|<- Back to main page|
by Peter Barlow
On the platform, it rained a little. He used his free hand to hold his coat more tightly closed and looked up at the sky through the clear awning he was standing under. A perfect and sombering cover of grey extended in every direction, which figured, he thought. First time in Germany and his hopes of enjoying the long train ride through the countryside, watching the world go by in glistening sunlight, were dashed by the gloom that matched his mood. The pilot on his flight, using better English than some Americans he knew, told the passengers during the long taxi from the runway to the gate that the skies would clear later that afternoon. Until then, this sheet of grey, and instead of going away it followed him all through the four-hour train ride from Berlin to Halberstadt.
Eric sighed. He didn’t know the protocol—didn’t know if there was a protocol—for how long to wait for the taxi he’d ordered. Possibly there was a miscommunication; given the language barrier, that wouldn’t have surprised him. The translations offered by his web browser for the German-language sites were almost indecipherable gibberish, but he had found a few phone numbers and had a friend who spoke a little German make the phone call. The taxi drivers in Halberstadt spoke almost no English, and the friend’s German was barely enough to get the car ordered. Eric had a view of the parking lot from where he stood, and every time someone turned in he got a little more excited only to be deflated when it wasn’t his taxi. The last car to come was a woman who pulled into a parking spot, and Eric doubted his luck was good enough for her to be his driver. He released his coat long enough to blow on his hand before pulling his coat shut again, and looked up and down the platform again just to give himself something to do. It was another moment before he realized the woman he’d just watched, now wearing a wide-brim fedora pulled slightly down over part of her face, was walking in his direction.
A moment later she was standing in front of him. “Eric Miller?”
She didn’t extend a hand. “Lena Blücher. Sorry I wasn’t here to greet you properly. The Project sent me to collect you and take you to your hotel.” The Project in question was the John Cage Organ Project; they were the people responsible for him being in Halberstadt, them and Margot.
Eric made no attempt to move. “I hired a cab.”
“We cancelled it.”
Lena waved the question aside. “How many Americans do you think call and arrange taxis in Halberstadt? Word travels. This town isn’t that big. Come.” She turned around and started walking. “Unless you prefer standing in the rain.”
Eric watched for a moment, deciding whether or not to follow her. He’d asked for no identification, and getting kidnapped in the German countryside would be a fitting end to the day, but he went after her anyway. He caught her up as she stopped behind a silver sports car that, like her, looked out of place in the pastoral countryside. She put a hand in a pocket which then emitted a beeping noise, and a moment later the trunk popped open. Eric didn’t need telling to put his suitcase in, and Lena didn’t seem the type to tell him. A moment later they were in the car. Nicer than my car back home, he thought.
The drive to the hotel passed in silence. Lena stopped at the front door and kept her grip on the steering wheel, thumbing a button attached to it that made the trunk open with a thunk. “I’m at your disposal, Mr. Miller. If you like, I can give you a tour of the town before the ceremony.”
“I would like that.”
She turned toward him slightly. “I understand that you’d rather not be here, that this is a hard time for you.”
It took a few moments for Eric to process this. “Thank you.”
“Do you need help with your bag?”
He looked at her finally. “I— no. I’ll be alright. I think.”
She nodded. “Shall we say ten in the morning?”
“That’s— yes. That’s fine.” He opened the door, said, “Thank you again, Miss Blücher,” and missed her saying to think nothing of it as he got his case from the trunk. He closed it, patted the car twice to let her know he was done, and stood and watched as she drove away. It was a full minute before he moved, prompted only by the rain starting up again.
This isn’t right, he thought as he opened the doors and let himself inside. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not the one that’s supposed to be here. I’m living someone else’s dream right now and the notes seem off. Mr. Cage would have liked that idea, I bet.
The front desk had a sign in German sitting behind a bell and no one minding the desk. Even with no German skills, he knew what to do. One loud ding—it almost echoed, he thought—and fifteen seconds later a jaunty man wearing a red vest appeared. His name tag said Karl.
