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  • Writer's pictureStephen Paul

The music that made me cry before I heard it.

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

These are the final words from The Sunday Alternative of 16th Feb 2020 at South Street Art Theater.

Sam gesturing to a smiling congregation.
Sam conduct her brilliant game

The assembly had been themed around a talk by Anthony Simpson called the Truth About Food which looked into the environmental consequences of our food choices. A subject matter that has been playing on my mind for the last 30 years, but has only been taken seriously by the general public over the last few years.

The final words section came directly after the Minute of Silent Contemplation. "John Cage was an American artist most famous for his piece “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” in which there is silence for that given time. The band performed the ‘single’ version of it during our Minute of Silent Contemplation. The piece is not about silence, but about creating a space for other sounds. And with that thought in mind, I expect many of you enjoyed it much more than many louder pieces other people have forced upon you over the years, or even today.

In 1985 John Cage wrote ASLSP (As Slow as Possible). The piece is not particularly pleasant to listen to and I’ve only heard it in full once and I can’t imagine I will listen to a complete performance of it ever again. Yet, it is most probably the most important piece of music ever written. Few pieces of music have made me cry but this one did, even before I heard it. The score is unusual in that it has no indication of tempo, merely the instruction for it to be played as Slow As Possible.

On September 5, 2001, which would have been John Cage’s 89th birthday, a performance of ASLSP began on a specially commissioned organ, in St. Burchardi church, in Halberstadt, Germany. The organ has an electric bellow which drives the organ pipes, and sandbags hold down the notes on its keyboard. Yet, it wasn’t until roughly 18 months after the piece began, that on February 5, 2003, the first notes were heard, as Cage, obviously, a man of humour, composed the piece to begin with a rest. To date, there have been 6 note changes and the next one occurs on September 5, of this year. You have the opportunity to reserve 1 of the 150 seats for that event - to watch the music change (for a minimum donation of E200).

The final note will end on September 5, 26,40. A duration of 639 years.

So what? Would be an understandable response. Just arty types doing meaningless arty things. But what if the last note isn’t played? Tatum is my second child, and she was born in 2003 and this music played as she was born, and it will still be with her, if she chooses to listen, as an old woman. By then it will also be the music of her children, of all children, and of the many generations that will follow. But what if her children do not have the opportunity to listen to a few notes from this rendition? What would that mean? It would mean we have failed, our society has failed - it couldn’t even play a piece of music - a mere handful of notes*. And that is why this piece of music made me cry even though I had not heard it yet, because I don’t think we can play it, not to its end, and I suspect we’re not going to get anywhere near to it.

The problem with us humans is we find it so hard to act against the status quo, to even notice the status quo, we resist change and are easily distracted by shiny objects. It’s not fair because that’s the way we’re made - we’ve got monkey brains for solving monkey problems, and now we have a challenge beyond our imaginations - music that lasts too long, and we struggle to comprehend it when it so easy to revert to the songs of our youth or singalong to the lastest 3-minute pop rehashes of everyone’s favourite tunes.

But it might still be possible for us to work through this, for you to work through this - in your actions and in your politics - to make the changes so our descendants have the opportunity to stand in an old church and appalled as the final sandbag is removed from the keys - and as that last note fades, they think of the person who wrote that music so long ago and give thanks to the millions of people of a civilisation that was strong enough to play one tune." * My emotions got the better of me at this point and I made a concerted effort not to get upset, but my voice betrayed me, and the mood in the room changed from listening to absolute silence. In retrospect, a lovely moment although my stress levels were peaking.

The organ used for the Halberstadt performance.

Find out more about As Slow as Possible here.

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