My friend Bret’s blog!

A song that will end in the year 2,642

Man, you gotta love John Cage. Whether he was creating music crafted by coin tosses — or maybe just the movements of goldfish in a bowl — you have to know that, even as he undoubtedly was committed to a historically challenging aesthetic plan, and continually attempted to push the envelope in music, and developed some of the most existentially intriguing experiments in non-intentionality and egolessness in music … he was probably also thinking, god almighty am I ever a scam artist. I mean, you just know he watched all the New York pseuds sitting down for a performance of his entirely-silent composition 4’33”, and had serious trouble keeping from giggling.

Still, I actually like Cage a lot. I’ve played music for twenty years and, like most musicians (at least, ones that have at some point played in speed-metal bands), am intrigued by sound that lurks on the peripheries of what we consider “music”. Thus it was really cool to hear that some Germans have begun playing As Slow As Possible — a piece of music Cage wrote which lasts for 639 years:

The three notes, which will last for a year-and-a-half, are just the start of the piece, called As Slow As Possible.

Composed by late avant-garde composer John Cage, the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ’s bellows being inflated.

This performance actually reminds me of the idea behind The Clock Of The Long Now — Danny Hillis’ idea of building a clock that will ticks only once a year, and which has a cuckoo that comes out every millenium. The idea, of course, is to impress upon viewers that time is long, something that our nanosecond culture isn’t very good at thinking about. It might seem like a kind of fey project, until you think about the environment and how badly we’ve messed it up. Most of the time, our horrible environmental choices are driven partly because humans, with our 75-year lifespans, are bad at visualizing the long future — and thinking about the implications of our actions. Only very occasionally does one see forethought that goes for a while, and when you do, it’s astonishing; as Hillis writes:

I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing. Did the carpenters plant new trees to replace the beams again a few hundred years from now?

Which is what brings me back to John Cage’s As Slowly As Possible. It’s a lovely connective tissue, a way of casting forward to the far future in a visceral, palpable way. Imagine going to see some of the performance 20 years from now. How old will you be in 20 years? What will you be doing? That song will only be three per cent of the way in. What notes will be playing even later on, while you lie dying?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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