“Ah,” Karl said. “We were wondering how long it would take you to find your way from the station.”
Eric stared at him.
“You are Eric Miller, yes? Otherwise this conversation isn’t going so well for me.”
“I— yes, I am.” He made to pull his wallet out and provide identification but the hotelier waved it away.
“You say you’re Eric Miller, you’re Eric Miller. And you didn’t come all the way from America to cheat me of one of my rooms.” Karl tapped some keys on a computer, asked the usual hotel questions—no, Eric didn’t smoke, and just the one room key would do—and then had Eric sign a paper before sliding the key across the desk. “So, big day tomorrow at Burchardikirsche. Are you ready?”
Eric’s eyebrows went up. “Jesus, does everyone know what I’m here for?”
Karl smiled. “Small town. Also, I know Lena. After you’ve gotten settled, come down to the bar. First drink’s on the house.”
Eric nodded as noncommittally as he could and went down the hall indicated. The room itself proved to be nothing special: king bed, television, small desk with a 5x5 notepad and a pen. He’d stayed in rooms like this often enough. A week later, he’d be hard-pressed to remember any details about it.
He lifted the suitcase on the bed and sat down next to it. A moment later, it was open. On top was a stack of papers he’d put off reading, and now he found himself needing to, although he already knew the papers were about John Cage.
His first exposure to Cage was through Margot. They were going through some boxes one afternoon, trying to decide what things to keep and consolidate and what to throw away. Eric opened a box full of papers and found a stray page at the top. The sheet had 4’33” in bold happy letters in the header, and then below it the Roman numerals for one, two, and three, and the word Tacet following all three. He tapped Margot on the shoulder; she was facing the other way, had headphones on, and was humming one note over and over again. “What are you humming?” he said once he’d gotten her attention.
“E over middle C. It helps me focus.”
“You can hit that note with music in your headphones?”
“Nothing’s playing. They just keep out the background noise. What’s up?”
Eric took a moment to wonder if she’d always had that little hum and was surprised to notice that she had. How had he missed it before now? Then he remembered the paper in his hand. He showed it to Margot. “D’you recognize this?”
She took the paper, and after glancing at it briefly looked inside the box he was in front of. “Yeah, keep that box. That’s all my experimental music stuff.” She gave him the paper and turned away.
Eric looked the sheet over again. “This is music? Looks more like somebody was trying to do an outline in Latin and couldn’t be bothered to even finish the first page.”
Margot turned back toward him again. “You’re holding one of John Cage’s best known compositions.”
He looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
“It’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.”
“Is that what tacet means? Silence?”
“Near enough. ‘It is silent.’ In reference to an instrument or voice.”
Eric pondered the sheet again. “And the Roman numerals?”
“It’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence in three movements.”
He stared at Margot for a moment trying to take that point in, trying to figure out what a movement of silence sounded like, how a performer was expected to perform silence, if the piece was intended for a soloist or a symphony. Then he said, “So how is this music exactly?”
“Well, it depends on how you define music. If you take the stance that music has structure, rhythm, melody, and that it has to have all of those things, then it fails that metric in every way possible. If you accept, though, that there isn’t any such thing as silence, and that all of the accidental sounds you hear—the wind blowing, a chair scraping, a bird chirping—that all of that lumped together can be considered music, however abstractly, then Cage agrees with you.”
He nodded. “That doesn’t quite explain—”
“The musicality in 4’33” is in the audience’s response to it. The shuffling of feet, the occasional cough, the body movements of restlessness. He did nontraditional things like that a lot, particularly in his later works, bringing elements of indeterminacy into music, having specific notes and durations selected at random. Cage wrote one piece that’s designed to be performed as slowly as possible. That’s actually what he called it: Organ2/As SLow aS Possible. His own performances of it went anywhere from twenty to fifty minutes. Graduate school performances have been known to stretch it anywhere from eight hours long to twenty-four, performing through the night in shifts. There’s something called the John Cage Organ Project over in Germany that’s built an organ specifically to play this piece so slowly it will take six hundred and thirty-nine years to complete.”
