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22/05/2006

John Cage's music for a psalm

The day the E died in John Cage's 639 year long organ work. By Thomas Gerlach

On September 5, 2001, the 89th anniversary of the birth of John Cage, his composition "ORGAN2/ASLSP" started at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, home of the first organ with a claviature of 12 notes, built in 1361. Five months later, on February 5, 2002, the first notes sounded. Four years down the road the project, initiated by the John Cage Organ Foundation, is now at its 6th impulse and is due to last another 633 years.

When exactly did God create sound? He made heaven and earth, the sun and the stars, day and night, the trees and the grass, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea, and then, finally, man. But music? When did music appear on earth? This kind of question appeals to Margot Dannenberg. It will move her to the core – for the next 633 years. Hopefully for many years to come in Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt, and then in heaven, in the afterlife. Where she will probably meet John Cage, which will be wonderful.

"By all accounts, he must have been a wonderful person. So tolerant," says Margot Dannenberg, standing in St. Burchardi Church in front of a perspex cube enclosing a wooden frame with six organ pipes that sound constantly. The visitor at Ms. Dannenberg's side nods his head pensively, but remains silent. Why be sceptical now? Here, in front of the small device that is meant to grow into an organ and which emits a sound that is set to outlast just about everything the world now considers important, one should not be small-minded.

The Pyramids at Gizeh, the Great Wall of China and the stones at Stonehenge may well outlive St. Burchardi. The skyscrapers, football stadiums, shopping malls and the many other vain structures brought forth by our time are too small to stand the test of time over centuries.

"It is very unspectacular, but there is something moving about it," says Margot Dannenberg. The man nods. "A piece in a permanent process of becoming that exceeds one's own lifetime," she says, and tells of a family from Belgium who were in Italy for a week and made a detour via Halberstadt on their way home on account of Cage. "And they were quite enthusiastic when they came out." A conversation ensues, the names of Olivier Messiaen and Merce Cunningham are mentioned. "Ah, you’re going to meet Cunningham?" asks Ms. Dannenberg, putting her fingertips together and looking intently at the visitor. In the background, "Organ2 ASLSP" by John Cage.

St. Burchardi Church, HalberstadtSt. Burchardi Church, Halberstadt
All pictures courtesy of http://www.john-cage.halberstadt.de/


True greatness manifests itself in lowly form. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the sound that will traverse the centuries is being made far from the concert halls in the church of St. Burchardi. It has stood for nearly 800 years, and for the last two hundred it was used as a brewery and a pigsty. Instead of a highly-paid maestro, the person giving the concert here is the 56-year-old former secretary Margot Dannenberg from Wegeleben near Halberstadt. She wears sequins on her T-shirt and when she laughs, she flashes her gold tooth, and it flashes often.

Margot Dannenberg wipes the dust from the bellows and rakes the grey-blue gravel that covers the floor of the church, she lets in the guests who come knocking more and more frequently. But above all, she pricks up her ears every morning in the courtyard to hear whether the sound is still there, before unlocking the church and checking the hidden switch on the bellows to make sure the green light is on. If the light is red rather than green, the first electric motor would have given up the ghost, the second would be pumping the necessary air into the organ. This time has yet to come. But it always does eventually, even for an electric motor.

Klaus Herre’s time is now. The metalworker and blacksmith from Halberstadt is welding an iron plate onto the beam that runs the length of the wall. The arc light flickers, smoke rises – and one more person is immortalised, at least for 633 years. Persons famous and unknown, dead and still alive have bought these engraved metal plates as a way of communicating their pearls of wisdom, or at least their names. They have paid at least 1,000 euros to preserve them from total oblivion for the next six centuries. The money benefits the project, the plates look like premature gravestones.

"Coffee's ready!" Evelyn Lobe comes into the church with a worldly message. In the morning, she had introduced herself as "Ms. Dannenberg’s right hand woman." Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 50-year-old Ms. Lobe was a secretary at Halberstadt District Council. She was sent to work with Ms. Dannenberg by the job centre. Between them, they do what needs doing as best they can, with the help of four paid guides. Evelyn Lobe knows a fair amount about John Cage: that he composed the piece in 1987, that the first part will last 71 years and that one of the eight parts should be repeated. Sometimes she pauses for thought before saying, "She knows better," pointing in the direction where she assumes Margot Dannenberg is.

