As Slow as (Inhumanly) Possible: Meditations on Time

Barbara Perea

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

— Sir William Blake

It is music that gives the impression that it could stream on continuously, as if it had no beginning and no end; what we hear is actually a section of something that has eternally begun and that will continue to sound forever. The music appears to stand still, but that is merely an illusion: within this standing still, this static quality, there are gradual changes.

— György Ligeti1

September 2012 marked the hundredth year anniversary of John Cage’s birth, celebrated worldwide with numerous concerts, panels, symposia and publications: events as diverse as the thousands of people this transdisciplinary artist has marked since setting forth the Eastern-philosophy inspired and ground-breaking principles of chance, indetermination, silence, nothingness. Perhaps the most well-known and celebrated of his works, 4’33’’, perfectly summarizes his interest in these concepts and his willingness to release control of a composition. A note to the score reads:

NOTE: The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance. At Woodstock, N.Y. , August 29, 1952, the title was 4’33’’ and the three parts were 33’’, 2’ 40’’, and 1’ 20’’. It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, who indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening, the keyboard lid. However, the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.2

Such a simple yet powerful statement, and one that indelibly altered the Western conception of music. It also begs the question: how long is long? How long can truly long be?

Organ and bellows in St. Buchardi, Halberstadt, Germany; image courtesy the John-Cage-Orgel-Kunst-Projekt.

Artworks that deal with the concept of time interest me in phenomenological terms, particularly those which expand duration and test the boundaries of perception by demanding impossible feats of the human body. From the real-time or analytical approach of such iconic audiovisual works as Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964)  or Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) to performance works of endurance, the perceptual experiences offered by these works defy interpretation and apparently bypass the problems posed by audience reception, since they are seemingly intended for no viewer to perceive in its entirety, or they take the performer’s body to its limit.

In sound, the protracted musical meditations of Morton Feldman composed in the late 1970s, or conceptual works such as On Kawara’s One Million Years (Past and Future), (1969) offer similar experiences. Feldman began composing longer and longer one-movement works using progressively fewer variations and quieter sounds, culminating in the unfit-for-the-impatient eight-hour long String Quartet No. 2. The performance of Kawara’s One Million Years for Documenta 11, had alternating male and female volunteers read dates out loud at a steady pace, throughout the hundred days of the exhibition; the monotonous chant-like drone inducing a meditative state in audience and performers.3 Both these works challenge the linear and progressive conceptions of time as set forth in modern history.

Organ²/ASLSP or how slow is slow?

Time is motionless and yet is flow. In the flow of time, in the continuous sinking away into the past, there is constituted a nonflowing, absolutely fixed, identical Objective time. This is the problem.

— Edmund Husserl

At a 1997 symposium, a group of luthiers, musicologists, philosophers and theologists discussed one of the indeterminate variables of a John Cage composition dealing precisely with time. The work was a 1987 organ adaptation of an earlier piano piece ASLSP, where its performance typically lasted for twenty to seventy minutes. After lengthy discussions, the group decided to accept the challenge set forth by Cage’s suggestive title Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) by stretching the performance of this eight-page score out as long as (inhumanly) possible: 639 years. A mind-boggling duration determined by the oldest documented twelve-tone keyboard organ, built in 1361 in Halberstadt, Germany and now destroyed.

On a similar organ commissioned by the John Cage Organ Foundation, the concert began in September 5, 2001, at the St. Buchardi monastery in Halberstadt, marking the composer’s birthday with seventeen months of uninterrupted silence. No note played during this time, as the composition begins with a ‘rest’; the only sound emitted, if at all, was the patient and steady rising of the organ’s bellows. Seventeen months of silence as music. In the dozen years following this auspicious and very Cage-like beginning, the note has changed only a handful of times, drawing numerous spectators for each momentous occasion.

Audience present at a sound change during Organ²/ASLSP in St. Buchardi, Halberstadt, Germany; image courtesy the John-Cage-Orgel-Kunst-Projekt.

Prior to this ambitious experiment, the longest registered performance of Organ²/ASLSP had been fifteen uninterrupted hours, by organist Diane Luchese (notably a human).

The almost impossible time-span of the ongoing Halberstadt performance of ASLSP defies logic and even taxes the imagination: seemingly “a section of something that has eternally begun and that will continue to sound forever;” as with Kawara’s Million Years or Gordon’s Psycho, the work plays on in your mind, stretching indefinitely.

