Last week a 9-year-old piano student asked me how long a piece of music can be. It's an interesting question. She asked it because most of her pieces have lasted 30 seconds to about a minute, but we've been working on a piece that lasts more than twice as long as those she has played in the past. Most musical works fall in a range from 30 seconds to several hours. That may seem like a very wide range but if you think of the difference between the length of a pop song on a top forty station and that of an opera from Wagner's Ring Cycle and you begin to get an idea of what might be possible. Really though, a piece of music can be any length of time, as long as there is a way to perform it.
When this student asked the question, It made me think of John Cage's piece Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible). Cage wrote it in 1987, but it is based on an earlier piece from 1985. Most performances of ASLSP have lasted between 20 minutes and 24 hours, but this performance is going to last (is lasting?) 639 years. It is taking place at a church in Halberstadt, Germany. It began in 2001 with a rest that lasted for 7 months, and it will end in 2640. When a sound is changed, it is a major event in the world of new music scholars, who flock to the church to hear it. You can hear the piece as it plays at the projects's website (German). The next change will happen about a year from now on October 5, 2013.
I mentioned to this student the Halberstadt performance of Organ2/ASLSP. She had one or two general questions. I answered her questions and we went on with the lesson. I figured she would understand that pieces can be very long and forget about this specific piece since it's very much outside her experience. This week, I was pleased but surprised when she brought up the piece again. She had thought about it and had many more questions. What instrument is it for? How long is each note? Does someone sit and play all the time? Do people sit and listen? Why was it written? Can it be done faster and if so how fast? As we talked about it I realized that, for her, music was no longer narrowly defined - in at least one respect, it became limitless and exciting.