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A Leisurely Performance of John Cage’s 'ASLSP' Lasts for 12 Years...and Still Counting

By Louise Burton on Sep 27, 2013 02:22 AM EDT

Classicalite recently reported on Longplayer, the concert in London that will last for 1000 years. There is another long performance going on that is worth a look: ASLSP, a piece by John Cage designed to be played as slowly as possible.

A performance of this piece began on September 5, 2001, John Cage's 89th birthday, and is scheduled to last for 639 years.

ASLSP is a quasi-acronym for As SLow aS Possible. When Cage wrote this piano piece in 1985, he didn't specify how slowly it was to be played. However, most human performances run 20 to 70 minutes, and the longest human performance on record is 24 hours.

In 1987, Cage created a version for organ. Since a pipe organ can hold a tone almost forever, this led to speculation among a group of musicians and philosophers about the implications of Cage's instructions to play the piece "as slow as possible."

"We started discussing--what is as slow as possible for the organ?" Swedish composer and organist Hans-Ola Ericsson told BBC Radio 4's Today Program in 2003.

"We came up with the answer that the piece could last for the duration of the organ--that is, the lifetime of an organ."

Thus, a project was born to perform ASLSP on a specially built organ in St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, for 639 years--ending in the year 2640. The oldest permanently installed organ in the world, in the Catherdral of Halberstadt, dates from 1361. This is 639 years before the proposed start date of 2000. Thus, it was felt that a new pipe organ would last at least 639 years.

The organ has an electrically powered bellows, which continuously blows air into the instrument. Organ pipes are manually added as needed to create the desired tones. The piece has been playing 24/7, day after day, year after year since then. Audience members drift in and out of the concert as desired, listening for a few minutes, then returning weeks, months, or years later to hear more. The performance itself has become something of a tourist attraction.

Of course, slowing a 20-minute piece by a factor of roughly 17 million makes it sound rather static to human ears. One can spend months (or years) listening to a single chord being played. In this context, each chord change becomes an important event.

The next chord change will happen on October 5, 2013.

Who would enjoy such Methuselah-esque music, you may wonder? This video shows a crowd of several hundred in attendance for the change that occurred on July 5, 2008.

Although ASLSP is scheduled to last for 639 years, a lot can happen in that time. Longplayer is technically the longer piece, at 1000 years, but there is no way to know if both pieces will make it to their intended ending times. It would be interesting to place bets on which performance will actually terminate first.

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TagsASLSP, As Slow As Possible, John Cage, St. Burchardi Church, Halberstadt, Germany, Hans-Ola Ericsson, Longplayer

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