Weedon Weekly: 27th August 2017

John Cage


Concert promoters generally, and organ concert promoters especially, are looking for ways to boost audience numbers. One such boost has come from an unlikely source - the world's slowest organ piece, which plays to healthy audiences, in particular when a note changes every few years!

Composed by the famously avant-grade composer John Cage in 1985, "As SLow aS Possible" (affectionately known also as ASLSP) was intended for v-e-r-y   s-l-o-w performance by a pianist.  But the notes die away on a piano, so when you're holding each key down for several minutes at a time the continuity is rather lost. Accordingly, John Cage rewrote it for organ, where the notes go on sounding just as long as you care to press them. Most organists steam through the work in about 20 minutes, as you'll see here. But not all....

ASLSP was quite a departure from John Cage's most famous work, 4'33", which is the length of time that the performer does, well, nothing at all. The audience sit and listen just to the sounds going on in the world around them. In a city, this would probably be quite a noisy rendering, but in a country church after dark the silence is probably pretty intense. 

Anyway, back to ASLSP. To honour what would have been JC's 89th birthday, a church in Halberstadt, Germany, installed a specially built organ and arranged for it to play ASLSP very 'largo ' indeed! The piece kicked off at midnight on the 4th/5th Sepember 2001. As it starts with a rest, the first thing to happen was one and a half year's silence. Since then, the notes have been changing on average every 7 years. A healthy crowd gathered for one such milestone in 2013 (as you'll see here). A conductor indicated the exact moment for the transformation with a baton and a score, and a lady carefully removed one organ pipe to stop it sounding. Other pipes carried on playing by having a bag of weights hung on their keys. This painstaking operation was greeted by hearty applause. 

Now the organ is set to hum like a Hoover until 2020, when the next note is altered, so you have plenty of time to organise your ticket and hotel. The piece will play for 639 years, finishing in 2640.

Most organ clubs would be pleased to pull in the crowds that visit Halberstadt for the note changes. But I suspect it won't be the key to invigorating audience numbers any time soon. Would you agree?