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January 2016 Issue [Criticism]

There are Other Forces at Work

John Cage comes to Halberstadt


On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. I was playing in the street in San Luis Obispo when I heard. I had been raised to dislike Nixon and to consider him a buffoon, but I was a child: all I really knew was that the bad guy had lost. Still, my friends and I somehow got the news, and we jumped up and down shouting giddily — seven years old and caught up in the zeitgeist.

Illustration by Luke Best

Illustration by Luke Best

On the day Nixon delivered his resignation speech, John Cage gave the first public reading, in Boulder, Colorado, of the fourth part of “Empty Words,” a piece for unaccompanied voice. “Empty Words” draws its text from Thoreau’s journals and subjects the source to chance operation: over the course of its four movements, comprehensible phrases are reduced first to words, then to syllables, and eventually to single letters. The silences between sounds grow longer and longer as the piece progresses; by the fourth movement, the audience is watching a person sitting motionless on a stage, intoning lone consonants or vowels very slowly and deliberately, pausing between utterances for as long as twelve minutes while drawings by Thoreau are projected onto a screen behind him.

Fifteen hundred people showed up to watch Cage at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. A radio interview given just before the performance found the composer in a playful mood, predicting that people might walk out. On the spur of the moment, he decided to perform with his back to the audience — he’d “recalled that the Bodhidharma sat facing a wall in China for ten years.” The Naropa Institute had been founded by a Tibetan monk in exile; Cage saw a connection to make.

Later, he described the crowd’s reaction:

I had an astonishing experience recently with the “Empty Words” . . . after twenty minutes, an uproar began in the audience, and it was so intense, and violent, that the thought entered my mind that the whole activity was not only useless, but that it was destructive. I was destroying something for them, and they were destroying something for me. The social situation was really miserable; however, it divided the audience, and at one point a group of people came to protect me. Things were thrown, people came up on stage to perform, and it was generally an upsetting situation.

I want to attribute that violent response to the tenor of the times: everything was up in the air, nothing felt certain, the people needed release. But Cage would perform “Empty Words” again, in Milan three years later, to even greater tumult; the audience rioted for the duration of the performance, some two and a half hours. “One person came up and took my glasses off to keep me from reading, and also the light that I was reading by was smashed,” Cage said. “I didn’t see how it could be termed successful in terms of my work, since it was impossible for anyone to hear what I was doing; but it was a kind of social occasion.”


I’m walking through Halberstadt; it’s quiet, almost ghostly. In the mid-Nineties I spent a couple of months in Germany, and Halberstadt reminds me of the small towns between the big cities that I saw then. Much of its architecture bears the stamp of the postwar German Democratic Republic: plain and functional buildings in muted colors, beige or gray, overlooking wide boulevards. In the old downtown, these give way to cobblestones and sterner, grander styles. Halberstadt’s been around forever, and it’s home to churches that date back to the eleventh century. St. Burchardi is one of the oldest: it was built around 1050 and deconsecrated in 1810. Since then it has served a number of purposes — barn, distillery, pigsty. It’s a vast, gutted building near the center of town. If it weren’t for the upkeep performed by the John Cage Organ Project, it would look like a ruin.

John Cage, 1981 © Marion Kalter/akg-images.

John Cage, 1981 © Marion Kalter/akg-images.

It’s October 2013, a big month for the Project. On October 5 there’s going to be a note change on the organ that sounds day and night inside the skeletal remains of the church. The most recent note change was in 2012, and it will be seven years until there’s another. The whole performance — of a piece by Cage called ORGAN²/ASLSP — will last until 2640.

Halberstadt is home to the Project because it was the place where the modern twelve-note keyboard was invented, in 1361, and installed on an organ built by the priest Nikolaus Faber; the bellows reportedly took ten men to operate. Genesis of a Music, by the American composer Harry Partch, has a short section about the construction of this organ: it’s headlined fatal day in halberstadt. The organ’s third manual consisted of nine front keys and five raised rear keys. “Here is the proto 7-White — 5-Black!” writes Partch, “selected by some inscrutable destiny to send its descendants over the face of the earth and to make them the procreators of virtually all musical thought.” These are the notes that came to define European harmony. There might have been a whole bunch more notes in that scale — or fewer. Music might have gone any number of places, grown differently in many ways. But the equal temperament of the Halberstadt organ — the standardized differences between its tones — fixed the distance between its twelve points. Its alphabet was absolute.