The concert raises interesting perceptual and philosophical issues. To say the least, as it seems both to deny and confirm the perception of time. Husserl defined the perception of internal time using the example of melody as a whole, rather than an isolated succession of individual notes (which would be a linear conception of time). The stretching out of this concert into near infinity—at least as far as the perception of individual humans go—precludes anyone from ever perceiving the ‘melody as a whole.’ It cancels Husserl’s notion of internal time and ASLSP becomes a perpetual clash between internal and objective time. John Cage, who was strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, completely rejected the traditional notions of tonality, harmony and rhythm in music,4 and conceived musical structure as discontinuous rather than as a succession of sounds.5 Each musical unit remains independent from the others, a void to be filled, “an empty glass into which at any moment anything may be poured,” as Cage stated in Lecture on Nothing6. This shift renders the notion of melody invalid.7

The performance of ASLSP is only possible via an automaton, which relates it to other compositions and explorations in duration and tempo at the other end of the spectrum: those that are so fast or complex that they can only be performed via devices or machines. Conlon Nancarrow’s fast and furious Studies for Player Piano, for example, composed for an apparently anachronic and obsolete instrument which he turned to in the forties in order to fully experiment with complex musical structures;8 or the direct confrontation of audience and devices (sans performer) in György Ligeti’s 1968 Poème Symphonique, composed for a hundred metronomes set at different precise tempos, that weave an intricate polyrhythmia, at times creating a sound moiré effect. In both of these, the absence of a performer is noteworthy: the quasi-alien and compelling music of automata.

Bellows in St. Buchardi, Halberstadt, Germany; image courtesy the John-Cage-Orgel-Kunst-Projekt.

In the case of ASLSP the automata takes on an even more prominent role. The approximate lifespan of the instrument determined the duration of the ongoing concert, making the device itself akin to the performer. Where previous renditions of this work—and others cited in this essay—were determined by the human performer’s limits, here, the performance was determined by the limits of this mechanical ‘performer:’ the organ. The question remains as to what sort of spectator this ambitious undertaking aims towards. Though there seems to be an international following that congregates either physically or virtually to hear the note change, the organ itself—our beloved and lonely ‘performer’—is encased in plexiglass to muffle its sound because the continuous unending note seemed to bother the neighbors of Saint Buchardi. Perhaps it is enough that we know the work exists and plays on.

While many composers have achieved a sense of timelessness in their works using various composition techniques such as repetition and subtle variations—as anyone who has attended a Phil Niblock concert can attest to—none but Cage have accomplished a similar feat of using a handful of notes in a performance that will stretch on for a half-millennium and change. It is the ultimate feat in indetermination, a posthumous final wink from the man who taught the world to listen to silence.

The composer makes plans ... Music laughs

— Morton Feldman
This article is part of "Unsound,” edited by Barbara Perea. Other parts of this project include:

Unsound, an online exhibition curated by Barbara Perea 
Two Ships Passing: Barbara Perea in conversation with Nick Hennies 
Everyday Algorithms by Ben Judson      
Trucks passing by music by Barbara Perea     
and our editor’s statement 

  • 1. Péter Várnai, Josef Hausler, Claude Samuel and György Ligeti, György Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel, and Himself (London: Eulenburg, 1983): 84.
  • 2. John Cage, 4’:33’’, score, 1952. [italics mine].
  • 3.1:55 to 2:05 p.m. Something amazing happens. I decide to look up from the page and begin reciting years with my eyes closed. Start drifting. No idea how many years are passing. Hear only sound. Then sound seems to fall away. I become some sort of Indian raga, the singer and the song. Perceive cadences, rhythms, tonalities. Euphoric.” — from Jerry Saltz’s account of reading On Kawara’s One Million Years at David Zwirner Gallery, “Reeling in The Years,” New York Magazine, Feb 1, 2009, consulted February 2013.
  • 4. John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo,” 1939, in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1961): 3-6.
  • 5. Rossana Lara Velásquez, “Reflexiones en torno al indeterminismo de John Cage: orígenes, efectos y controversias actuales,” in Pauta, cuadernos de teoría y crítica musical, XXXI no. 123-124 (July-December, 2012): 38, 39.
  • 6. John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing” in op. cit. p. 109.
  • 7. Edgardo Espinosa, “Las implicaciones del indeterminismo en John Cage” in Pauta, cuadernos de teoría y crítica musical, XXXI no. 123-124 (July-December, 2012): 27, 28.
  • 8. “Among several ironies arising in any consideration of Nancarrow’s work, the most profound is the fact that his achievement has been wrought entirely within an apparently obsolete, even anachronistic medium – a medium whose primary raison d’être had always been entertainment, not art – the player piano! His decision to concentrate all of his efforts in this one medium was made sometime in the 1940s, after several years of frustration in trying to get his earlier instrumental pieces played accurately. The Toccata for violin and piano (1938) and the Sonatina for piano (1941) were already extremely difficult pieces to perform, extending to their very limits the abilities of players at that time,” from James Tenney, “General Introduction,” in Conlon Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano. WERGO. 1988 (1991).
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