Can I get an encore?

How do you make history part of the now? We look to a 639 year long song for inspiration.

By: Nicola Robey,   2 minutes

john cage, paris 1981

One song, playing continuously for 639 years.

This is no radio edit.

Word has come my way of a colossal musical project taking place in Germany. It’s an epic feat that was bought to life in 2001 by a deep-thinking group of philosophers, musicians, composers and theologians.

Their idea: to adapt avant-garde composer John Cage’s piano piece As Slow As Possible, in the most literal of terms.

The group decided the musical number should be played in St Burchardi, a church in Halberstadt Germany on an organ built, adjusted and maintained daily with weighted pedals, to play the duration of the prodigious piece. From start to finish, the painstakingly haunting tune will span almost 32 generations into the future. That’s over six centuries of pipe bellowing noise.

Since the air was first pushed from its metal lungs around twelve years ago, so far all that’s been heard is a low rumbling as the organ warms up for the musical endeavour. But on 5 October, crowds will gather again as a single change of note washes over them.

Something about this project really chimed with me, (excuse the pun). In an age where immediacy and instant gratification are abundant, a time where we can skip a track, flick between channels or turn a page the moment the slightest brush of boredom occurs. such a painstakingly slow, patience-addling creation murmuring constantly stands deliciously at odds to our ideas of progression.

Yet, with such grand ambitions and hopeful faith in the future, the project means that we’re forced to  look forward. We’re forced to imagine a world where an organ continues to spread sound, regardless of what’s happening around it.

A physical work of art, a building or a sculpture – they’re all things that can be protected, touched and preserved. But musical notes, a melody coating the air for a mere moment before it disappears into the ether, is both precious and fleeting. This is something to be nurtured. A gift to pass from generation to generation, and a test of our commitment to a creative legacy. It now falls to the caretakers of St. Burchardi church to keep this momentum alive.

Keeping these fragile notes ringing out for the next 600 or so years seems like a dauntingly awesome task. Yet this project represents so much more than preserving a solitary song. The way I see it, the whole premise toys with our notion of  history, forcing it to become part of the present.

Let’s just hope that no one requests an encore.

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