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18 October 2013

So Begins the Hiatus (Organ2/ASLSP in Halberstadt)

I'm just back from Halberstadt (a 20+ hour journey), having attended the ceremonious 13th note change in the hyperdurational sounding of John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP. This is the last note change to occur for seven long years, so it was particularly well attended. The image above is my vantage point -- being among the last to enter the church, I was really only able to watch the proceedings via the many cell phones held above the heads of hundreds of compatriots. (The presence of so much technology in so hallowed a space is, well, jarring.)

For those almost impossibly not in the loop on this, this is the inspiration of a rarified group of musicologists, theologians, philosophers, and musicians in the Saxon town of Halberstadt in East Germany who founded the John Cage Organ Project (properly, the John Cage Orgel Kunst Projekt Halberstadt), a 639-year realization of Cage's composition in the town's historic St. Burchardi church. St. Burchardi was built in roughly 1050, and has served sequentially as a monastery, a barn, a distillery, an abandoned building, and a pigsty. It presently sits pretty much empty but for its modest Blockwerk organ (with 12-note claviature and grand, grand bellows) and the perpetual sound of Cage's piece.

Much has been written about the John Cage Organ Project, so I won't write much about it per se hereYou can visit the dedicated website, which chronicles virtually everything that's transpired since its inception (Sept. 5, 2001), or you can check out the many, many blogs that have given it space over the years. There's,, and, just for starters. And, yes, of course, Click here for video of this year's gathering, which took place on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, at 4:00 p.m. You might also peruse a beautiful photo montage by Rönni Gottel, or see how the event was covered on not one but two different Russian television stations, First Russian TV and the National Russian Television Broadcasting Service.

It's interesting how the John Cage Organ Project has so captured the imagination of the world, giving birth to an incredible number of inspired responses taking the form of new films, writings, visual art works, sculptures, and musical compositions. For years now, one or more of these works has been brought in as an ancillary offering to those present for the much anticipated note change(s). This year there were three: a screening of Sabine Groschup's experimental documentary, (JC{639}), with camera work by Jerzy Palacz, photos by Barbara Klemm, and sound design by Eric Spitzer-Marlyn, which runs a mere 29'14" (the precise length of the work's world premiere performance by Gerd Zacher in Metz in 1987), a visual art exhibition curated by Georg Weckwerth complete with bell ringing fish, an amplified cactus, and a set of Plexigrams from Cage's own Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, and a new documentary film by the lovely Pierre Hébert, a Canadian experimental filmmaker whose Places and Monuments 5: John Cage - Halberstadt brings together in the most intriguing manner animation with live action shooting.

Groschup's film is, in a sense, a work in progress, in that while it was "completed" in 2006, its 89 scenes (corresponding to the composition's 89 tones) can and have been chance rearranged into what are in effect wholly new films by a variety of individuals - 18 to date, with another 71 to go (all 89, in time, to be sold in a limited edition boxed set). Jozef Cseres, co-curator with Weckwerth of 2012's Membra Disjecta for John Cage (seen in Vienna, Prague, and Ostrava), created the first on Jan. 9, 2012. The screening in Halberstadt, Cseres's #1, was seen on traditional wide screen, while all 18 completed to date were parsed out across an emergent forest of 18 mismatched television monitors arranged on numbered carpet squares, cordoned off from the public, reminiscent of a Nam June Paik.

One of the more surprising responses to the Halberstadt Project is the essay penned by science fiction grandmaster Robert Silverberg, entitled "Reflections", published in a 2012 issue of Asimov's. Now, Asimov's might seem an unlikely fit for a piece about John Cage, since Asimov, its founder, was the apotheosis of the rational, the intentional, and, in his way, the principle of utopian central planning. He was a biochemist by trade but best known for his voluminous science fiction works that championed scientists as social engineers. In short, Asimov, and thus Asimov's, presents a most un-Cagean world view.