“Dear God, why?”
She ran a hand through her hair; it hadn’t started to thin yet. “Well, partly because they can, and partly to emphasize the idea that how you engage the music is as important as the music itself.”
“I don’t know that I agree.”
Margot sighed. “Open up your mind, you old fuddy-duddy.” She turned around then, put her headphones back on, and started humming her E note again.
It wasn’t long after that that she told him about a contest the Project was running, where the winner would be brought to Halberstadt and be actively involved with the next note change in September 2020, and that she had only just entered in time. A few weeks later, she got the news that she’d won and was overjoyed. Eric tried to be supportive, but he kept thinking about that page and how it wasn’t music, how it didn’t speak to him like most music did.
The page that he’d found that day in the box was the one atop the papers in his suitcase. He lay down on the bed, pushing the bag to one side, and looked at the page for a few minutes. “Margot, you should be here. This is your trip,” he said, and then sighed. He clumsily propped the paper against the lamp on his bedside table. “Four minutes and thirty three seconds. One: tacet. Two: tacet. Three—” but he was already asleep.
Eric’s bladder woke him up three hours later. It took him a minute to remember where he was and why he was there. He was used to waking up to the view out of the bay window next to his bed which overlooked one of the plethora of lakes in southeast Michigan, not the view of the brick wall of another building. A few seconds later his brain churned into motion and guided him into the bathroom. After that and a cold splash of water to his face, he remembered everything, including that he had a drink promised in the lounge. It was only half past ten locally; the bar, he figured, should be open and hopping.
When he found it, located off of the front lobby, only one of those things was right: it was open, but there wasn’t anything hopping. One table was taken against the wall, its occupant staring at the football on the television. At the bar, two stools were taken by people similarly engrossed in the match. The bartender, the same man who’d checked him into the hotel, cleaned and reshelved glasses until he noticed Eric. “Ah, my American friend! Come, take a stool. What will you have?”
Eric took the stool on the far end of the bar from the other two. “If you’ve got a local on tap, I’ll take that. Dark, if you can.”
Karl smiled. “Good choice. Got one that’s thick enough you can walk on it.” He pulled a stein from a fridge beneath the bar and operated a tap. The liquid that came out was the color of mud and looked nearly as thick, but he put a one-inch head on it all the same and placed it on a coaster in front of Eric. “You’re odd for an American. I didn’t think any of you took it this dark.”
Eric shrugged. “I’m odd.” He took a long sip. The foam left him with a faint mustache that neither man paid any attention to. “You don’t get a lot of Americans here, I take it.”
“We didn’t used to, until the organ went in. Now we get tourists when there’s a note change, and the occasional someone passing through to have a look. Have you seen it yet?”
“In person, no. Pictures of it online, yes. You?”
Karl laughed. “Everyone in town has been out to Burchardikirche. There’s only forty thousand of us, after all. Anyway, the tourists come in, they look at it, and then they go. They don’t tend to stay the night. There’s enough trains come through you don’t have to if you don’t want. Also, Lena told me you were coming. I’m the manager, after all.”
That the manager of the hotel would know his contact was unsurprising. If anything Eric wondered how well they knew each other, but he decided not to dig. “I see,” he said to fill the space.
“So who is she?” Karl said.
The hotelier laughed. “You’ve had a nap but there’s rings under your eyes pretty dark. Your eyes are red but not bloodshot, and I can see the spot on your left hand where the ring was; it’s a little discolored.”
Eric was impressed. This man playing bartender was more insightful and observant than any other bartender he’d met. “My wife, Margot.”
“No, she— she passed away. Six weeks ago. This was supposed to be her trip.”
Karl nodded. “Mein herzlichstes Beileid. My deepest condolences,” he added, catching the blankness on Eric’s face.
