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Listen to this story read by the author—with music

It’s hard to know when to broach the subject of mid-20th-century radical modernist composers with your kids. My daughter was six when I decided it was time.

At bedtime one night I told her the story of a piece of music by John Cage—and this piece so captured her imagination that she still mentions it 12 years later.

As Slow as Possible is a piece John Cage wrote for organ. When it was performed in his lifetime, it usually ran between 20 and 70 minutes, depending on how slowly it was played. But if you take the title literally, it raises a real question: How slow IS “as slow as possible”?

A group of musicians and philosophers of the arts discussed that at a Cage conference after his death, deciding in the end that the determining factor in how slowly you could play a piece of music is how long the instrument it’s played on can hold up. Once the instrument falls apart, the music’s over.

As Slow as Possible is a piece for organ. The oldest installed pipe organ in Europe at the time was 639 years old.

“So they decided to play this piece really slow,” I told my daughter. “So slow that the performance would last for 639 years. They found a little empty church in Germany and built a small organ just for this piece.

That organ started playing this piece on September 5th, 2001. But the music starts with a rest—a silence—so the first thing you heard was nothing. For seventeen months!”

She laughed and said, “That’s weird.”

“It is weird,” I said. “And right in the middle of that silence—you were born.”

“Awesome,” she whispered.

(Side note: One of my favorite details of this story is that the organ didn’t play for those first 17 months, but it was turned on, and you could hear the bellows in the organ, the part that fills the pipes with air, whispering and sighing, the only sound in the church for 17 months. That may be the most John Cage detail of the whole project: music without music.)

I continued the story:

“Then one day when you were one year old, the first note started to play. Hundreds of people came to the church to hear it. But most of the time now, it’s playing with no one there. Little weights hold down the keys. Then every couple of years, it’s time for the note to change again, and people come from around the world to hear it change.”

“”Little weights hold down the keys”—the organ in Halberstadt (public domain)

“And it’s still playing now?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s playing right now. And here’s the thing: It’ll be playing on the moment you graduate from high school and when you graduate from college. It’ll be playing when you get your first job, when you get married, 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 on and on for 639 years.”

There was a time this project would have seemed silly to me. But the more I think about the slowest piece of all time, the more it moves me.

This little church is in Halberstadt. Now suppose someone had started playing a piece of music in Halberstadt 639 years ago, in the year 1383.

Only a generation had passed since the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe. The music would have ushered in the Renaissance, the voyages of the New World explorers, and the Scientific Revolution.

Generation after generation of people in Halberstadt would have lived their lives around this peculiar sound, walking by the open door of the church on the way to market, to school, to weddings and funerals. It would have been a silver thread of sound running through their lives and beyond, linking them to the past and future.

The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries would have raged around it. It would have been playing as Halberstadt 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 a reunified Germany.

Would that piece have reached the last note?

Starting a piece of music implies an intention to finish it, so starting a 639-year long piece is an act of incredible optimism. It implies that we might still be here in 639 years, and that the intervening generations, with all of their own concerns and values and ordeals, will pick up the baton and run with the strange little project we had begun.

I don’t care what the piece sounds like. Unlike most music, the sound is beside the point. Like a lot of the music of John Cage, it’s the idea that moves me, that makes me think. To hear the notes currently being played is to connect yourself to the recent past and the distant future.

So long as we can keep from killing each other, cooking the planet, or blowing up Halberstadt with technologies still undreamt, then maybe our optimism will have been justified, and the hopeful music will finish.

Meanwhile, every few years for the rest of her life, I guarantee my daughter will think about this little organ playing in a church in Germany.  

Dale McGowan is the author of books including Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds degrees in evolutionary anthropology and music.