When the St Burchardi church in Halberstadt holds a unique musical event on Monday, a portion of the audience entering the historic 11th-century venue will have reserved their tickets well in advance and traveled from far away. However, they are not likely to request an additional performance.
One thing is for sure, this concert will not be ending anytime soon.
John Cage’s composition Organ²/ASLSP As Slow as Possible has been continuously played since September 2001 in a small town near the Harz mountains. It is currently one of the longest-running concerts in existence, with a scheduled duration of 639 years. This means that the performance will not end until the year 2640. The only musical piece predicted to last longer is Jem Finer’s Longplayer, which uses singing bowls and is being played inside a lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London. However, this performance started almost two years earlier and is set to conclude in 2999.
On February 5th at 3pm, the concert will achieve its latest accomplishment. A volunteer responsible for maintaining the project will connect another pipe to the organ, creating a d’ note in the existing six-note chord. This will mark the first chord alteration in two years and the 16th since the project began over twenty years ago.
Approximately 150 attendees from various countries, including Germany, the US, Russia, China, and the Philippines, have purchased €200 tickets for a prime spot in the front row. However, based on past experiences, the church’s maximum capacity of 500 people is expected to be reached due to the popularity of the event. Typically, after a significant shift in sound, there is a period of five minutes of quiet observation followed by a round of applause as a show of respect.
“It’s a show that defies traditional notions of a concert,” states Rainer Neugebauer, a member of the foundation responsible for arranging the event and its unofficial artistic director. He further explains, “There has been an ongoing discussion on whether the term ‘concert’ accurately describes it. There is certainly a hint of insanity to it.”
Cage created the original composition of “As Slow as Possible” for piano in 1985, and later modified it for the organ two years later. Although the title gives clear instruction to the performers, the specific tempo was left unspecified. The piece was first performed in Metz in 1987 and lasted approximately 29 minutes.
In 1998, at an organ conference in Trossingen, a group of philosophers and musicians suggested a more literal interpretation. This was six years after Cage’s death. However, the idea of a 1,000 year concert was dismissed due to its uncomfortable similarities to Hitler’s promise of creating a long-lasting empire.
However, when the group decided to perform in Halberstadt, they discovered historical evidence stating that the cathedral had housed the first organ with a contemporary keyboard layout for religious purposes in 1361. Unable to reword.
Obtaining funding for the project proved to be challenging. The construction of an organ capable of playing all the notes in Cage’s composition required 89 pipes, which would have been too expensive. Therefore, a smaller instrument was constructed with nine holes for interchangeable pipes.
It would have been impossible for a human to continuously play an organ for years, so the organist had to rely on a mechanical method. Instead of using fingers to press the keys, the air is blown into the pipes by an electronic wind machine and the keys are pressed down by three small sandbags.
The bellows of the instrument were installed on the 89th birthday of Cage, which was on September 5, 2001. The concert started with a 17-month pause, as indicated by the original score. Kay Lautenbach, a sound engineer at Halberstadt’s Harztheater, who is responsible for keeping the project running, described the experience as a goosebump-inducing moment. “There was complete silence,” Lautenbach said.
The initial musical note was released from the pipes in February 2003, causing nearby residents to express dissatisfaction with the loudness. In 2011, a solution was discovered to decrease the air pressure. According to Neugebauer, there have been no further complaints since then.
Halberstadt has a population of 40,000 people. The author estimates that half of the residents are not aware that the concert is still ongoing. The remaining half may not fully understand the significance of the event, but they recognize that it brings positive attention to the town.
Individuals who visit St Burchardi church often come from distant locations. They request to be left alone in the church for several hours or have been given the opportunity to spend a night near the buzzing organ. Lautenbach shares, “I’ve encountered individuals who initially dismissed the concept as overly intellectualized gibberish, but as soon as they step inside the church, they are completely captivated.”
Keeping As Slow As Possible running for an additional 616 years presents a difficult challenge, especially in terms of finances. The project is entirely dependent on donations, and all of the “sound plaques” inside the church have already been purchased – one for each year of the piece’s duration. The most recent fundraising opportunity allows individuals to reserve a seat for the final performance on September 4, 2640 (tickets can be transferred).
The main difficulty will be to persuade upcoming generations of volunteers to ensure that the idea does not come to an early end. Many of the individuals who initially advocated for the event to occur in Halberstadt have since died. All of the volunteers involved in the project are aware that they will not be alive to hear the last note.
“Isn’t that the best part?” remarks Anneli Borgmann, a 51-year-old ecologist from Ströhbeck who recently joined the foundation in 2021, following a seven-year term with a single chord progression.
She reflects, “I’ve accepted the fact that my life is fleeting. Cage’s work embodies a tenacious hopefulness – we may pass away, but this masterpiece will endure for future generations.”