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John Cage's 639-year Performance

by Sarah Thorngate 


Tags: Great Writing, Essay Writing, The Oxford American, John Cage, trains,

OxfordAmericanCover“Word has just reached us here in Tuscaloosa, that in Halberstadt, Germany, almost two years ago now, two pipes have been removed from the Blokwerk organ in St. Burchardi Church, silencing a pair of E’s that had been contributing to a chord playing continuously for the previous year and a half,” writes Michael Martone in The Oxford American. The chord he mentions is part of a 639-year performance of John Cage’s As Slow As Possible, a concert that began on September 5, 2001.

“I am fond of this admittedly highly conceptual piece,” he reflects. “I admire its hopeful nature, its assumption that someone not only will be around to play the final notes of the coda but that someone will be around to hear the silence that follows. The movements last seventy-one years each, lifetimes. There will be others present, as time goes on, to sound and sustain the decades-long chords, to harmonize with the apparently endless tonic, to engage the score for scores and scores of years.”

The concert serves as a jumping off point for a poignant musing on trains, time, sound, change and sadness. “Listen, I live near trains. And their timely and timeless concerts seem to be a kind of folk version, an unselfconscious rendition of the avant-garde tooting going on in Germany.

“How strange to have this music always there…Disembodied and massive, a moving wall, a kind of static, yet with distant, distinct eruptions of a phrase, a fragment that first asserts then loses its train of thought. Transmitted through invisible air, the hidden source is most often on the move, restless, remote, receding, leaving this polyphonic note floating in a wake… It is the perfect accompaniment…seamlessly incorporated into our emotional wiring, our ambient ache.”

Source: The Oxford American