“She tried, you know? She tried to pass on to me her love of the avant-garde, of John Cage in particular. She was thrilled when she won the contest to come here and help with the changing of the note. That was a year ago. The diagnosis came a month later. I figured I’d heard the last of it until the Project contacted me. But I don’t understand any of this, any of the appeal Cage had to her or to anyone else for that matter. I’m here to fulfill her fantasy. Beyond that—” Eric shook his head without finishing the sentence and sipped at his beer.
Karl sighed. “If it helps, a lot of the townspeople don’t really understand either. All we knew was that there was going to be an organ put in at Burchardikirche, it would start playing a song in 2001, and wouldn’t finish for six hundred and thirty-nine years. When it started you could hear it, you know, in the houses nearby. They put a clear acrylic box around the organ to manage the sound, but the people nearby didn’t understand what it was Cage was up to, or the Project that put the organ there in the first place. They just understood the noise, and that they now lived next door to a tourist attraction.”
Eric nodded and ran a hand through his hair. “I just want to understand what the appeal of all of this was to her.”
Karl leaned over the bar. “Understand that your wife loves you, and wanted you to share her passions, enough that she trusted you to fulfill her dream trip. Start with that.”
When he woke at half past nine to shower the next morning, the jet lag hadn’t yet worn off; his internal clock was still six hours behind and thought it was still three thirty. The hot shower, which wasn’t hot so much as mostly warm, didn’t help much. He was still bleary eyed when he reported to the lobby at five to the hour and found Lena already there waiting for him. The thin and barely-present smile he managed wasn’t returned. “Where would you like to eat?” she said.
Eric shrugged. “You’re the one from around here. You tell me. I don’t know what all’s in this town.”
She nodded, led him out of the hotel and then two streets over to a small café. They took a table on the patio; the day was already appearing to be fine, or at least better than the day before. Lena and the waitress exchanged words before the latter wandered off. “I ordered you a water, if that’s acceptable to you.”
“And I trust you slept well.”
He hadn’t, or at least he didn’t think he had. Not that he remembered his dreams anyway, but he awoke with the distinct feeling his had been troubled, and that had translated to a certain restlessness on the bed. He didn’t feel refreshed at all, but every bit as ill-at-ease as he had the day before. Some of that he knew he could write off to jet lag, but not nearly enough to bring him any real comfort. “I slept well, thank you. I trust you did too.”
She gave a noncommittal tilt of her head. “This is my first note change since joining the Project. I’m a little bit nervous.”
“If it makes you feel better at all, this is my first note change too and I’m very nervous.”
The edges of her mouth hinted at rising. “It does a bit. And I suspect for the next one it won’t be so bad.”
“When will that be? The next note change, I mean.”
“A year and a half from now. February 2022. The last one was seven years ago. A thousand people showed up for that. We’re expecting about that many today.”
Eric’s eyes bulged. “A thousand?”
“Do you get stage fright?”
He sat back in his chair, his eyes still wide. A moment that he was reluctant to experience because he didn’t understand it suddenly became that much worse. He had never suffered from stage fright, but he didn’t think he needed onlookers—and certainly not so many of them—as he lived through one of the more awkward and somber moments of his life.
Lena nodded. “Not to make you feel worse, but they will be both watching and listening.”
“Well, it won’t be you as such that they’re watching and listening to, but the organ. People will be more interested in the mechanics of adding two pipes to the organ and the new tones than they will the person doing it.”
“I should think, yes. The organ and the music are the stars of the show. The only thing you have to really worry about is the mechanics of adding the new pipe. I understand it’s quite simple.”
His eyebrows went even farther up, and the notes of panic in his voice were impossible to miss. “You understand?”
“Well, we can’t actually touch the organ until time. It would ruin the concert, of course. But we have manuals and a mock piece of the organ where the fitting would go.”
Eric had never hyperventilated before. He was thinking of doing so now.
“Relax,” Lena said, her voice every bit as level as it had been the whole time. “I’ll be there to talk you through it.”
This didn’t make him feel any better. He knew there would be an audience, just not so big of one, and the filming he guessed would be taking place just made it worse. Him screwing up the note change, which he probably would now he was thinking of it, would become an internet sensation for an afternoon or three days or a month. For the first time he felt a flash of resentment at Margot for not being here herself.