In “45′ for a Speaker,” Cage writes:

I have noticed something else about
Christian Wolff’s music. All you can
do is
suddenly listen
in the same way
that, when you catch cold,
all you can do is
Unfortunately —
European harmony.

Cage was dissatisfied with other composers’ reliance on “musical” sounds; he wondered about silence, and noises in the concert hall, and the sounds bodies make. (“45′ for a Speaker” contains numerous stage directions for the reader to undertake: “snore,” “hiss,” “slap table,” “cough.”) Cage composed for standard instruments, but he used them in novel ways: he’d insert nuts or bolts between piano strings, or deploy radios in performances, or give over the composition of his pieces entirely to chance operations. “It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art,” he writes. The twelve-note scale is a color palette for self-expression, but Cage doesn’t conceive of music along these lines: “I want to free my music from my memory and taste and from my likes and dislikes so that my music, instead of saying something that I have to say or expresses me, changes me.” Instead of self-expression, he said, he was interested in self-alteration.

Entering the grounds of St. Burchardi, I see a woman painting a portrait of John Cage onto a circuit box. She’s seated in the grass with her paints and brushes, examining her work attentively; the dates and locales of the composer’s birth (September 5, 1912, Los Angeles) and death (August 12, 1992, New York) frame his gentle face. His hair hangs loose and a little wild, as it did in life; he gazes into the middle distance. The mood of the painting is reverent, though it’s done with cheerful and colorful accents in a simple, somewhat childlike style. It reminds me, a little, of a Kurt Cobain T-shirt, or a painting of Jim Morrison in rock and roll heaven, finally at peace.


ORGAN²/ASLSP is John Cage’s arrangement for organ of ASLSP, which he originally composed for piano, in 1985; the title stands for “as slow as possible,” though that phrase doesn’t appear on, or in, the score. The title is also an allusion to the final paragraph of Finnegans Wake (“Soft morning, city! Lsp!”), a book that Cage returned to many times throughout his life. Its specific connection to ASLSP is unclear, though Finnegans Wake is a circular novel that begins midsentence and ends with “the,” leading the reader directly back to the headless neologism at the start. The book is longer than as long as possible: it’s endless.

Offering neither time signature nor any indication of tempo, ORGAN²/ASLSP is, like much of Cage’s work, both a piece of music and an invitation to think more broadly about music. It appears on the page as one continuous, measureless staff, with the numbers one through eight placed at the head of every other line. There’s only one instruction to the prospective player of the piece: “Distinct from ASLSP, all eight pieces are to be played. However, any one of them may be repeated, though not necessarily, and as in ASLSP the repetition may be placed anywhere in the series.” After that, you’re on your own.

Spectators interrupting Cage’s performance of “Empty Words,” Milan, 1977 © Maurizio Buscarino

Spectators interrupting Cage’s performance of “Empty Words,” Milan, 1977 © Maurizio Buscarino

This is an almost insurmountable degree of freedom and responsibility. Let’s say I decide first how long I want the piece to last: maybe I have an hour in the morning between waking up and leaving for work. Then I’ll have to do some math to determine how long to play each note, set a stopwatch, and begin.

This would be an unusual approach to playing music, but it’s workable. If I’m reluctant to play God and assign a tempo where the composer has declined to do so, I might instead think a little about decay. Strike a note on a piano and hold down the key; the tone grows softer and softer until it’s gone. That’s decay. On the Baldwin in my living room, one note, struck neither too loudly nor too softly, will decay completely — into silence — after about thirty seconds. Playing ASLSP, I could call that a whole note, record its duration, and then calculate half-notes from there; with practice, I might be able to do this by ear, playing the piece more naturally than I could with my stopwatch. This would feel more traditionally musical than watching a clock, though Cage, of course, wanted to shake music free from the default settings of what seems natural or not.

