In 1985 John Cage was commissioned to write a work to be used as a test piece in the University of Maryland International Piano Festival and Competition (later known as the William Kapell Competition). The score he composed consists of eight separate sections, each two lines long, fully and conventionally notated with empty spaces between the individual events, but lacking dynamic and tempo indications. Cage requested that the pianist omit oneRead more section in each performance, and repeat one section anywhere during the performance, so that, in his words, “The competition jury wouldn’t have to listen to the same piece over and over.” The title is an abbreviated allusion to a line from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, but more importantly was meant to be interpreted as “AS sLow aS Possible.” And that’s where the fun begins.
The foremost questions that the title pose seem to be, should one take Cage strictly at his word, and what is meant by “possible”? Some commentators have recognized that, without any specific tempo indication and therefore attempting the music as slowly as humanly possibly, the performer would play the first chord and then die of old age before they are able to play the next note. As absurd as this may be, an ongoing, collaborative performance of the composer-permitted organ version of ASLSP at St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, began—tacitly—on February 5, 2003 (the first notes were sounded more than two years later, on July 5, 2005), and is expected to conclude in the year 2639. You can learn more about this project, and hear a live feed of the continuous performance, online at john-cage.halberstadt.de/new/index.php?seite= cdundtoene&l=e.
Most of the piano performances to date have been more moderately paced, although they vary from a 24-hour reading by Joe Drew during the 2008 ARTSaha! Festival in Omaha, Nebraska, to the 16-minute version recorded by Steffen Schleiermacher in 2001 (MDG—see Fanfare 25:1). The composer was, as might be expected, noncommittal, although there are several interesting exchanges on the subject between Cage and interviewer Joan Retallack to be found in Musicage: Cage Muses On Words, Art, and Music (Wesleyan University Press). In response to what was apparently a rather conservative and orthodox performance of the score by a student pianist, Cage acknowledged that although a valid possibility considering the inexplicit instructions of the score, he was disappointed that the pianist “was making the piece into an expressive continuity. And it wasn’t an expression that came from the sounds, it was an expression that came from his reaction to the notation.” His point was that, in attempting to make the score sound more palatable to our anticipated experience of music as a coherent entity, the student missed the spirit of Cage’s intentions.
And that is the primary difference between the new release by Sabine Liebner and the two previous recordings with which I am familiar, those of Schleiermacher and Steven Drury (Mode). Schleiermacher arbitrarily attached a time frame of two minutes per section; Drury does not specify in his program booklet how he arrived at his tempo(s), which are nearly identical to Schleiermacher’s. But both seem to be attempting to allow the relationship of details in the score—the musical architecture—to remain audible, while maintaining the relative position of events in time, according to their spacing on the staff. Less concerned with offering an “expressive continuity,” Liebner’s decision to extend the time frame of her presentation to approximately one hour is as discretionarily arbitrary as Schleiermacher’s, yet it creates a less familiar—albeit no less palpable—sense of drama via the exaggerated proportions and greater isolation of sounds in space. Liebner’s performance has a sparse, fragile quality, with notes only eventually succeeded by unpredictable chords, some connected by a dying resonance, others suggesting leading tones or complete end stops, hovering in silence—circumstances Cage made more explicit in the “time bracket” procedures he used with some regularity in his final years. And there is one additional small bit of authenticity in Liebner’s performance. Both Schleiermacher and Drury document all eight sections of the work—the complete score—as one might expect in a recording. But Liebner follows the spirit of Cage’s intentions one step further by omitting the sixth section and repeating the seventh, as he requested. Good for her.