Giving Thanks to Saint Burchardi and John Cage
I’m not sure exactly when Halloween became the start of the Christmas season, but it seems that ever since the light went out on the jack-o-lantern the airwaves have been jammed with the talk of gift-buying. Late December remains seven weeks away, and in between now and that time of packages tied up in string there is a little something called Thanksgiving. Many families across America will gather one Thursday for food and football, perhaps briefly stopping at some point after the green beans and before the pie to consider for what or whom they are thankful.
This year has been a rough one for so many of us. Even if the casualties of war or the uncertainties of the financial markets have not directly affected your household, it’s likely you know somebody whose life has been hurt. This is why I’m taking the time to be thankful for the fact that in the town of Halberstadt, Germany there is the church of St. Burchardi. Inside that church there is an organ, and that organ, at this very moment, is performing a piece by the late avant-garde composer John Cage titled, As Slow As Possible.
Back in 2000, a conference of musicians decided it should be played precisely in that manner, and since no specific time requirement was indicated by Cage’s eight-page composition, they would devise a way to honor the implied tempo of the work; by playing the piece for 639 years.
It seems that in 1361, the church of Saint Burchardi first installed an organ within its confines, and thusly, 639 years later at the turn of the millennium, this conference felt that this number of years provided the proper symbolism for such an event that recognizes such an independent spirit as Cage, and an organ was built to accommodate the nearly seven century-long performance.
On September 5, 2001, the 89th anniversary of Cage’s birth, it began, appropriately enough, with a rest of seventeen months. There is a strange irony that the world and the future of its existence would be questioned with the 9/11 tragedy in the United States less than a week after such a benign and progressive act.
The first note sounded on February 5, 2003, and despite everything that has transpired around the world since, the tones continue to resonate. Pilgrimages are made each time the note changes as it has become a rather rare and powerful occurrence. The next three note changes will be on July 5, 2012, October 5, 2013, and September 5, 2020, and when it does, the church will be filled with visitors from all over the planet.
John Cage was one of the more controversial figures in modern music. Look no further than his composition, 4’33, in which the musicians play absolutely nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. It’s been the inspiration of many punch lines since its debut, (Worst song I ever bought on Itunes, or, I’m not the best piano player, so I might make a mistake playing it. You get the idea). However if given the chance, the notion of almost five minutes of mandated silence can be incredibly refreshing and possibly even a challenge for those of us driven to fill the space with sound. Or maybe it was Cage’s idea of a really clever joke aimed at the pretentions of “sophisticated” compositions and audiences. Either way it’s a brilliant way to get the world to be quiet for four-and-a-half minutes.
As Slow As Possible sits at the other end of the spectrum as a tone will sound continuously until the next change. Those curious as to what note is being performed at the moment can dial up a website www.john-cage.halberstadt.de and listen.
Of course, none of us will be around to hear the finish in 2640, but this is precisely why I’m thankful. There is an inherent optimism that someone will be around to hear it, and I appreciate that there are people confident of this. It’s so easy given the current state of the globe to wonder if humanity is going to come out the other side of all these messes. Most people aren’t confident in the next six months, let alone 639 years.
So this year when it’s time to give thanks, I think I’ll pause for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and then I’ll think of Halberstadt, and of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren asking in bad German accents for directions to Saint Burchardi.
- Recommended listening:
- John Cage- 4’33
Picture By Brian Gimmel