In Brief

A Ceremonial Chord Change for John Cage’s 639-year-long Concert

An organ recital of a piece by the composer began in 2001 and will run until 2640. This weekend, listeners gathered to hear its 14th chord change.

The St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, which has hosted a performance of Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP” since 2001 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the language of music, a piece can be played from larghissimo (very slowly) to prestissimo (very fast), but there is no specific tempo marking for the instructions John Cage gave to his recital “Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible)”. Indeed, the performance of the piece began in 2001 at the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany and is scheduled to continue until 2640, making it the slowest concert in the world. 

This weekend, the medieval church marked the organ recital’s 14th chord change, an important milestone in its planned 639-year run. A chord change introduces new sounds to a composition; in this case, two new organ pipes were added to the American conceptual artist and composer’s piece, modifying the sound for the first time since 2013.

According to the New York Times, a small, masked audience of Cage fans gathered in the church this Saturday, September 5, the late composer’s birthday and the anniversary of the day the concert began in 2001.

Cage originally wrote “Organ²/ASLSP” in 1985 for the piano and adapted the eight-page score for the organ in 1987. After his death in 1992, a group of philosophers and musicians decided on the piece’s duration of 639 years, a reference to the time between the turn of the millennium in 2000 and the construction of Germany’s first modern keyboard organ in 1361. 

Despite gathering restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony was well attended, including by spectators from outside Germany. Dr. Rainer Neugebauer, who runs the John Cage Organ Foundation, told the Times that the performance has brought 140,000 people to Halberstadt since it began, helping to put the small German town on the map.

“It’s not a project for the masses,” Neugebauer acknowledged. “But it’s a crystallization point for contemporary art. It brings interesting people to Halberstadt.”

The chord change ceremony was live-streamed and can be viewed here.

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