Are the front-page editors of The New York Times embarrassed that it took them so long to catch up with The Wall Street Journal, which front-paged the same story three years ago? Probably not. But maybe they should be.
Way back on Aug. 11, 2003, under the subhead “Music for the Ages,” yours truly blogged about the Journal tale of the stretched-out John Cage composition that will take, if all goes well, 639 years to perform.
The basics of the story about “ORGAN²/ASLSP,” as I retold it for readers who lacked a print or online WSJ subscription, went like this:
The performance actually began a few days before 9/11 in “the forlorn eastern German city of Halberstadt … in a crumbling medieval church,” the Journal reported. “Each movement lasts 71 years. The shortest notes last six or seven months, the longest about 35 years. There’s an intermission in 2319.”
I then noted:
If you missed the opening, you didn’t miss much because the music “begins with a rest, or silence,” that lasted for the first 17 months …
Anyway, yesterday The Times front-paged Daniel Wakin’s story, “An Organ Recital for the Very, Very Patient.” This was the lede (which I admire for its flattering similarity of expression):
If you miss Friday’s musical happening at St. Burchardi Church in this eastern German town, no worries. There is always 2008. And the next year. And the one after that.
Today, Wakin’s follow-up, “John Cage’s Long Music Composition in Germany Changes a Note,” ran on an inside arts page. One aspect of The Times coverage that lends value is the Audio Slide Show that accompanies the stories. You can actually hear what’s being played, however briefly — about 13 seconds’ worth. (The rest is voiceover and testimonial.) Whether you like what you hear is something else.
ASLSP stands for the composer’s tempo marking “as slow as possible.” Cage wrote the work for a German organist, Gerd Zacher, who premiered it at a music festival in France. His performance lasted only 29 minutes, as the Journal reported. “So it’s no surprise that Zacher disagrees with the tempo being used in Halberstadt,” I figured. Besides:
It’s not unusual for musicians to disagree about tempo markings. To this day, the greatest maestros haven’t definitively settled what tempi Mozart or Beethoven wanted for some of their works. But the friendly disagreeement over “Organ²/ASLSP” has to be the most staggering conceivable.
The reasons for stretching out the performance have less to do with music than with reconstructing an ancient organ to play it on and creating a tourist attraction in Halberstadt to help revive its economy. Whatever the reasons, who but a bunch of Cageans would have thought of a concert lasting six centuries?
I myself relish the idea. But it’s funny how serious composers turned music into a philosophical game in a way that visual artists have only recently come to emulate (thanks to the minimalists and other postmodernists) and writers and dramatists never really did (Dadaists and Surrealists notwithstanding). Funny, and for most listeners, unfortunate.