Is modernity an endless project

The musical history of Halberstadt also includes a very “crazy” project, namely a 639-year realization of the organ piece ORGAN² / ASLSP by the American composer and avant-garde artist John Cage (1912-1992). This project is crazy in the meaning of “not in the usual place” because it does not meet the traditional expectations of music lovers for a concert, for example in terms of melody and rhythm or even being able to hear the whole thing to the end. But with open ears and with an open mind, one can experience a time and sound experience of a very idiosyncratic kind in the almost thousand year old Burchardi Church since the beginning of the 3rd millennium. A truly trans-epochal piece of time, a sound space with an experienced present between past and future, a globally recognized reference project of modern music and art, the John Cage Organ Art Project.

Timeless sounds, quiet in the room

Due to the dated donation boards in the church, some visitors only see a bizarre indoor cemetery with music. Others discover traces of more than 639 years of the past on the walls, recognize the graphic notation of the few tones in the sound sculpture, and hear a very difficult sound that changes in space. Some people have the feeling that they have experienced a piece of eternity. The leisure and gentle serenity with which many listeners perceive the inimitable sounds often have something meditative about them. In addition, most of the visitors are fascinated by the philosophically optimistic approach to time and the future. In a present time in which many rush from appointment to appointment to the point of exhaustion, so you literally have no time, a project is started whose duration roughly corresponds to the total construction time of the Cologne Cathedral. Sounds that last for months or years convey a sense of timelessness or the stopping of time. The continuum of time and history seems to have been exploded without any clocks being shot. With Walter Benjamin one could speak of a present that is not a transition, but in which time has come and has come to a standstill. And if this project, as it is planned today, is carried out to the end, then at least the building of the former Burchardi Church on September 4th, 2640 will experience a peace that will last longer than ever before in history.

Cage, but why Halberstadt?

John Cage, born in Los Angeles in 1912 and died in New York shortly before his 80th birthday in 1992, was never in Halberstadt. As a student of Arnold Schönberg, he not only worked as a musician, but also as a philosopher, visual artist and linguist. He revolutionized modern music. For him, all sounds, tones and noises are equal, they all have the same dignity. He was particularly interested in the new, not yet heard, surprising sounds. His handling of the sound material can be described as de-composition; the subjectivity of the composer, his likes and dislikes, should be taken back, so he worked a lot with chance operations. He was concerned with exhausting all possibilities of formal and structural relationships, with the dazzling diversity of the unstructured. He was interested in initiating processes whose progress cannot be foreseen.

He advocated the utopia of a non-intentional, non-instrumental life, of simply being there and being, for freedom and openness. “I am for the birds, not for the cages.” - which also applies to what we call silence, which for Cage only means the absence of intended sounds.

In 1985, Cage composed the piece ASLSP for a piano competition with the help of random operations. In 1987 it has the ambiguous title - As SLow as Possible, but also the reference to “Soft morning, city! Lsp! ”From the last chapter by James Joyce‘ Finnegans Wake: as Lsp - rewritten to a new piece for organ: ORGAN² / ASLSP. The German organist Gerd Zacher, to whom this piece is dedicated, was involved. He premiered it that same year in Metz in just over 29 minutes. The piece consists of eight parts, each of which must be played and each can be repeated. Nothing is fixed - except for the pitch and duration of the sounds. A piano string fades away. The organ is a wind instrument, an aerophone, that can hold its tone as long as it is supplied with wind. So what does "as slow as possible" mean for an organ? In 1998, at the second conference for new organ music in Trossingen, composers, organists, musicologists, organ builders, theologians and philosophers, some of whom worked closely with Cage, such as Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Rainer Riehn and Hans-Ola Ericsson, with others from Cage were fascinated by how Christoph Bossert, Jakob Ullmann and Karin Gastell developed the then u-topical idea of ​​realizing this piece, which is based on the lifespan of an organ.

In the Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, through the mediation of Johann Peter Hinz, the location of the performance was first found. Then people remembered that Halberstadt had already written organ and music history. In the middle of the fourteenth century there was probably the first large organ with a 12-note keyboard in Halberstadt Cathedral. Michael Praetorius - the most important music theorist of the 17th century and composer of the song "Es ist ein Ros‘ sprung "- has seen the organ, albeit in an unplayable condition. In the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum from 1619 he describes the block organ, the front of which was about 8 m wide, with pipes made of lead, these thinly coated with tin and painted, the largest of them 32 feet high, and equipped with two 10 pedal bellows. The completion of this organ by Nicolaus Faber in 1361 provided the orientation for the duration of the performance: With the turn of the millennium as a mirror axis, the duration was set at 639 years and Christoph Bossert and Rainer O. Neugebauer calculated the sound changes of the first part by 2072.


On September 5, 2000, Cage‘s 88th birthday, the project started in Halberstadt. A year later, the bellows went into action, and in 2003 the first whistles sounded on the makeshift organ.

2006 was very hectic, there were two sound changes in one year. Since 2012, only the two 16-foot bass pipes c ‘and des‘ have been sounding - the latter, incidentally, until 2071. A sound that alternates between the engine room and the port of Hamburg. On October 5, 2013, the whole thing was added to a five-note sound that didn't change for almost seven years, until Cage’s 108th birthday in 2020. On September 5th, 2020, again on a Cage birthday, it was "5to7". In a solemn act of sound change, the organ received two more organ pipes. Just as the score suggests.

Open questions, wonderful

What would Cage have said about the Halberstadt project? At best, one can speculate. Cage - always radical, never consistent - replied to the accusation that his pieces were too long that he himself was responsible for his famous silent piece 4 '33' '(four minutes 33 seconds), the three movements of which are headed "Tacet" , Considered “a very long performance” to be necessary. But: Aren't hundreds of years too long even for ASLSP? Is it, according to Gerd Zacher, just a gag of the century?

The future and experts argue about these and other questions with relish. Isn't the artistic approach a little poor? How exactly are the times of the sound changes calculated? Shouldn't the sound changes themselves have to be stretched in the same way as the sounds? Was it allowed to simply end the “pause” with which the piece begins? Can you start a performance first without an organ and then with an incomplete, makeshift instrument? What if we were so impatient and gambled too fast and 11 months ahead of time? Can you compensate for this later by slowing down the game? What then does slower mean than "as slow as possible"? What if the concert is interrupted because the bellows fail? Who are the musicians at this concert? Is it even a concert if there are often no listeners present? Every evening, when the last visitors have left, the motto is: Close the church door and all questions unanswered! Cage would have been happy, he loved questions: “That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer. "

In 2006 the New York Times found something typically German about this project, namely that it is still there. And that cannot be taken for granted, because money is scarce, especially for ambitious and avant-garde art and culture. The project is supported by a private foundation that has minimal capital stock and is run purely on a voluntary basis, and it thrives primarily on the willingness of the cage enthusiasts, private sponsors and the large number of visitors to donate. A John Cage Academy with its founding president Dieter Schnebel is being set up. Many concerts, readings, exhibitions, seminars in cooperation with music colleges from home and abroad, master classes with the award of the Cage Prize and scientific conferences with international participation are highly regarded preparatory work.

For some, a musical apple tree was planted in St. Burchardi, for others it is a musical message in a bottle based on the idea of ​​an American anarchist who was close to Zen Buddhism. ORGAN² / ASLSP is a radical, irritating, open and extremely gentle art project at the same time, "... it's about human joke ... the human eye has not heard it, the human ear has not seen it." A dream instigated so strange. A former monastery church as a sound (t) room that reveals more than 639 years of the past and is filled with the power of Ernst Bloch’s hope for more than 639 years of the future.