The Greatest Song Ever Played…and Still Playing
In the center of Germany, in the town of Halberstadt, stands the St. Burchardi Church. Inside the church the world’s longest song is playing. It began in 2001, and is set to conclude 639 years after its first note, a seventeen month note of total silence.The organ at Halberstadt is fitted with a bellows which will supply the wind for the pipes until September 5, 2640. The composition was written, for organ, by a man named John Cage. Coming to terms with a composer like John Cage and a 639 year-long song can’t be done without first coming to terms with the geography of Haberstadt and a peculiar piece of European history that comes with it.
Music’s place in 20th century European history can not be understated and the ideological wars which took place in the 20th century around music, particularly that of the early and mid-20th century were no less polemical than the ones on the battlefield. Hitler loved the music of Wagner and Strauss and both got lots of spins at his listening parties (yes, Hitler had listening parties). Wagner’s violently anti-semitic publication Das Judenthum in der Musik called for the self-annulment of Jews in a “bloody struggle of self-annihilation” all the way back in 1850 and Wagner phrases even featured in the speeches of Goebbels. So, for the Nazis, it was all about the tonal music of Wagner and Strauss; Schoenberg’s harmony dissolving atonal (which really began with Debussy) music was your protest music – an affront to tyrants and totalitarianism. The musical line in the sand one stood behind could save a composer and his family from death, or score special treatment in a prison camp, and in some cases even total freedom. At Stalag VIII A, a Nazi prison camp, a French composer by the name of Oliver Messiaen found a musically sympathetic guard willing to relieve him of his duties in the prison camp and give him an empty barracks where he would compose the haunting Quartet for the End of Time. The documents that freed Messaien were forged by the same Nazi guard. It’s safe to say Classical music was many things in the middle of the 20th century: a badge of identity, a line in the sand, a ticket to freedom, a weapon of warfare. But if there’s was one thing it was not, it was free.
Part of what freed music in the end was the war in which it featured so prominently. With the great fall of Europe’s moral authority, so too went its musical authority. Those who survived the war in Europe had seen their work pulvarized on the cultural and ideological battlefield. No one school of composition left the war unscathed. Hitler had so vastly exploited tonal composers like Strauss and Wagner that to this day Wagner’s operas have never been played in Israel. From the marginalized atonal composers (although often no less fascistic in their views) grew pedantic tyrants like Pierre Boulez, as well as festivals and concerts paid for by the American military in programs of de-Nazification.
John Cage studied under both Boulez and Schoenberg. But being so much less anchored to Europe, he was able to push experimentation to a limit that cost him the favour of his mentors. After all, what mid-20th century European composer would conceive of the use of hub caps, falling radios, or car parts in their compositions? In 1939 Cage composed “Imaginary Landscape No. 1,” which included variable speed turntables playing samples of other classics, and “Credo in Us,” which included a part for a record player. Sound familiar? Cage probably borrowed the idea from Wolpe and Hindemith’s phonograph concerts which he saw in pre-war Berlin but Cage also laid the ideological groundwork for and synthesisers and other electronically produced sounds in a 1937 manifesto in which he predicted the employment in music of every conceivable sound.
As stated, it was virtually impossible for music to be free in Europe. It was tonal. It was atonal. Maybe it fell in the middle buoyed by different critics. Out of this didactic mess Cage began to explore liberation by composing music by chance. The final movement of String Quartet in Four Parts was decided by the tossing of coins.
The concept of chance featured in 1951’s Music of Changes. The tempo, volume, and length of sounds were dependent on the I-Ching. The I-Ching is more a mechanism than a specific wisdom and is easily understood as a primitive binary code. Answers to yes/no questions are derived through the tossing of a number of coins a number of times yielding a number between 1 and 64 which are then interpreted as affirmative or negative. The I-Ching is commonly used for divination, but for Cage it became a tool to compose using chance. Cage received the first complete translation from Christian Wolfe, whose father Kurt Wolfe, was co-founder of Pantheon Books (which first published Kafka), had provided one of the first known translations. Along with Cage, Christian Wolfe, fellow composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and pianist David Tudor later became part of a wider New York School of avant-garde/experimental artists.