Except that I’m not playing ASLSP. I’m playing ORGAN²/ASLSP, and on an organ, notes don’t decay. As long as I’m holding the keys down and there’s air coming through the bellows, the notes will sound forever. Maybe I could set a metronome at its slowest setting and play to that? Well, I tried; it’s extremely hard. I’ve got a digital piano in my office whose built-in metronome goes all the way down to ten: that’s one beat every six seconds. I can’t count the rhythm as I normally would, namely by getting a feel for the pulse and adhering to it. Still, in theory, with practice and discipline, I could learn to play at ten, and then, with fear and trembling, approach ORGAN²/ASLSP. I could even vary the tempo a little from movement to movement, if I liked. Nothing tells me not to. I need not be consistent. I am free.

But when I punch the organ setting and sound the first chord of ORGAN²/ASLSP, I can’t help thinking: this is it. The piece ends here, or does not end at all. The drone goes on for one minute, then another; my wife, in the next room, laughs when she realizes what I’m doing. My son, who’s two, runs in to help, because he expects me to start playing, you know, a song. Something that goes somewhere. Something he can dance to.

But I am playing as slowly as possible, and without decay that means not playing at all. So I just sit there with the chord held. As I listen to it, I become convinced that this moment is the practical end of the proceedings. Any remaining notes after the first chord — all of them — are ideas from a mythical future. To properly play the piece, I should let this one chord sound until I am no longer physically capable of holding down the keys.

Nobody can play forever, of course. We have to eat, sleep, live our lives. Music is something we do in between. This was my first instinct, and I remain partial to it: in Cage’s writings, he talks about dinner with friends, hunting for wild mushrooms, riding in taxis. He hears music in all this, often in places where others hadn’t — it’s everywhere, but it’s not everything.

“The duration of one part of the production is 71 years, because ORGAN²/ASLSP consists of 8 parts and one is being repeated (639/9 = 71),” says an appendix supplied by the John Cage Organ Foundation, the group that oversees the Project. “The smallest unit is one month. Each determined tone change takes place on the 5th day of the relevant month.” At the premiere of ORGAN²/ASLSP, in 1987, Gerd Zacher played for twenty-nine minutes. The performance at Halberstadt began with a rest — “silence,” though Cage had reservations about the word — in the year 2000, 639 years after the installation of the original Halberstadt organ. It will end in 2640: that is, 639 years after the sounding of the first note. I have a desire to clarify this further, but here we approach a mystery. The performance will last 639 years because it began 639 years after the installation of the Halberstadt organ. You sort of just have to accept it.


I didn’t inventory my expectations regarding ORGAN²/ASLSP as I boarded the plane from New Jersey to Berlin, and as I rode the train toward the Harz Mountains I held them in check: it seemed in keeping with the spirit of Cage’s work to put away old ideas in order to clear a space for new ones. But when I say, “There’s a chord sounding on an organ in an empty church in Germany, night and day, around the clock, a discordant chord that has been sounding since 2012,” what do you hear? A major chord? A seventh? A big minor silent-movie pipe-organ blast?

I’d imagined a drone; and when I imagine a drone, I hear something monumental, grand. Overwhelming, even. I hear a sound that absorbs the listener, a sound into which the audience in attendance might collectively sink. It needn’t be earsplittingly loud, but volume’s part of what I’m expecting to get.

So it’s with some surprise that on entering I find I can not only hear myself speak, I can also hear my footsteps. The organ’s there in the middle of the skeletal former church, down past the entryway and to the right; it has no visible keys and appears unfinished, albeit symmetrical (pipes are added or subtracted as the score requires). It’s taller than I am, but it’s not huge or monolithic; the high ceilings make it seem somewhat modest. Still, it’s an arresting sight, just standing there on a platform, sounding away — a handful of bright silver pipes housed within an open wooden frame atop a platform, pebbled ground beneath it where the floor of the church once was, arched stone hallways to either side, the gigantic bellows some ten paces away on the other side of the room. It’s not an organ yet; it’s a work in progress. It’s making a sound, but it’s not very loud.

