As Slow As Possible

Hosted by
This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

As the music industry battles on, sales continue to decline. This week, only two records sold over 100,000 copies. But viewing music from a very different perspective, followers of the great avant garde composer John Cage, continue their 639-year live performance of one of his compositions. Yes, that's right - a 639-year, live performance, of John Cage's piece, aptly titled, As Slow As Possible.

He wrote the piece, originally for piano in 1985 with the help of an electronics program. In 1987, he adapted it for the organ. John Cage was a brilliant composer. He didn't simply write music--he believed in working in the larger arena, where music converged with ideas, the environment, and human interaction. He died in 1992, but this piece had its own destiny. Five years after his death, at a music conference in Germany, performers, musicologists, philosophers and theologians gathered to debate the very nature of the piece, and the preferred method for performing it. A project was created to give life to the work.

It was determined that the piece should be played as slowly as possible. Since the oldest working organ was built in 1361, the project initiators felt that the piece should run for at least that long.

With this length of performance time, listeners would have a symbol to maintain peace and develop creative solutions to insure that the work would continue.

The site of the performance was determined to be St. Burchardi's Church in Halberstadt, Germany. The church had functioned as a convent for more than 600 years. It was partially destroyed, then rebuilt in 1711. For many years, it served as a barn, a distillery and a sty. It was rediscovered for this project, and with the assistance of the city of Halberstadt and private citizens, was revitalized.

On September 5, 2001, the project was launched. It was inaugurated on what would have been the 89th birthday of John Cage, had he lived that long. However, it would take 17 months before a single note was heard, as his composition first required a musical rest.

On February 5, 2003, the first note was struck. 2004 marked the first change of tone. 2005 brought another new tone. Just this month, January 5 marked the first of two chord changes in 2006. The second one will be on May 5.

John Cage was a true optimist and an idealist. He believed in the human spirit, and the ability to find truth in all forms of art. Though this project may seem indulgent to some, it does underscore the desire to slow down our pace from an ever demanding world of instant gratification. If our lives were lived, as slow as possible, consider all the wonderful dimension and depth we might experience.

It's fitting that the project that began days before the events of 9/11, will continue to mark important passages of time in history. It is like a painfully slow metronome, reminding us to be present in every minute of our lives today.

Before he died, John Cage said, We are living in a period in which many people have changed their mind about what the use of music is, or could be for them.

As Slow As Possible describes exactly that.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.