For visitors to the 14th century church of Saint Burchardi in the German town of Halberstadt, two things are certain: they will hear an organ playing – and will be dead before it stops.
Inside the right transept of the church lies a custom built organ specifically for the performance of As Slow as Possible, a musical composition by John Cage. The piece began after organ was completed in 2001, and is expected to have duration of 639 years meaning none of us will be around to hear it end in the year 2640. Why 639 years? At the time of the project’s inception, the main organ at the church of Saint Burchardi was 639 years old.
A background of the church is given on the official website for the John Cage Organ Project, a group of composers, theologians, and philosophers overseeing the performance:
“The place is St. Burchardi, one of the oldest churches of the city. Built around 1050 at the behest of Burchard of Nahburg, bishop of Halberstadt at that time, this church functioned as a Cistercian convent for more than 600 years. In the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), St. Burchardi was partially destroyed, but was rebuilt in 1711 and secularised by Jérome, the brother of Napoleon, in 1810. For 190 years the church was used as a barn, hovel, distillery and a sty.”
In 2001, the performance began with 17 months of silence while the bellows inflated. The last note change occurred in October of 2013, and the next is scheduled to take place in September. Individual chords can last for months or even years, each time a weight shifted to a different pedal whenever a new one is called for in the score. Each time a note changes, a sizable crowd gathers at the church to witness it.
Look below to see inside the church:
Watch below the performance of As Slow As Possible: