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Monday 30 January 2006

Having some years ago decided that the best way to cope with existence is to embrace my flaws as though they were endearing character traits, it follows that it is a point of pride for this blog to be always behind the times to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think it matters being a few weeks late getting the news in this case, that the a new chord in the performance of John Cage’s OrganĀ²/ASLSP in St Buchardi church in Halberstadt began on 5 January.
The piece began on 5 September 2001, but the first note wasn’t heard until 18 months later – the piece begins with a pause. The chord now playing now will end on 5 July 2012. Book tickets now.
Typically, a performance of OrganĀ²/ASLSP as Cage wrote it would last only 20 minutes or so, but someone’s gotten the idea of taking the performance instruction “as slowly and softly as possible” very literally and come up with a rendition that will take 639 years. It beats me why this amount of time represents the ultimate in slowness and that someone couldn’t milk an extra fortnight or so out of the ending shows up the fatuousness of the enterprise.
At least they’ve beaten the Long Now people into actually starting a project designed to make people consider extra-human dimensions of time. The most tanglible products of their Millennium Clock project so far have been $100 pine cones and commemorative bottles of wine – presumably good for cellaring, but not quite enough to lift minds above everyday, material concerns.
What I don’t like is that they’ve attached John Cage’s name to it, enforcing Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. Specifically, it is highly unlikely that Cage (who died in 1992) wrote the piece for anything other than a human performer, with an audience throughout. Generally, contrary to the claims of his detractors and some of his supporters, he was the least conceptual of composers, whose compositional ideas were always subservient to, and philosophically detached from, the resulting music. His later music was carefully written to avoid the need to be “understood”. More than any composer he wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. No “idea of America” here. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.
An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along. They may as well use that church organ for the next 600 years to perform a piece of Bach, who was pretty loose himself with tempo markings on his manuscripts. It would be a travesty of Bach’s music, but no less than this performance of Cage’s. But then, these supposed followers of Cage are OK with turning out a poor, wrong-headed misrepresentation of his music for the sake of their own clever thoughts.
In case you were wondering, the keys are held down with weights; they don’t have a relay team of organists pressing the things round the clock, which is a pity. I would have preferred a guy (possibly Rolf Hind) in a Keith Emerson cape storm into the church every few years and jam a knife into the keyboard, but I guess that’s why I don’t get grant money for this sort of thing.
  1. I predict the piece will never be finished.

  2. An excellent post. I have nothing further to add, but as an admirer of Cage I agree with you that this kind of thing was not his intention.

  3. Thank you. Sometimes I hear people discussing Cage and wonder if it's just me.