Before COVID muted choral singing at Mass, our parish’s music director was forever coaxing our little choir to remain on tempo. From “Amazing Grace” to “Zion,” the vigorous instruction before each hymn was always the same: “Don’t drag it.” So routine was this exhortation that it became the unofficial motto of our group, and there was even talk of printing it on t-shirts.
Accompanying dozens of singers at area churches has only made our director more insistent that one beat too long on a note is the musical equivalent of a mortal sin. Negligent cantors (myself among them) can find themselves wincing under his withering gaze from the organ bench.
It was with a snarky delight, then, that I texted our director a recent headline out of Germany: a musical work by the late avant-garde composer John Cage was finally set to change chords — after seven years.
Fans lined up Sept. 5 at St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, where a specially constructed organ has been playing Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” since 2001, beginning with a pause of nearly 18 months. Back in 2013, a note change occurred, and last weekend, as the cameras rolled, two pipes were added to the organ, shifting the pitch once more. The current rendition will conclude after a total of 639 years, assuming the church (now relegated to secular use) and the world itself are still intact.
“I feel positively allegro now,” I quipped to our choirmaster, prompting an eye-roll emoji in response.
Cage’s work is certainly not the soundtrack of your rush-hour commute or gym workout. If anything, it’s likely to leave you scratching both head and ears. But by defying our notions of how long a musical piece should last, this composer actually challenges us to look well beyond the moment, and beyond ourselves.
As finite creatures, we’re bound by the weighty harness of space and time, but our spirits strain for the eternal. We live in a tension between now and forever, and in our fallen nature, we want both here and hereafter to conform to our demands. The digital revolution has upped the ante: when our deadlines are not met, we start tapping our Apple watches impatiently.
The thought of a musical performance outlasting its audience is obnoxious to a generation that can now binge-watch an entire television series in one weekend, or build a skyscraper in mere months. (Construction on Gothic cathedrals, in contrast, could take anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries, a schedule we would scorn.)
Yet even if Cage’s music rankles us, we would do well to listen. Our obstinate focus on the immediate is costing us, and those yet to come, dearly. Greed and selfishness have plundered our planet, destroying land, sea and civilization in the process. We say, think, buy, use, discard, build, destroy what we want, when we want, how we want. Our sense of intergenerational justice has devolved into an apologetic shrug to our grandchildren for the mess we have made of Earth.
We have lost our place in the Creator’s musical score, and the result is a deafening cacophony. Perhaps Cage’s music, strange as it may seem, invites us to discern a more urgent melody — one written by a Composer who “shaped the ear” (Ps 94:9) and “fashioned together (the) hearts” (Ps 33:15) of an audience he desperately longs to reach in redeeming love.
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