I circle it, noting that it needs electricity to function; any number of things might interrupt, terminate, or severely alter the performance, though nobody can walk up and play something new, because there’s no keyboard. The pipes are held open by sandbags, as I’ll learn at the changing of the note; as long as the power stays on and the strings that suspend the sandbags hold, the pipes will sound. I read the plaques on the walls for a while, and the display of news articles from around the world at the far end of the room. After a few minutes I take a seat, my back against a stone pillar, to listen. The chord isn’t pretty and it’s not unpretty; it’s just kind of there. It’s discordant — I can make out two notes separated by either a half-step or a whole, with nothing between. But the context of this chord is no discernible tune at all: it’s cold air, and the crunch of the pebbles underneath me, and the voices of the people who come and go, sometimes whispering, sometimes not. I set a timer on my phone for ten minutes to see how far my mind wanders while I’m sitting there listening. I take notes:

U. G. Krishnamurti
guided meditations
Current 93
anechoic chambers
Cage in re: mystified audience reaction to projections of Thoreau’s drawings in interview re: Boulder performance (“they’re beautiful”)
endless smoke

Reading through these later, I have no recollection of what “endless smoke” could refer to, or why I thought about Current 93, a band whose sole constant member, David Tibet, is largely focused on the apocalyptic and the arcane. U. G. Krishnamurti was a philosopher for whom all sensory experiences became their own self-sufficient explanations, which were devoid of further external relevance. (“I do not think there is any such thing as ‘I,’ or ‘self.’ ”) Guided meditations I thought of because they often have recurring phrases like “returning always to your breath,” which seemed a useful way of thinking about how I was listening, closely, to the ongoing, unchanging sound while my thoughts strayed far and wide and had to be brought back, again and again, to the sound in the room. Anechoic chambers because all other sounds, in this environment, were amplified: the volume of everything seemed to rise in the presence of this small, unpretentious chord piping away without any particular feeling or movement. Had it been a minor third, it might have sounded like something from a horror soundtrack; a fifth might have sounded churchy. Neither/nor. I checked the timer after it felt like I’d been listening for some time. There were four seconds left.


Engraved metal panels, attached to an iron rail at eye level, line the walls of the former church: they bear inscriptions in several languages — obituaries, remembrances, quotations from Lord Byron or Yogi Berra or the Bible. Some show the names of whole families spanning several generations. A few direct the viewer to websites; I typed in the address of one of them, out of curiosity. It was a project consisting of video footage from the cockpit of a plane traveling from Frankfurt to Chennai.

The John Cage Organ Project receives no public funding, so the plaques represent a major source of support. A single plaque indicates sponsorship of any one year, from 2000 to 2640. They cost a thousand euros apiece. While the organ apparatus remains the most arresting visual feature of the church, the plaques offer a chance to reflect on the project’s scope in real terms.

“all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. there are other forces at work in this world, frodo, besides the will of evil.”
gandalf, to frodo, in the mines of moria, from the fellowship of the ring
eric and jane schulenburg
(and others to follow)
madison — wisconsin

wird hier der


when the music’s over
turn out the
hellmut reinke & angelika woltmann

22. mai 2313
500. geburtstag
richard wagner
johannes baillou 1965 wien

taylor: “time bends. space is boundless. it squashes a man’s ego. i feel lonely . . . that’s about it . . . tell me, though, does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? keep his neighbor’s children starving?”
planet of the apes
(movie 1968)
klaus schneyder
21. april 1976

dear john,
thank you for everything . . .
love —
armin fuchs

in dankbarer erinnerung an meine schwester
ruth (1931–2008)
die in meiner kinder- und
jugendzeit für mich
der wichtigste mensch war!
[in thanksgiving for the life of my sister, ruth (1931–2008), who was the most important person for me in my childhood and adolescence!]

