Coping with Cage:On Organ2/ASLSP, Listening, and Music-Making
During the evening session of the ASAP symposium in Amsterdam on May 25, 2018, I played the first line of John Cage's composition ORGAN2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) on the little organ in the Kerkzaal, a room on the top floor of the University's main building, which was originally built to serve as a church hall. My companion was sound artist Mirjam Meerholz, who contributed a soundscape produced by a seven-part loudspeaker system, distributed across the hall and on the adjoining roof terrace. It made us think. How to cope with Cage in the context of a conference?
In 1985, John Cage composed ASLSP for a piano competition at the University of Maryland. The piece has eight parts, one of which the pianist should choose to omit, and another one to repeat. One could imagine the pianist making a tone appear only when the former one has faded away completely, as that would make the music sound "as slow as possible." One could even expect such an approach to be to Cage's liking, as he himself "translated" ASLSP into "as slow as possible," but he actually gave no clues as to how it should be played; in fact, his instructions include the remark that "neither tempo nor dynamics have been indicated." To Thomas Moore, who premiered the piece and wanted to know how long the performance preferably would take, Cage responded, rather Zen-like: "If each section took one minute to play, then the piece would last eight minutes."1 In 1987, following a suggestion by German organist Gerd Zacher, Cage made the organ version, ORGAN2/ASLSP. Zacher premiered the piece the same year in Metz, France. It took him about twenty-nine minutes to play it.
On September 5, 2001, a very special performance of ORGAN2/ASLSP started in the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany: it is planned to last until at least the year 2640.2 Actually, the performance is the only function of the church. Gutted completely, having been abandoned for decades, it appears to be the perfect place for the likewise unpretentious yet significant music.
The plan to have ORGAN2/ASLSP sound for centuries was born in 1998 in Trossingen, Germany. Following the First International Week of New Organ Music that had taken place a year earlier in the same town, organists including Christoph Bossert, Hans-Ola Ericsson, and Karin Gastell came together with organ builders including Gerald Woehl to think about time in music. Obviously, they [End Page 496] were inspired by the piece's title. They were aware that its performance might not need to be longer than it would take to say "lsp," as Cage had related ASLSP to that word in the final chapter of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "Soft morning, city! Lsp!"3 Yet taking the endlessness of organ tones instead to determine how slow "as slow as possible" could be fascinated them more. In principle, this idea is untenable: playing as slow as possible on an organ would mean that the music would never get beyond the first tones, as they would only die when the wind flow to the pipes producing them stopped—which it won't, provided the organ is maintained well. Hence, the Trossingen group envisioned Cage's music sounding so slowly that experiencing it would evoke a sensation of endlessness.
A decisive practical step was taken by identifying Halberstadt as the birthplace of modern music: the little town once housed in its cathedral the first large organ equipped with keyboards providing twelve tones per octave.4 The fact that the organ was built in 1361 inspired the Trossingen group to a literally far-reaching idea: the time between 1361 and 2000 spans 639 years, so what if the performance would start in 2000 and last until 2639?
Once again, and as always, Cage inspired keeping opposite options open; just like he mentions in his preliminary note to his famous piece 4′33″ regarding the length of its performance ("the work may … last any length of time"), ORGAN2/ASLSP might last much longer than any interpretation of the title suggests as well. Cage's instruction reads: "Distinct from Aslsp [sic], all eight pieces are to be played. However, any one of them may be repeated, though not necessarily."5
Following the decision to perform the piece in Halberstadt, the organizer, the John Cage Organ Foundation Halberstadt, struggled with deciding what the organ to be built for the project should be like, and eventually postponed the start of the performance for a year. The little temporary instrument that is in place now could very well become the permanent organ, if only because it inspires rethinking what an organ is. Is the Halberstadt instrument an organ? Trying to think like Cage inspires to give two answers at least. Yes: it has keys (be it only a few, and held down by little bags filled with sand); it has pipes; and these pipes are blown with wind (organ jargon for air under light pressure). Another typically organ-related property is that it is located on a remote site, that is, not in a high-profile concert hall. At the same time, the question deserves a clear "No" as well: the Halberstadt instrument is a sound sculpture, a means producing a work of sound art, exposed in a museum-like environment. Furthermore, the bellows are fake, having no function at all. Both perspectives combined have a peculiar result: people wanting to attend the sound-changes in the performance have no choice but to travel to the rather inconspicuous place that is the St. Burchardi church.6 [End Page 497]
During Documenta 14 in 2017, St. Martin's church in Kassel inaugurated a huge new organ, built by organ building company Rieger. It's a special instrument, as it provides the organist with the means to manipulate the wind pressure: the pipes can sound very soft and hissing, very loud and shouting, and everything in between. Along with many other musicians, I was invited to take part in the inauguration festival, and specifically to play the organ for eight hours, four hours on Monday, August 14 and four hours on Tuesday, August 15.
I decided to play ORGAN2/ASLSP as its eight movements would fit the eight hours nicely. Moreover, an eight-hour performance would make experiencing the complete piece possible yet provide a Halberstadt-inspired sense of endlessness. Following John Cage's precise way of working, I marked exactly when I would want each note in the score to start and when to stop. I invited Mirjam Meerholz to create eight soundscapes, one for each movement/hour, in order to connect the sound activity of the organ to other sound activities The soundscapes were each based on a specific field recording, varying from sounds from St. Burchardi in Halberstadt to that of waving weeds near the Wadden Sea. Mirjam made them the way electronic music tapes had been made in the early years of electronic music; as a result, they just have to be turned on in order to make them unfold themselves.
