connected to a backup generator—and their winds are carried to the organ via an underground pipe.

Cage’s minimalist work influenced many artistic fields, as Allan Kozinn wrote in his New York Times obituary. The composer collaborated with musicians, artists and choreographers—notably, Merce Cunningham—and his ability to experiment garnered esteem.

In Halberstadt, the long performance of “ASLSP” honors Cage’s legacy by taking his “as slow as possible” directive as seriously as possible. This week’s chord change is the 16th to occur in the performance so far, reports ARTnews’ Karen K. Ho, taking place exactly two years after the previous chord change, which rang out on February 5, 2022. According to the foundation’s website, eager listeners will need to wait another two and a half years to hear the next change in sound, which is scheduled to take place on August 5, 2026.

Neugebauer recalls the organ’s period of quiet at the beginning of the performance, which was calculated as the proportional length of a pause at the start of Cage’s piece: “In the beginning of the first part, for 17 months, you came in here and heard only the bellows,” he tells NPR. The team later realized they’d miscalculated, and the silence should have lasted 28 months.

“I’m 99 percent sure that John Cage, if he’s sitting on a cloud somewhere, would say, ‘Oh, it's good,’” Neugebauer tells NPR. “He would laugh about the mistakes we’ve made.”

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