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Last night a memory bobbed to the surface of Delaney’s brain — something I’d said in passing a good two years ago when she was four.

The Halberstadt organ

“Remember that music that’s been playing for my whole life?” she asked at bedtime. “I wonder if it’s still playing.”

“Huh? Oh…that! Yes, it is!” I retold the story, thrilled that she finds it as cool as I do:

“There was a composer who lived a long life and died not too long ago. His name was John Cage. His music wasn’t like anyone else’s because he didn’t just want to entertain people. He wanted them to think and wonder and even laugh. Mostly he wanted them to think about music in a new way.

“He wrote one piece I especially like. Wanna hear it?”


I sat in silence for thirty seconds. “Okay, that was it. Well, just part of it.”

She looked puzzled. “Just…being quiet?”

“Well…was it really quiet?” I asked.

“No! I heard Max [the guinea pig] making little noises. And the ceiling fan going whoosh whoosh.”

“That’s the idea. This composer wanted us to hear all the sounds around us and to think of it as music that’s playing all the time. So he wrote a piece of silence to make us hear all the stuff we usually ignore.”

“That’s so cool.”

Many of you will have heard of this piece, which is called 4’33” and consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It can be performed, Cage said, on any instrument or combination of instruments and in any number of movements. But that’s not the piece she was asking about. “And he wrote another piece for organ called ‘As Slow as Possible.'”

“That’s the one!”

“And then some people decided to play it really slow — so slow it would last for 639 years. They found a little church in the middle of Germany that wasn’t used anymore, and they built a special organ just to play this one piece of music.

“It started playing seven years ago on September 5th, 2001. But the music starts with a rest — a silence in music — so the first thing you heard was nothing! For seventeen months!”

“Haha! Weird!”

“And right in the middle of that silence — you were born.”

“Awesome,” she whispered.

She was right. Somehow, juxtaposing her birth and that silence was awesome. Even better: The bellows sprung to life on that day in September, and pumped away for twenty months as the only sound in the church. Once again, music without music.

“Then one day in the middle of the winter, when you were one and a half, the first notes started to play. Hundreds of people gathered in the little church to hear the notes start. Most of the time, though, the notes are playing with no one there. Little weights hold down the keys. Then every two years or so, it’s time for the notes to change again, and people come from around the world to hear it.”

You Are Here: the first chords and their dates (day-month-year)

“And it’s still playing right now?”

“Yep, it’s playing right now. And here’s the thing: It will be playing on the moment you graduate from high school and when you graduate from college. It will be playing when you get your first job, when you get married, and when your kids are born.

“The music that started the year you were born will still be playing at the end of your life. It will be playing when your grandchildren are born and when they die, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and on and on, for 639 years.”


“Just think how different the world will be then.”

“I wonder if they will be different creatures from us then [one of her favorite ponders]. Like we used to be different animals a long time ago.”

“Fun to think about, eh?” I kissed her on the head and she drifted off.

The Cage project will strike some people as bizarre or silly. There was a time it would have hit me that way, back when I thought 20th century art and music was one big con game. But the more I think about the slowest piece of all time, the more it moves me.

The church is in Halberstadt, Germany. Suppose someone had started playing a piece of music in Halberstadt 639 years ago, in 1369. The Ming dynasty in China was one year old. Europe continued to reel in disorder one generation after the Black Death. The music would have ushered in the dawning of the Renaissance, the voyages and outrages of the New World explorers, and the scientific and artistic revolutions of the 16th century.

Luther’s Reformation and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries would have raged around it. It would have been playing as the town itself changed hands from Prussia to Napoleon’s Westphalia and back to Prussia before becoming part of Saxony, then Germany, playing as Allied bombs fell in 1945, as the town was closed into communist East Germany and as it was returned to the heart of reunified Germany.

Would that piece have found its way to the last barline?

Starting a piece of music implies an intention to finish it. So starting a 639-year piece is, among other things, an extraordinary statement of human hope. it implies that we may still be here in 639 years, and that the intervening generations, with all their own changing concerns and values and ordeals, will nonetheless pick up the baton and run with the project we have begun. It is, in other words, a perfect metaphor for human life itself.

The aesthetics of the piece, as with so much of the music of Cage, are immaterial. It’s the idea that moves me. To hear the chord currently being played is to connect yourself to the recent past and the distant future in a way never before quite possible. That’s part of the reason that every time the chord changes, hundreds of people come from around the world to hear it happen.

The last chord change was in May of 2006, the month I resigned my college professorship. The next change is this Saturday, July 5, 2008.

Thanks to the hopeful gesture of even beginning such a thing, I can picture it finishing. So long as we can keep from killing each other, cooking the planet, or blowing up Halberstadt with technologies still undreamt — and if Jesus can hold off a little longer on his glorious return — then maybe, just maybe, our optimism will have been justified.

Hear the current chord

A nice piece in the Times

An audio slideshow

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.