In today's hectic world, many of us are looking to rest up and slow down. How slow, though, are you prepared to go? I asked our staff to help me brainstorm a list of the slowest classical music ever written.
Place of honor goes to John Cage's Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), a 1987 organ piece that's currently being played at a church in Germany in a performance that's scheduled to last 640 years. I guess that's not technically as slow as possible (they'll go for 641 years next time), but it's pretty darn slow.
Several staff members mentioned Debussy's piano waltz La plus que lente, which translates roughly to "slower than slow." The title probably wasn't meant to be taken quite as literally as Cage's: Debussy was referring to the valse lente genre. Still, in most performances it's quite a leisurely listen.
Luke Taylor suggests Arvo Part's 1978 composition Spiegel im Spiegel, the title of which refers to infinity mirrors: mirrors placed opposite one another to create a seemingly endless vista. (If this piece sounds familiar, you may want to fasten your seatbelt — some Volkswagen models play this music as the alert sound when passengers' belts aren't buckled.)
Vaughn Ormseth notes that "Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 starts almost inaudibly and very very slowly, but it gradually picks up pace. It's gorgeous if very solemn." David Zinman's 1992 recording with the London Sinfonietta became a surprise hit, introducing Gorecki to a wide audience and burnishing the star power of soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Dan Nass nominates Brian Eno's Music for Airports, though he adds, "Not sure it's so much a 'slow piece' as it is an ambient piece."
In response to my query about slow music, Michael Barone shared an interesting story:
"Not particularly slow, tempo-wise, but seeming to be timeless in its experience is a thing by Gavin Bryars called Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which consists of a brief audio-documentary voice clip of an elderly homeless man in England singing this plaintive little faith-song, his 25-second vocalization repeated more than 160 times, with an every gradually (and at times almost imperceptibly) evolving instrumental accompaniment added to it over the course of 74 minutes.
"I played this on The New Releases (twice). The first time [...] I introduced the CD, but at some point in its run needed to go downstairs to my office for something. During that time, someone called the broadcast studio and...upon receiving no response...felt compelled to call the St. Paul police department, as they thought something had gone terribly wrong and the 'record was sticking' (and the operator, me, must have died)."
Eventually, a police officer arrived at MPR, and was brought to the studio by one of Michael's colleagues.
"The officer enters and explains the call he has received. I assure him that, indeed, nothing is wrong, but explain the possible provocation...Mr. Bryar's mesmerizing score. We all stand there for some moments listening. The policeman understands, thanks us for our time, and exits (bemused, I am certain), as the music continues...
"We did receive numerous 'messages' on the Listener's Line that evening, about equally divided between people who were being driven mad (by what they heard as an unchanging repetition), and others who were appreciative that, after some initial moments of confusion and uncertainty, they got into the groove of the piece and confessed that it had been a mind-altering experience, even transcendental. I am one of them. My companion, Lise, is in the other camp.
"A similar sort of experience can be generated by several selections by Olivier Messiaen, such as The Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle, or the second half of Combat de la Mort et de la Vie (which entrances me every time).
"Slow is in the mind of the beholder..."
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