But Silverberg's writing about Cage in the context of the world of science fiction is not entirely unfounded. Cage is known to have played poker with the science fiction crowd at the home of Horace Gold in Stuyvesant Town in the 1950s. In his 2004 autobiographical essay, science fiction icon Robert Sheckley remembered him as "...ever silent and smiling, a winner at poker as at so many other things." Cage was an enthusiastic game player -- chess, of course, and poker, but also Scrabble, bridge, solitaire, backgammon, and dominoes. A very large box of his well-used favorite games is held in the archives of the John Cage Trust.

In 2011, the Halberstadt event inspired Nicholas Riddle (seen at right) and his partner, Patrick Stutz, both key figures at Edition Peters and thus in music publishing worldwide, to co-author a diary of their visit. A beautiful encapsulation of the experience! We had traveled together to Halberstadt the year before, when I myself effected the note change, and they were so inspired by the proceedings (and the incredible hospitality of our hosts, Rainer Neugebauer and Martje Hansen) that they quickly arranged for the publication of a special limited edition of Cage's score to be sold at (and for the benefit of) the Organ Project. They've returned annually ever since, with Riddle, as you can see in his diary, effecting one of the note changes in 2011.

Among the frontrunners of divine responses to the Organ Project was, of course, Paul Depprich's as fast/slow as possible, an amazing 8 hour and 23 minute HD recording of a transatlantic flight from Berlin to New York (shot on Aug. 12, 2006, the 14th anniversary of Cage's death). I wrote about this film in an earlier blog ("Three Ends of the Cinematic Spectrum," 26 August 2010), but it bears a reprise here. You can visit my earlier blog to view the extended trailer (32'39"), but here's a Vimeo clip of the exciting 3+ minute take-off. Sadly, no U.S. venue to date has taken the leap of faith required to screen the whole. Happily, however, Depprich has recently released his work in its glorious entirety on Blue Ray, available on his lavish website, which is devoted entirely to this extraordinary work.

Yet another film, directed by the Canadian television and film director Scott Smith entitled As Slow as Possible, chronicles the 2006 pilgrimage to Halberstadt by Ryan Knighton, a Canadian author whose writings include his internationally acclaimed memoirs about going blind, Cockeyed (2006), as well as the more recent C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark (2010). The Long Now Foundation (understandably intrigued by the long nowness of the Halberstadt realization of Cage's work) featured a piece by Stuart Candy on Knighton's visit, viewable here.  Knighton himself authored a piece for The Walrus, entitled "Monumental Vibrations," viewable here.  The trailer of this film (which, incidentally, is a very good documentary) can be seen here.

The newest inspiration on the horizon is a film-in-progress by Castles Built in Sand, a young Manchester, U.K. collective that brings together the sound, music, video, and photographic work of Paddy Baxter, Insa Langhorst, Yasmin Samir-Shakir, Huw Wahl, and Simon Connor. Their film is entitled The Song, set in 2640, a time when societies have disintegrated, technology has become useless, and resources have been depleted. All that is left of the old world is a song that has been playing for hundreds of years in a small church in what used to be Germany -- a song that is being played, as its name suggests, As Slow as Possible (Organ2/ASLSP). John Cage, its composer, has reached divine status, and a religious order protecting his legacy has been put into place.

The Song follows three different characters who are hoping to find the church where Organ2/ASLSP is reaching its end (it's rumored that a dramatic revelation awaits the final note).  The protagonists struggle to cross different post-technological environments in far-flung regions of Europe: a ghost town in Italy, the barren outposts of frozen Scandinavia, and the bleak, endless moors of North England.

Comprised almost entirely of black and white analogue stills, The Song pays visual homage to Chris Marker's powerful 28' cinematic essay, La Jetée (interestingly, a 1962 science fiction treasure, the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel). Aurally, it credits John Cage's legacy by placing central emphasis on the equanimity of musical and environmental sounds. This results in a powerful sonic entity that in combination with the narrative becomes the driving force imbuing the images.

Castles Built in Sand is actively fundraising in support of this film.  Take a look at the trailer here, and see if it isn't a good fit for this year's Christmas list.

Laura Kuhn