Hear John Cage’s Slowest Piece of Music in the World in Halberstadt

The longest organ music concert in the world, John Cage’s ORGAN²/ASLSP As Slow As Possible, is playing for 639 years in the St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt in Saxony Anhalt, Germany.

John Cage. Project Organ

The slowest piece of music in the world, or the longest organ music concert ever written, is currently — and for the next six centuries or so — being played on a special organ in the former St Burchardi abbey church in Halberstadt, a pretty and interesting city in the German state Saxony-Anhalt. The John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project started in 2001 and will continue until 2640. Admission is free, except when the sound changes.

John Cage’s ORGAN²/ASLSP Slowest Piece of Music in the World

John Cage. Project Organ

The ORGAN²/ASLSP music piece being played in the St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt is a special art project inspired by the American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992). He was a proponent of the musical tempo “as slow as possible” — or ASLSP. 

Cage wrote ASLSP for the piano in 1985 but was easily persuaded to change it for a pipe organ that obviously can keep the note going for longer. The organ premier performance of this ASLSP lasted for only 29 minutes when played in 1987 in Metz. A more recent performance took 71 minutes  — recorded on the magnificent Hildebrandt organ that Bach helped designed in the Stadtkirche St Wenzel in Naumburg and available on CD. 

Several longer performances have been given too in many locations around the world — just less than 15 hours is ideal according to the original score’s temporal proportions, which Cage has omitted later to allow more freedom of interpretation especially for those less rushed.

However, those “as slow as possible” performances were clearly unambitious. The current performance of ASLSP in Halberstadt will take 639 years during which the piece will be repeated in cycles of 71 years each.

John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project in Halberstadt

John Cage's ORGAN²/ASLSP Slowest Piece of Music in the World

The John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project running currently — and for the next six centuries or so — in Halberstadt is a concert that several generations will be able to enjoy. No one is ever going to hear the complete piece here.

The emphasis is not on long but rather on slow. Any single chord is played for at least 30 days.

ORGAN²/ASLSP consists of 65 impulses during which a new sound begins (Klangwechsel), or ends (Pause), or a combination of the two.

The concert started on 5 September 2001 — with a 17-month rest — and the first actual chord was played from 5 February 2003 for 518 days.

The longest chord in the concert is impulse 15, which played for 2527 days from 5 October 2013. The sound consists of five notes, of which one will be paused on 5 September 2020. The next sound change will be after 518 days on 5 February 2022.

According to the pamphlet “the performance ranks as one of the most outstanding cultural events in Germany” — words not repeated in the German version (as a reminder than such claims are not delivered under oath?) Nevertheless, the John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project in Halberstadt is interesting to see and hear — somewhat surprisingly the unchanged constant chord is in no way irritating, as a constantly changing note repeating forever would have been.

Why 369 Years? Why in Halberstadt?

Organ Burchardikirche Halberstadt

Halberstadt and the 369-years duration of the concert were deliberate choices for this project. In 1361, a new organ with a 12-tone keyboard was build for the Halberstadt Cathedral. This was probably the first instrument of this kind using the claviature of 12 notes still used today. (This organ was lost but the modern Eule organ with 66 stops and 5184 pipes in used in the cathedral since 1965 is a fine instrument too.)

The second millennium minus 1361 gives 639 years and it was decided to make the concert that long. Each playing of the ORGAN²/ASLSP score will take 71 years with the piece repeated.

An electric pipe organ is clearly the ideal instrument for playing such a long piece that requires the ability to keep a single note going for a year or more when required. A well-maintained pipe organ can theoretically play forever. The special organ used in Halberstadt was built by Kevelaerer Orgelbauer Romanus F. Seifert & Sohn with support from the Firma Reinhard Hüfken-Orgelbau aus Halberstadt. 

The organ only has as many pipes as are required with new pipes added or older ones removed after each sound change. Sandbags are used to hold the organ pedals down while an emergency energy supply is available in case of a cut in the electricity supply. 

St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt

The organ was installed in the former abbey church of St Burchardi. Although the St Burchardi Kirche dates partly back to 1050, the current church was mostly rebuilt in 1711. It was part of a Cistercian monastery secularized by Jerome Napoleon in 1810. For the next almost two centuries it was used amongst others as a barn, hovel, distillery, and pigsty. The large but dilapidated building was specifically made weatherproof for the John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project but is otherwise mostly a  bare shell with the notable exception of the organ and its bellows in the transept.

Visitors Information Slowest Piece of Music in the World

John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project in Halberstadt is open Tuesday to Sunday:

  • noon to 16:00 from November to March
  • 11:00 to 17:00 in April to October
Signposts in Halberstadt

Admission is free.

After featuring on the BBC, CNN, Washington Post, and other international media, tickets for the sound-changing moments sell out fast — listening for free from the outside is usually an option. Annually, around 10,000 people visit the installation.

It is possible to sponsor the sound for a year. A minimum donation is currently €1200 and a memorial plaque with own choice of wording (within reasonable limits) is made for display. Not that many years are still available during the first cycle of the concert.

Half Timbered Buildings in Halberstadt

John Cage ORGAN²/ASLSP Organ Art Project is in the Burchardikirche, Am Kloster 1, just to the northwest of the center of Halberstadt. Ample free parking is available, although it is a very pleasant walk from the cathedral area through a neighborhood full of beautiful half-timbered houses. 

The organ in the Halberstadt Cathedral is used for more traditional music Saturdays at noon from April to October and in frequent concerts and services.

Visit the gothic Dom zu Halberstadt to see one of the best and most important medieval cathedral treasuries (Domschatz) in Germany.

More photos of Halberstadt on Flickr.

Henk Bekker in armor

About the author:

Henk Bekker

Henk Bekker is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years of experience writing online. He is particularly interested in history, art, and culture. He has lived most of his adult life in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In addition to European-Traveler.com, he also owns a travel website on the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and maintains statistical websites on car sales and classic car auction prices. Henk holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School and an MSc in Development Finance from the University of London.

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