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The piece 'As Slow as Possible' has been in performance for 21 years — so far

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The German town of Halberstadt is home to a musical performance that is expected to last - wait for it - nearly seven centuries. NPR's Rob Schmitz has the details.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAGE'S "ORGAN2/ASLSP")

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: This piece is titled "Organ²/As Slow As Possible," and one of the only instructions composer John Cage left for those performing it was to, as the title suggests, play it as slowly as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAGE'S "ORGAN2/ASLSP")

SCHMITZ: One might say mission accomplished for the folks with the John Cage Organ Foundation in Halberstadt, or not. When foundation members met to plan this performance well after Cage's death in 1992, they could not agree on what exactly Cage meant when he said as slow as possible, recalls foundation member Rainer Neugebauer.

RAINER NEUGEBAUER: So they said, oh, the organist must go sometimes to the loo - yes? - or must something to eat, yes? And then one people who said no - he was a theologian. He said, no, the organist must play until he dies from the seat, yes?

SCHMITZ: The theologian's idea lost traction when the group realized it might be difficult to find an organist willing to die while playing a John Cage composition. So they came up with a simpler solution - small sandbags to hold the keys down. After further debate, the group decided the piece would be played for 639 years to mark the time between the construction of the world's first 12-tone gothic organ in Halberstadt in 1361 and the new millennium. The city donated an abandoned 11th century convent for the performance. And on September 5, 2001, what would have been Cage's 89th birthday, the performance began.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAGE'S "ORGAN2/ASLSP")

SCHMITZ: The wooden-framed organ that has played the composition since 2001 is a work in progress. It's being built as the piece goes on, with metal pipes added or taken away with each chord change. Its bellows, sitting across from the organ on a platform, are powered electrically with a backup generator, the wind from them carried to the organ through an underground pipe. Neugebauer, sporting a long, gray beard and black-framed glasses, beckons me towards them.

NEUGEBAUER: In the beginning of the first part, for 17 months, you came in and hear only the bellows.

SCHMITZ: And that's because Cage's piece starts with a short pause, a pause that, when calibrated to fit 639 years, meant the first 17 months of the piece was just the sound of air whooshing through the bellows. But years later, Neugebauer realized, with shock, that his team had miscalculated this pause. It should have lasted 28 months.

NEUGEBAUER: We made thousand...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thousands (laughter).

NEUGEBAUER: ...Mistakes.

SCHMITZ: There was the time he allowed a movie crew to film the organ at night, and they accidentally knocked one of the pipes loose, changing the note for a few hours. Or the time when a local politician couldn't make one of the chord change ceremonies, so they delayed it by a couple of weeks. That was the final straw for one of the project founders, who fancied himself a John Cage purist. He quit in a huff. Neugebauer takes it all in stride.

NEUGEBAUER: I think Cage is one of the human being who is nearest the point to be so free that he was not disappointed when there is no meaning, no intention.

SCHMITZ: After all, says Neugebauer, we're talking about a composer whose most famous composition, titled "4'33," asks performers to sit silently for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAGE'S "ORGAN2/ASLSP")

SCHMITZ: On a quiet, windy, winter day, visitor Gabriella Faust stands in front of the organ and closes her eyes, almost in meditation.

GABRIELLA FAUST: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "There's something contemplative about this sound. It's relaxing and calming," she says. Faust wonders, though, how this piece will continue until the year 2640. "Who's going to take care of this organ," she asks. When I asked Neugebauer this, he goes over a list of future threats to the performance - right-wing extremists, climate change, nuclear war, that kind of thing. But those concerns are for future generations, he says. He's only in charge of the first of the piece's eight movements, and that's scheduled to wrap up on September 4, 2072, if he's calculated it correctly.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Halberstadt.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAGE'S "ORGAN2/ASLSP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.