On a normal day, it doesn’t seem like there are many people at the church, but at least a few come to hear. They walk up to the organ and look; they take pictures. But the performance taking place inside goes on day and night, heedless of listeners. In the off-season, the church is open only from noon till four. That’s twenty hours each day of a performance with no audience. Not only will nobody ever see the entire performance of ORGAN²/ASLSP, or even a notable fraction of it — most of the people who hear it at all will hear the parts that are least typical, i.e., the note changes. The actual performance can only be guessed at, gleaned, inferred. I logged at least five hours in the church over the course of a week. In those hours I felt like I was getting a sense of it, but (24 x 365 x 639) / 5 = 1,119,528. I went over to Germany, and I saw one millionth of a performance of a piece of music. Inside St. Burchardi the plaques on the walls say: we were here; we heard it. Our numbers stretched across the centuries. Our congregation is vast. It hears nothing. The audience for this performance, reckoned at its conclusion, will consist mainly of the dead.


John Cage was born in Pomona, etc., this is the biographical section of this article, which is the part I always skim, I’m told that as I age I’ll become more interested in reading history and biographies, but so far nichts, his parents were supportive, they lived in Los Angeles, they had a piano, his father was an engineer of some sort, hold on I’ll go get my books and confirm what sort of engineer, there’s a whole stack of them, you feel an obligation to round up all the books when you’re researching an article about a person’s work, it’s an old-fashioned feeling I suspect, one could as well spend a few days wandering corners of the Internet and gather all the same information and I wonder whether that wouldn’t honestly be the method more in keeping with Cage’s philosophy, let me say in passing that I have a mistrust of the word “philosophy” but the alternatives were worse, I grew up on research anyway, my mother was not just a librarian but a reference librarian, “old habits die hard,” as the phrase goes, I imagine John Cage being told that old habits die hard and thinking yes, I’ve noticed, and yet this was one of the things at Halberstadt that troubled and provoked me, this is an old story and not any special insight of mine but the avant-garde when it’s successful loses most of its power to shock the observer, to jar the listener from complacency and awaken him into a new world of possibilities where an organ is no longer an organ but a thing being assembled over hundreds of years, and yet this is perhaps Halberstadt’s truest moment with reference to Cage, because otherwise as we either have seen or will see or will not see but have to infer depending on where this bit lands in the sequencing of the article you’re now reading, there’s a deeply hagiographic element to the proceedings, for example this attraction in the project’s press materials to the phrase “Dear John,” its lovelorn context gone missing, its sense of goodbye annihilated by sentiment, the woman painting his face on the circuit box, the actual relics from Cage’s apartment now arranged on display in the exhibit hall on the day when all the onlookers come to see the Changing of the Note, all this lends rather a lot of the Great Man theory to the proceedings though I’m not entirely persuaded Cage would have disapproved, he wasn’t immodest but one gets the sense he knew his name would endure, whole different subject, except then you start digging, and you think, well, the ideas Cage presents in his writing seem inimical to romantic ideas about composers, the composer’s imprint is something he seeks to shed, he explicitly condemns self-expression, what could be more hostile to romantic tendencies than to shun self-expression, but hold on, how then, say, the “Empty Words,” the performances of which in their duration and iconoclasm seem utterly fated to bring the focus wholly not onto Thoreau’s drawings or onto his words, emptied of their meaning, but onto the emptier, he who empties, onto the man who has turned his face away from the audience at Boulder, the audience that feels driven in the presence of the composer to make its response known, “it was a kind of social occasion,” but the work itself, say ASLSP, seems to desire freedom from its creator, and from listeners, year-round it plays, liberated from the twin tyrannies of compositional thrust and interpretive bent, alone and free, the plaques with their mesostics spelling out j-o-h-n c-a-g-e as meaningless as alien alphabets, the wait for the next note change imperceptible for months, no, years at a time, a quiet chord in a town known mainly to historians of music but also to those who live there, most of whom are just going about their business most of the time, all of the time really, John Cage was born in Pomona, or maybe Glendale, I forget.


edward donnachie 2 months ago
That guy John Cage was taking the piss!


1990osu 1 week ago
Look up “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson.