The organThe organ


The women guard the performance like vestal virgins. There is the composer, there are the initiators of the project, the journalists from far and wide, the organ builders from Kevelaer and Halberstadt, there are the ladies and gentlemen from the town hall, there are the project's detractors and those who have fallen for it hopelessly. And there is Margot Dannenberg.

She talks about Ryan, a student of religious studies and philosophy at Harvard University – another Cage devotee. He begged until he was granted permission to spend a night inside St. Burchardi. "These people are special, because you can philosophize with them," says Ms. Dannenberg. That night, she says, Ryan filled whole notebooks with writing.

Philosophizing, asking questions – St. Burchardi and the monotonous music are perfect for these activities. Who would have thought that Margot Dannenberg would ever be part of something like this? Other people come from America to experience for a few hours what Margot Dannenberg has around her almost every day. "This is an interesting job, that's what makes it special," she says, and for once, she sounds almost inhibited. For nine years, she was a secretary at the concrete works, then at a furniture factory. After the dissolution of East Germany, she worked for a haulage company, then for a wholesaler, and then she became unemployed. And then she heard about the Cage project.

She bought thick newspapers, devoured everything she could find about Cage, read the biography "The Roaring Silence" and bought CDs. Then the job centre called, asking if she was interested in a "long-term project" with subsidies for women over fifty. She would need to do accounts and a modest amount of talking. Maybe it was chance that the job centre called her, maybe her talents had been noticed. In any case, it was a stroke of fate. On January 1, 2001, it brought Margot Dannenberg to John Cage.




As far as the job centre is concerned, the "long-term project" has run its course. At present, she is receiving 165 euros a month from the John Cage Foundation in addition to her unemployment benefits. For this pay, one can expect neither devotion nor overtime. But Margot Dannenberg gives much more. She has even written a paper. "Without musicians like Cage, music would long since have become pure harmony-addicted entertainment and thus a consumer item – nothing more!" This is how her document ends. It sounds like a manifesto. One can hardly believe she still enjoys listening to her old favourites Abba and Phil Collins.

When Margot Dannenberg talks about Cage, her finger often points upwards. He is listening. Here in Halberstadt, he is still alive. To God, a millennium is like a day, and 639 are like a song. This is like music for a psalm. Margot Dannenberg is a Catholic like her mother and her grandmother before her, and like the Monastery of St. Burchardi until its dissolution in 1808. She recently visited St. Peter's in Rome, saw all the gold and marble, and thought of her little grey church where the music is playing.

"Hello, good morning! I'm Ms. Dannenberg, pleased to meet you!" – "Right, we're the Müllers, we're in Halberstadt for a family reunion." Using simple words, Margot Dannenberg immediately begins to get the Müllers interested in John Cage. The door shuts, Ms. Dannenberg's bright voice can be heard against the whimpering of the six organ pipes. "Long-term project … beautiful D-major chord … idea of slowness." Behind the church, two young men are mowing the lawn, the mowers clatter. Everything must look spick and span when the guests arrive.

For this afternoon's change of tone, the church will be full. Margot Dannenberg and Evelyn Lobe will take care of the drinks, show people the way to the toilets and prepare the room in the neighbouring manor house for the founding of the John Cage Academy. At 3:45 pm, a local government minister and a professor will remove two pipes. Of course, this is an important and noble task.


Installing the pipesRemoving the pipes


But what do these two men know about Ms. Dannenberg's day-to-day concerns, about the green light on the bellows, about managing the infestation of pigeons or about the local woman with the sensitive ears who came close to putting a premature end to the project by court decree? This woman is also the only person Margot Dannenberg has ever had to throw out of the church. One can understand her problem, but is it a reason to become abusive? She is also the reason for the perspex case, which sadly spoils the sound – until the time when enough money has been raised for soundproof windows.

Everything has its time. The Beatles and Abba and Phil Collins, even Bach may be forgotten one day. Some things last 639 years, some things are over quickly, as quickly as the chestnut tree in the courtyard loses its flowers. Sadly. On May 31, Evelyn Lobe's subsidized job runs out, and Margot Dannenberg will be pretty much all alone again. Just her and John Cage.

*

Thomas Gerlach is freelance journalist.

This article originally appeared in Die Tagezeitung on May 5, 2006.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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