The way I played the Kassel organ made it sound unstable, both regarding pitches and sound colors, and blurring the contours of each tone and combinations of tones. In effect, one [End Page 498]
seemingly endlessly continuing sound resulted, constantly active, augmented by the soundscapes from the loudspeakers. The listeners were invited to walk around and develop their listening activity by moving "through" the music. The inspiration for these choices was Cage's remark in a 1991 interview: "I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower, and it gets longer and shorter. … It does all those [End Page 499] things, and I'm completely satisfied with that. I don't need sound to talk to me."7
At the ASAP symposium, Mirjam Meerholz's sound system played the soundscape from Halberstadt, thus making a snippet of the 639-year performance of ORGAN2/ASLSP appear in Amsterdam. I used the stop action of the little organ to manipulate the wind flow to the pipes, and played half of the first movement. We had thirty minutes and decided not to hurry anything.
What happened was that the sounds—taking their time, getting louder, quieter, higher, lower, longer, shorter—appeared to be conceived of as background music by quite a few of the people present, as they did not distract them from enjoying drinks, meeting other people, and networking.
Does this mean that music like this needs a frame that guides listeners toward being able and willing to listen attentively? Thinking along the lines set out by Cage, another understanding seems preferable: regardless of how attentively listeners listened, something special came into existence, in which the sounds made by the listeners themselves played a major role. In fact, the situation made all listeners performers as well, actively, if ever so unknowingly, blurring the borders between what it is to listen and what it is to make music. As said, that makes one think. To what extent do listening and music-making overlap? How? And what does that mean regarding composing?
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In his intriguing self-interview in his seminal book Silence, Cage suggests how to proceed when confronted with questions like these. After having established that it is essential to understand that "nothing is accomplished by writing, playing, or listening to music" because one "otherwise deaf as a doornail" would never be "able to hear anything," he lets his virtual interviewer ask: "But, seriously, if this is what music is, I could write it as well as you." Cage's answer: "Have I said anything that would lead you to think I thought you were stupid?"8
So this is my dream: that whoever was present in Amsterdam in May 2018, and is reading this now, may feel inspired and start rethinking alongside me how to cope with Cage—and again and again—and make the process never stop.
HANS FIDOM is professor of Organ Studies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and leader of the Research Program at the Orgelpark in Amsterdam. He is one of the leading researchers worldwide in the field of the so-called hyper organs: pipe organs that combine historical sound concepts and twenty-first-century technology. The pinnacle of this development so far is the so-called Utopa Baroque Organ at the Orgelpark, an instrument that enthuses not only organists, but all kinds of other musicians, composers, and sound artists as well. Cross-disciplinary active in the fields of Sound Studies, Philosophy, History, and Musicology, Fidom contributes to new understandings of what sound is and how listening to them works, both as such and as the material music is made with, and to what extend sound may be considered heritage.
2. Although the plan of the John Cage Organ Foundation is to have the piece sound exactly this long, future generations might choose to repeat one or more of the parts, making it last significantly longer.
3. In Joyce's novel, Anna Livia opens her last speech with these words: "Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speafing. Lpf! Folty and folty all the nights have failed on to long my hair. Not a sound, falling. Lispn!" James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939; London: Penguin, 1999), 619. In order to find out whether that meant that the performance of ASLSP should last not much longer than it takes to say "lsp," Bossert experimented by playing ORGAN2/ASLSP as fast as possible. See Christoph Bossert, "As slow as possible / Vergegenwärtigung," Positionen—Beiträge zur Neuen Musik 42 (2000): 57. A recording made in 2001 on the organ in the Evangelical City Church in Giengen/Brenz is available on YouTube. Bossert takes about four minutes. See David Zintl, "John Cage in Halberstadt: Die Zeitproblematik in As Slow as Possible," David Zintl, April 5, 2005, www.david-zintl.de/texte/cage.pdf.
4. Michael Praetorius's 1619 description of the organ is remarkably precise in this respect. See Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum / De Organographia (1619; Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2001).
5. A tablet along one of the walls of the St. Burchardi interior marked "John Cage" quotes one of Cage's other thoughts regarding this issue: "Perhaps we have to go back / to my silent piece / implicit in this piece which is called 4′33″ / and which has three movements, / implicit in it is that the movements can be of any length. / I think what we need in the field of music / is a very long performance / of that work." Quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 105. Kostelanetz asks, "What would you do if people did not ask you to make music?" The answer starts with the quote on the tablet, followed by Cage saying: "It is the fulfillment of my obligations in some way to other people, and I wanted to show that doing something that is not music is music." Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 105.
7. See "John Cage about Silence," YouTube video, 4:17, posted by "jdavidm," July 14, 2007, https://youtu.be/pcHnL7aS64Y. It is part of the film Écoute, released in 1992, made by Miroslav Sebestik. Sebestik interviewed eight important twentieth-century composers in this documentary.
8. John Cage, "Experimental Music: Doctrine," in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 17.