Written by Blogging Fellows, Essay, Feature, First Person, Music, Trains in the Basement

Snow in the Concert Hall

Composers John Cage and R. Murray Schafer sculpt sound into moments that evade on-demand consumption. What can we learn from these sonic environments?

A grey day in September and a masked crowd gathers inside Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, a German town about 120 miles from Berlin. They’ve come to listen to an interesting moment in the longest piece of music in the world. Played on a specially built organ, the performance began in 2001 with a dramatic pause that lasted for a year and a half. If all goes to plan, the show will come to an end in around 620 years.

Even if you haven’t heard the piece, you could guess its composer. Famously avant-garde, John Cage created As Slow as Possible in the ‘80s. Written down, it’s only eight pages long, with a marking to “be played very, very slowly,” but the organ in Halberstadt takes Cage’s direction to its logical limit. With pedals held down by sandbags, the piece is set to the life expectancy of the instrument, the pipes manually swapped in and out to match the score. What results is a tectonic drone, chord progressions that form like tree rings. A glacial tempo that’s too slow for a single organist and their annoying mortal constraints such as being born, living, and dying in the course of a single bar.

Cage’s initial piano performances of As Slow as Possible would last about an hour. It was only when transposed for the organ that the potential of “very slowly” became more obvious. Other versions have ranged from an all-night performance in Montreal in 2015 to a 15-hour interpretation by Diana Luchese at Towson University, Maryland, the longest by a single musician. The Halberstadt version, in the ancestral home of the twelve-key organ, asks why things should be limited to one night, one audience, one human life. Unhurried by trivial things like global pandemics, it begins in our world and ends in another, where it will meet ears belonging to completely different human beings.

(—This pandemic won’t be the only one it will play through. It will accompany a handful more, not to mention the outcome of our climate crisis, a few technological and social revolutions, and a healthy assortment of era-defining events along the way.)

Visit the church as a child, then come back as a pensioner, and things will have barely moved—but you will notice a different quality to the sound. This September, two new pipes, a g-sharp and e, brought the song into a dense, seven-note section that sounds grand and celestial, but also a bit like a Roomba combined with an AC unit on full blast. The next chord change is scheduled for February 5th, 2022.

Snowforms (1986). R. Murray Schafer. Performed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir.

While Cage’s music travels slowly through time, fellow musical physicalist R. Murray Schafer teleports sounds from places where ears won’t reach. Snowforms, also composed in the late ‘80s, is inspired by the winter landscapes of Greenland visible from the windows of transatlantic flights. Instead of contemplating the desolation from his seat, Schafer, being sonically minded, imagines the sounds: the bending notes of a blizzard, the creaking of crevasses, the petal-like drop of snowflakes.

Snowforms is written in graphic notation, with visual symbols rather than standard notes, encouraging the singers to reimagine their voices as a medium for snow, blowing across the audience. The words on the score quote terms from Inuit languages: apingaut,  meaning “first snowfall,” mauyk for “soft snow,” akelrorak for “drifting snow,” and pokaktok for “snow like salt.’ They show how Schafer is interested in the physicality of sound, its resonance, literal and figurative. Both Schafer and Cage could be described as sculptors rather than composers, dealing with music as part of the space in which it’s played. Schafer writes that “when John Cage opens the door of the concert hall and encourages the street noises to intersect with his compositions, he ventilates the art of music with fresh and seemingly shapeless concepts.” Ventilates—to free the atoms, let the airwaves do what they will.

That sounds can be digitized, cloned, and split from their source is what Schafer calls schizophonia, something that fascinates and concerns him. As the harnessing of electric light has caused the obscuring of stars, Schafer worries that artificial sounds are leading to a deadening of organic noise (“sacred noise” as he calls it), while we lose both our ability to read the night sky and hear natural music.

Cage and Schafer know that sound is bigger than we are, that falling trees are cacophonous regardless of our presence, and that while we might be able to record and compose it, sound isn’t ours to keep trapped inside headphones. I think that’s what’s exciting about As Slow As Possible: the organ isn’t playing for us, or for any single human. It’s just not that interested in our perspective. A culture where sounds have become possessable, factory-farmed, and consumed millions of times over seems confused about this dynamic. When we untether sound, we’re not taking control of it, we’re encouraging it to go viral.

Cover illustration: Jess Shadrick

Quotes from R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Simon and Schuster.)

Trains in the Basement is a series of essays on time-bending, self-isolating, mask-wearing artists and their designs for living.

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