Joo Yong-sung 2 weeks ago
Freakin i can compose better than him


borobadger 2 weeks ago
what a real fucking disgraceful piece of shit


bellakazza 2 weeks ago
This isn’t music, this is silence from some kook in front of a stage of people. This guy sucks.


mrketfo 1 month ago
Pretentious bullshit. People get suckered into all sorts of crap like this and abstract art. Compose a good piece of music and paint me a picture you avant-garde con men. The more people accept things like this as artistic, the more crap and money they will make.


vacant ldn 4 months ago
whats the point having the musicians there?


diego torres 5 months ago

There are more than 1,426 comments beneath a video of an arrangement for orchestra of John Cage’s 4’33” (“my silent piece”) that was broadcast over BBC Four and conducted by Lawrence Foster; it was uploaded to YouTube on October 1, 2010. It’s been viewed 510,888 times as of this writing. Most seem to come from the thumbs-down crowd, but Cage finds his defenders; they patiently and often condescendingly explain that “anybody could do this” doesn’t really amount to a critique, or that listening is as important as playing, and so on. Others, less theoretically inclined, weigh in with heartfelt and often moving expressions of what silence might mean in our daily lives: how an opportunity to hear it is rare and perhaps precious. Over the course of the thread the word “hipster” gets used more than once. There are also many jokes about farting.

What strikes me as remarkable about this thread is how successful Cage has been at challenging the listener to think about music — about what it is or isn’t, about what constitutes music and what doesn’t. The twentieth century didn’t lack for challenging music: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Ornette Coleman. The list of names whose music inspired the drawing of new battle lines is long, but 4’33” provokes in a way that The Rite of Spring no longer can. It succeeds in presenting its theoretical concerns so succinctly that people respond instantly, instinctively, openly.

This sets Cage rather apart from other composers. Xenakis compositions uploaded to YouTube attract mainly the converted, who praise his daring. Joan La Barbara manages to pull a little heat, but it’s two comments among fifteen total. If you subjected passersby to some of Stockhausen’s shortwave compositions, you might be able to get a rise out of them, but you’d be going out of your way. 4’33” has been successfully provoking people since 1952.


It’s October 5, the day of the note change; John Cage was born on September 5, which explains why all changes occur on the fifth of the month. (I’ve spent much of this week quietly gnashing my teeth about how this isn’t chance; it’s arbitrary.) Last night, on my laptop at the hotel, I watched a performance of ORGAN²/ASLSP; it lasted about twenty minutes, and, as much of Cage’s music does, it left me feeling not unpleasantly unsatisfied. Music is commonly approached with ideas about tension and release, about making expectations explicit by either meeting or defying them. Even in motion, ORGAN²/ASLSP sounds almost like stasis. There’s something to be said for stasis. It promises nothing.

The weather’s miserable today, but visitors are arriving — on foot, in cars, by taxi. Making his way around the grounds with the air of an on-deck batter is Rainer Neugebauer, chairman of the board of trustees of the John Cage Organ Foundation. He is a tall, gaunt man with a magnificent graying beard, a modest black overcoat, and a pair of glasses whose tiny rectangular lenses would look pretentious on anybody else. On him they fit, because his presentation as an intellectual is so total and so ideal that to shortchange the picture with lesser glasses would be uncouth.

He’s warm and approachable, but big questions about big things are never more than a few conversational turns away. Years ago, daydreaming of some distant future in which I, free of the hardships and strictures of adolescence, might live as I liked, I thought I might grow up to be somebody like Rainer Neugebauer. He saw Cage do “Empty Words” at the John Cage festival in Bonn in 1979; before Halberstadt he had mainly been interested in Cage as an artist “in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp and dada,” as he said to me in an email. “Cage as musician, I have discovered for me during the last 15 years.”

Earlier this morning the church was open and people came and went, but the doors were locked at noon to make preparations for the big event. I walk over to the art exhibit that’s been installed in the postwar building that stands adjacent to the church. Neugebauer is there, offering details of the pieces inside: manuscript pages; a cactus connected to a Marshall mini-amplifier via contact microphones (this is a performance of, or homage to, or reference, anyway, to the Cage pieces “Child of Tree” and “Branches,” which consist of instructions for playing chance pieces on plants); a goldfish tank that’s somehow wired for sound.