“I can tell you’re still a little upset,” Lena said. He’d started gripping his cloth napkin a little harder than he ought. “Would you like to see the organ and the church?”
Eric nodded. “Yes, I suppose so.”
Complications: that was the word that got used the most. A clever way of shorthanding the litany of things that went wrong, an attempt to not really pin the reason on any one ailment. Best to tie it back to the original complaint that brought her in in the first place, make it all neat, wrap it up in a tight little bow, remove all blame from everyone and everything.
He turned that word over in his head a few times, a dozen, a hundred, in the days following. He went through all of the what-ifs and then went through them again. He didn’t want to place blame; that was her parents. They just wanted to know who to sue. In the end they picked the hospital; the litigation was pending mere hours after the funeral. Eric wanted nothing to do with it. All that would bring was more complications.
Two days after the funeral he was contacted by the Project. They had heard about Margot’s passing, been contacted by the executor of her will. Eric hadn’t known she’d had either one. The trip had been left to him in her will, the person from the Project said, and was he ready to make arrangements now? He put the person off, called her parents, and after some what-the-helling got the name of her executor, who apologized and said that they’d left Eric a voicemail every day since Margot had passed. He checked later; they had. The will was quite clear that everything went to him and he was to go to Halberstadt in her place. Part of him knew that any residual anger he felt for finding out about this after she was gone was somewhat unreasonable. A bigger part of him didn’t care. All the same, he waited a day before calling the Project back.
The first box of her effects that he went through, by design, was the one with the avant-garde music. The page for 4’33” was still on top, right where he’d left it. All through her memorial service, the piece—the one he could most easily remember—was at the front of his mind. He thought about honoring her by taking an extended silence while standing at the pulpit before delivering her eulogy. When the time came he found he couldn’t do it. He was too distraught to do much more than say his few words then get back seated before he burst out crying. But it was there in his mind the entire time, and all he wanted everyone to do was just go and leave him in peace. Tacet, tacet, tacet.
All of that came crashing back to the front of his memory as Lena led him up the walk to St. Burchardi. The first thing he noticed was the sound. He initially thought it was an insect flying around him. “What the hell is that?”
Eric started looking around the space about his head, trying to figure out where to swat. “I’ve got a bee or something flying around me.”
Lena’s mouth did the halfway twitch that passed for a smile. “That’s the organ. They’ve already taken the protective box off. Come.”
She led him around a row of trees to give him his first glimpse of St. Burchardi. They stopped for a moment. The building looked old, utterly old, like it might be being held up only by the idea of stability. The church was bereft of stained glass windows, and the roof looked like it had been a recent renovation. He said as much.
“Year before last.” She pulled a key from her jacket pocket as they approached one of the doors to the building. “It was starting to leak. Even the one that was replaced wasn’t the original one. Eleventh century roofing materials weren’t designed to last this long.”
“Eleventh century? What did they use?”
“Straw, most likely. Maybe wood planks. Anyway, can’t have the elements coming in and wrecking the organ.”
They went inside then. Half a dozen people perhaps were already there, tourists just looking around and a docent to answer questions. Even though the sound of the organ carried, inside the church it still wasn’t loud enough to inhibit conversation. The organ stood at one end of the hall and looked more like an altar. What it didn’t look like, at least not to him, was something that was designed to withstand a concert of any length. “So, that’s it,” he said, tilting his head sideways. “Doesn’t really look like an organ, does it? No keyboard, for starters.”
“It doesn’t need one. The organ is going to be holding the same notes for years, decades in some cases. We just need weights to hold the air valves open—see the bags on those levers there? That’s what those are—and otherwise we just swap out the actual pipes. There’s more that’s going to be built onto the organ, when the notes get more complex, but that will happen as the concert progresses.”
Eric pointed at a structure some fifty feet beyond the organ, about the size of two minivans parked side by side. “And that?”
