Saturday, September 26, 2015

As SLow aS Possible : the pitch drop of music

Listen to this first.

This is not pleasing to hear. By any stretch of the imagination. Melodic is not a word I’d associate with this rendition in any state of mind. A commentator on youtube likens this with nails on a chalkboard. I am tempted to agree.

That should not be the case, however. The composer is the celebrated John Cage1, a twentieth century US composer whose most famous composition, titled 4’33”, is essentially musicians sitting around for four minutes and thirty three seconds doing absolutely nothing. The point of the composition is not to enhance silence, but to focus on the surrounding background noise the audience hears during the performance. I am not qualified at all to critique the piece; numerous capable people have already done so, and a quick glance through the composition’s Wikipedia piece should be enough to satisfy the casual reader. If you want to glance through more of John Cage's work, the folks over at Artsy have a rather nice page on him.

This post is not about 4’33”. It is about another of Cage’s startling creations, a composition titled Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), written for the organ. Given that the organ has infinite sustain–you can hold one note for as long as necessary–this piece can, technically, be played forever. Cage never listed a specific way of playing it, and multiple performers have played it for various lengths of time. In 2009, Diane Luchese, a professor in the department of music at Towson University, performed the piece uninterrupted for fifteen hours. However, this was nowhere close to the longest performance of this piece.

In 1361, one of the very first permanent organs was installed in the Halberstadt Cathedral in Germany, six hundred and thirty nine years before the turn of the millenium. In 1997, musicologists decided on a performance that would play Cage’s piece Organ²/ASLSP for 639 years beginning in 2000. The performance began on Sept 5–this was Cage’s birthday–in the year 2001 in the St. Buchardi church at Halberstadt and is scheduled to conclude in 2640. The opening note was a rest, and there was silence for almost a year and a half, with the first sound being heard only in February of 2003. So far, thirteen notes have been played, and the next change is scheduled for 2020.

Such long artistic performances are possibly a recent phenomenon. Scientific parallels would include the Pitch Drop Experiment2, where tar forms a single drop over several years.

The University of Queensland
pitch drop experiment.
The video at the beginning of this post turns this on its head by showing a performance of As SLow aS Possible in 37 seconds, almost 545 million times faster than the project underway in Halberstadt. It manages to prove that the piece should probably not be played fast.

  1. Nothing whatsoever to do with the Mortal Kombat character.
  2. This allows for nice wordplay with the concept of pitch in music.

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