Sep 12, 2020 - Science

The 639-year music program

The music book at the organ in the church of St. Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany.
The music book at the organ in the church of St. Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany. Photo: Jens Wolf/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hundreds of people assembled at a church in Germany on Sept. 5 to hear an organ change chord.

The big picture: The organ at the church of St. Buchardi is playing the composer John Cage's Organ/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible), which is meant to take 639 years — so long that last week's chord change was the first in nearly seven years.

How it works: The performance began on Sept. 5, 2001, on the avant-garde composer's 89th birthday.

  • True to its title, the composition is meant to be played incredibly slowly — so slowly, in fact, that the rest Cage wrote to begin the performance was so long that the first actual organ pipe chords weren't heard until Feb. 5, 2003.
  • A compressor in the church's basement blows air into the organ to create continuous sound, though when a chord change occurs — like on Sept. 5 — it's done manually.
  • At its current rate of performance, the piece will conclude in the year 2640.

Details: You can see and listen to the chord change here.

Context: The very conception of the piece is a hopeful one, that despite the existential challenges of modern life there will still be human beings to play the composition and listen to the organ hundreds of years into the future.

  • The same spirit animates other futurist monuments like the 10,000-Year Clock, which is being built by the Long Now Foundation in a mountain in Texas. The clock is designed to tick for 10 millennia, its chimes occasionally ringing with a new melody.

What to listen to: The next chord change at St. Buchardi is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2022. Book your tickets now.

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