There’s a press conference. The speakers are introduced, and they say a little about themselves and their relationship to Cage’s music or thought, or to Cage himself. Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, is there, and so is Ray Kass, founder of the Mountain Lake Workshop and the author of The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors. Sabine Groschup, whose decade-in-the-making film about the Halberstadt project will premiere at the exhibition today, is on the panel. Neugebauer speaks charismatically, intently, and warmly about the project and about the piece. He opens the floor to questions, but only one gets asked.

We all go outside into the rain to wait around near the church — why, exactly? Every seat’s a good one inside; it’d be smarter to stay where it’s warm until the doors have been opened. Still, it’s a kind of social occasion. I find some guys who’ve come over from England, and while I’m talking to them, I manage to lose not just one shoe but both of them in a calf-deep sinkhole. The shoes are ruined. (Ray Kass later writes me to say that he and Kuhn read the loss of my shoes as “a spontaneous and un-planned performance of John Cage’s ‘STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to Be Performed by Individuals and Groups.’ ”)

I recover the shoes from the mud and, what the hell, put them back on, and then the doors open. Most people here haven’t been inside before, so they look around, trying to get a sense of what they’re seeing. In the past week, I never saw the place with more than a half-dozen people in it, and it’s jarring to see it filled by the crowd, who crane over one another to get a look at the organ apparatus or stroll curiously past the plaques. And now the time has come.

Everybody’s huddled close together, phones held high to get pictures, when Neugebauer requests, and gets, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The span is not divided into movements, as 4’33” is, and the organ is sounding, of course, so our 4’33” seems more tribute than performance. But maybe it’s a new arrangement of the original. Or a performance of an entirely separate piece that is inspired by Cage and taking place concurrently with the performance of ORGAN²/ASLSP.

Neugebauer welcomes everyone, and then he introduces the people who’ll be attaching and releasing the small sandbags that will open up the stops and let the new chord in. It’s a pretty officious bit of ceremony for a Cage piece, but why not — it only happens every so often. Then he instructs each person, separately, to release his or her sandbag. The notes of the new chord resound, and it’s lovely, dissonant — it’s bigger. Everybody listens together for just a second or two, making sure they hear how it’s different now, and then there’s a huge, communal relaxation — there’s laughter and applause. It is honestly one of the sweetest, most unusual musical experiences I’ve ever had: sharing music with strangers is something we often take for granted, or even get cranky about, but here, there’s a real feeling that we’ve all just heard something big happen. We were there.

At the same time, I’m kind of freaking out, because the chord was sounded one note at a time. In the score, all three of these notes are on the same beat; they ought to be played simultaneously. They played it wrong.

I’ve been spending so much time all week thinking about Cage and his music, his ideas, that I wake up in the middle of the night back home thinking about the staggered chord. Three notes have been added; there’s a melody where none was, a movement instead of a moment. But then I imagine the unattainable scenario of listening to all 639 years at one sitting: our tiny stagger would occur within such a short space of time that it would sound more like a flourish than a flub. It would be like a guitarist articulating the notes of a chord instead of striking the strings all at once. A rock musician might make a choice like this with his own composition on any given night, but there’s less freedom for such choices, generally, in classical music. Spacing the notes of a chord into separate articulations: this is taking liberties.

In the dark I reach for Cage’s Silence, which is conveniently at my bedside, where it’s been all week, flip the bedside light on, open the book at random, and read. I think about the communal feeling of expectation inside the church: how good it felt when everybody heard the new chord after those four minutes and thirty-three seconds of non-silence. Cage writes about his relationship to classical music in his “Lecture on Nothing.” “I remember as a child loving all the sounds,” he says. “Even the unprepared ones.”


From a video of the eleventh note change at Halberstadt, uploaded to YouTube on August 19, 2011:

morevicodin 7 months ago


danilo alves 7 months ago
I’ve now found the droniest drone I was looking for.


ireallyamironman 1 year ago


aquaritis 7 months ago
It’s a noise, not music.


theuniversalwoman 1 year ago
Is this some sort of punishment?


jerryjeffelvis 1 year ago
this music will take 630 years to finish playing


richard clifford 1 year ago
I’ll bet you the world will end before the performance ends!

’s novel, Wolf in White Van, was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He sings and plays guitar in the Mountain Goats.

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January 2016

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