In 1998, when a group of composers, musicologists, organists, and philosophers in Germany pondered over the fact that an organ can hold a note indefinitely, they came up with the idea of a performance calibrated to the non-existent time limit of a modern keyboard organ. The result was what is now known as the world’s longest and slowest concert.
The Organ²/ASLSP concert began in Halberstadt, Germany, on the 5th of September 2001, in the medieval church of St. Burchardi. Scheduled for a run-time of until the year 2640, this concert stems from the genius of American composer John Cage, who wrote a piece for the piano, wanting the tempo to be “as slow as possible”. This piece resulted in what is now the world’s longest and slowest concert, predicted to run for 639 long years. The Organ²/ASLSP show takes place on what is known to be the very first modern organ keyboard, built by Nicolaus Haber in 1361 in Halberstadt, precisely 639 years before the turn of the 21st century, reported Catherine Hickley of The New York Times.
Since its inception, witnessing every note change has been a ritual among fans— so far, 140,000 people have visited Halberstadt to attend the ongoing performance. Retired social sciences professor Rainer Neugebauer who runs the John Cage Organ Foundation (the organizing body of the concert), shared that the chord change was something that they “couldn’t postpone” even during the time of a global pandemic. Hence, for the first chord change since 2013 (there have been fourteen chord changes so far), spectators from Denmark and the Czech Republic had attended to watch soprano Johanna Vargas and composer Julian Lembke lower two new pipes onto the organ’s body, creating a new, seven-note chord: C, D flat, D sharp, A sharp, E, and the new G sharp and E.
According to Neugebauer, the performance is “not a project for the masses” but a “crystallization point for contemporary art,” which “brings interesting people to Halberstadt.” For the town’s mayor, Andreas Henke, the performance raises “philosophical questions” about how time forces the spectator to “stand back and slow down.” Henke’s “great hope” is that the project would last until 2640, requiring multiple handovers between several generations. However, the performance doesn’t require a dedicated organist so much as it requires pipes to be added or subtracted at each sound change and be held down by sandbags.
Private donors can finance upkeep and workability costs, allowing for the sponsorship of a single note (playing for a year) for upwards of €1000. Donors receive credit, with a metal plaque with their name ingrained, then displayed in the cathedral for the entire sponsorship period. While the project has raised approximately one million euros, donations have been dwindling, and financial requirements plague the project, explained Neugebauer.