Cage was not out to wage an attack on the past as Boulez had. He instead presented a meditation on the idea of all sound as music. He sought a freedom without foolishness. Where European or conventional composers were filling sheets with dizzying arrays of notes, Cage filled the pages with silence or employed star charts and computer generated numbers to compose music. Cage eventually proved too experimental for Boulez, who was unable to accept the sound of a changing radio station or a duck whistle, such as were present in Cage’s “Water Music,” as anything that could count as music. Boulez accused Cage’s work of having fascistic tendencies, evidently oblivious that this label was the gold seal of classical composers and shared by the likes of Strauss, Sibelius or Stravinsky.
“Water Music” was one of two historic concerts that preceded Cage’s most famous composition. The 1952 concert featured a prepared piano, shuffling cards, a radio, the exchange of water between receptacles, and yes, a duck whistle. This was followed by the multi-media, multi-disciplinary Black Mountain at Black Mountain College, an occasion of performance-art pioneering, where multiple artists performed simultaneously. The next concert was John Cage’s most famous piece, “4’33,” also known as “4’33 of Silence.”
“4’33,” which Cage considered his best work, perhaps best articulates his belief that any sound is music. The addition of “Silence” after “4‘33” is a great misnomer because what constitutes the ‘music’ of this song is precisely what is heard during the performance while the musicians are not playing their instruments. The musicians, present but not playing, serve as a prop to indicate that what the audience is listening to while they are not playing is still music. Silence featured frequently in Cage’s work and his desire to create an entirely silent piece was articulated as early as the late 1940s. The final impetus for the composition was likely from the “White Paintings” of colleague and Black Mountain collaborator Robert Rauschenberg. The seemingly blank canvases were altered according to lighting in the room or shadows projected on the canvas. The music in “4’33” was, like Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings,” that which occurred on the canvas of the piece’s duration. With that, Cage literally silenced the dialectic between tonal and atonal music, wiped clear any lines in the sand drawn since the turn of the century and proposed a oneness on the whole goddamn argument.
As if that weren’t enough, you can also credit Cage for making the world’s first mixtape: a four minute magnetic tape collage called “Williams Mix,” an I-Ching plotted cacophony of mechanical and natural sounds (a likely early influence of the tape collage, “Revolution 9” on The Beatles’ White Album). Cage found something rational in the irrational and vice versa; his purpose was to find a way out of restrictive forces in music and his minimalistic approach paved the way for the likes of Brian Eno, The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. An 8 hour film directed by Warhol came after Warhol stood in the audience of an 18 hour Cage performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations in 1963. A prepared piano, which Cage is credited with inventing, features in The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (though Cage coined the term prepared piano, he was certainly not the first to get under the hood of a piano, where he would place screws and bolts or other objects between the strings). Even the ambitious music historian can trace part of Hip Hop’s origins to the on-stage record players of Cage’s “Imaginary Landscapes.”
As far as 20th century European witnesses go, Halberstadt Church has seen it all, has seen the worst, and has survived them all. It survived the 30 Years War, and saw witch-hunts, Nazi pogroms, the deportation of Jews, and sections of its town converted into satellite concentration camps. It survived Allied bombing attacks that destroyed 80 percent of the city and later survived the Red Army. It was built before Cage was born, and was standing when he died in 1992. But this is not why Halberstadt Church was chosen as the site for As Slow As Possible. It was selected, by a committee of musicians and philosophers in 1997, because Halberstadt is the site of the world’s first pipe organ which was installed 639 years before the proposed start date of As Slow As Possible and only two remaining note changes are left: October 5, 2013, and September 5, 2020. If history is any indicator, this church will see more wars, more devastation, and much more death. But what it will not see is the end of music, and it will be a long time before it sees the end of the music of John Cage.