A marathon for organ player

The Baltimore Sun

"Until I die, there will be sounds," wrote John Cage, the Andy Warhol of music. "And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

Even Cage, the radical, hugely influential composer who died in 1993, may have been surprised to learn just how long some of his own sounds would linger in that future. A performance of his Organ2/ASLSP began in an 11th-century church in Halberstadt, Germany, on what would have been Cage's 88th birthday, Sept. 5, 2000. It will end in 2639.

Barring rapid and awesome advances in cryonics, none of us will be around to hear the concluding notes of that performance, but there's a no less remarkable opportunity to experience the piece this week at Towson University. Diane Luchese, an accomplished organist and associate professor of music theory, will condense Organ2/ASLSP into a mere 15 hours, give or take a minute or two.

"I'm pumped up," says Luchese, whose performance Thursday begins at 8:45 a.m. and ends at 11:41 p.m.

She was inspired to tackle this project after visiting the performance-in-nearly-eternal-progress in Halberstadt, where the meaning of Cage's acronym in the title - "As SLow aS Possible" - has been taken way literally. Organ2/ASLSP contains eight movements of often long-held, dense harmonic clusters and moments of silence. The player is free to choose sonorities and dynamic levels. Some passages suggest tone coloring that is "ethereal, or profound, or quirky," Luchese says. "And I think in some spots you should just rock it out."

Cage left no guidance as to duration. The 1987 premiere lasted only a half-hour ("that seems short," Luchese says). At Halberstadt, a conference of musicologists, organists and philosophers took a cue from local history. The first organ with a modern keyboard was built in that German town in 1361, 639 years before the millennium. Organizers chose to start the piece in 2000 and continue for 639 years, with the life-span of each note and rest in the score determined mathematically.

Luchese came up with her own formula. "I wanted the performance to last a full working day," the organist says. She measured the length of the printed score with a ruler, and decided that 1 inch would equal six minutes. For the concert, she will have a clock and spread sheets that contain directions of when to depress and release the notes.

That ruler measurement also applies to the rests (in music, a rest indicates when notes are not to be played). "The silences are probably the hardest parts," Luchese says. "I'll start worrying about the audience getting fidgeting or wondering, 'Did she lose her place?' "

Those rests will allow the organist restroom breaks. Also helpful will be times when only pedal notes are played, as will happen between 4:21 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. during the fifth movement. While her feet are occupied, Luchese's hands will be free for a little nosh - she's planning on vegan snacks, power bars, green tea and "maybe some dark chocolate for the last couple of movements. I don't want to eat anything that will make crumbs. And I'll want to use a fork or chopsticks. I don't want to touch any food."

That's because Luchese will be handling small, custom-made lead weights throughout the many hours. She'll place them on the keys to produce chords that would be tough or impossible to articulate digitally for long stretches. Lead weights are the only things being used on the specially constructed organ in Halberstadt.

Luchese chose to perform Organ2/ASLSP on Thursday because that's one of the relatively rare days when a note-change is scheduled to take place in Halberstadt. (The next date a fresh note of the score will be sounded there is July 5, 2010.)

Even the comparative brevity of Luchese's presentation may leave some people questioning the validity of the piece. "If you're waiting for something to happen, you'll be disappointed," says the organist, a longtime Cage fan who met the composer in the 1980s, when she was a student at the New England Conservatory. "It's about what you bring to it. Cage always wanted people to really, really listen to sound."

For Cage, even no sound at all could still be art; his most (in)famous work, 4'33", calls on a performer to sit noiselessly in front of a piano for that length of time. "During the rests [of Organ2/ASLSP], I'm hearing sounds," Luchese says. "I'm not bored even when I'm sustaining a note for a very long time. The ears get so acute and sensitive to the pulsations."

The organist will have a guest book for listeners to sign Thursday; she expects people to come and go throughout the day.

As the performance nears, Luchese's only pressing concern is how to avoid tail bone and back strain. "I should be going to the gym every day to do yoga," she says, "but I've been too busy."

if you go

Diane Luchese will perform John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP from 8:45 a.m. to 11:41 p.m. Thursday at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Free. Call 410-704-2787 or go to towson.edu/artscalendar.

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