“The bellows. Blows the air through. It’s connected by piping buried beneath the floor. Has its own generator in case the power ever goes out so the concert can keep going.”
“And my job this afternoon will be to add a pipe?”
“Precisely. At the same time, someone else will be opening another air valve so the two of you will need to work as much in tandem as possible.” She turned to face him; his face had lost half its color. “You’ll be fine.”
Eric shook his head. “Margot should have been here for this.”
The two of them stood there. The chord the organ was playing echoed off of the stonework, unwavering.
“She loved Cage, loved everything about him, loved that he ignored the conventional. It fascinated her, the idea that someone could write a piece designed to be played on twelve transistor radios and not only call it music but have others—many others—accept it as music too. Or have an entire piece’s performance based on random readings of the I Ching. Or have the temerity to write piece that consists entirely of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. She was thrilled when she found out someone had taken Cage at his word and arranged for a performance that would stretch over six hundred and thirty-nine years, even more so when she found out she would be a part of it.
“But all of that was her. I don’t pretend to understand or enjoy what it is that’s happening here, why anyone in their right mind would stretch a performance that long. I’m only here because she can’t be and asked me to come in her place. I’d just as soon—” He broke off, knowing that the rest of the sentence would be a terrible thing to say, but after a moment he said it anyway. “I’d just as soon be somewhere else. Anywhere else.” His shoulders shrank a little. “Don’t know what that says about me.”
Lena watched him as he spoke, his arms starting at his side and getting more animated as he went on. When he finished, his face was slightly red. After a minute passed she said, “I know you’re hurting. And truly, I’m sorry for your pain. But I was just wondering: have you been listening?”
“To what? This?” He gesticulated at the organ, standing there impassive as a guardian.
“Yes. And no. I mean, have you ever just stopped and listened to the world around you?”
Eric stared at her, mouth slightly open, and waited for her to say more.
“Have you ever bothered to look outside of yourself, outside of everything you know, and wonder what music really is? What music can be?”
He closed his mouth and put his hands in his pockets.
“Your wife tried to get you to open up your mind, and for whatever reason you couldn’t do it. Now she’s gone and left you this, this gift, this one last opportunity to open up your mind and your ears, maybe communicate with you from beyond. Are you even willing to learn? Are you even willing to listen?”
Eric shifted slightly from one foot to the other.
“Your hotel is half a kilometer down on your left. I suggest you go back and relax a bit. Be back here at three fifteen for final instructions. Ceremony is at three thirty-three.” With that, she turned on one heel and walked out of the church. A minute later he heard her car start and then fade away into the background, leaving him, the organ, and the notes hanging in the air.
The Guest Services folder in his room was entirely in German, but he saw pictures of food while flipping through a section of it that looked like a menu. After his walk back from St. Burchardi and a quick shower to help him freshen up, Eric made his way back to the hotel lounge.
Karl was tending bar again. “You look lost, Herr Eric.”
“I feel a little lost.” He relayed the highlights of his conversation with Lena. “I don’t understand what set her off.”
Karl picked up the first in a long line of steins to wipe down. “You have to understand, we don’t really have a connection to John Cage in this town beyond the organ, and that’s entirely symbolic. The only reason the Project picked Burchardikirche was because the first pipe organ in history was installed here in Halberstadt—did you know that? Or that they picked six hundred and thirty-nine years because that first pipe organ was built in 1361, which was six hundred and thirty-nine years before the millennium? But now that Halberstadt has that connection, we’ve embraced it. Summer before last the Berlin Philharmonic came and played an open-air show across town. The very last thing they played was 4’33”. It was glorious. The crickets chirped, some people coughed a little, the sound of the trains and the Autobahn filtered back, and the people in town loved it. Couldn’t stop talking about it for days. If anything, that organ has made us open up our minds a little bit more, appreciate the things said. And not said.
“If you open up your mind a little, ask yourself what you think your wife wanted you to get from this experience.”
Eric stopped making eye contact as Karl talked, instead choosing to study a few of the dirty steins lined up on the counter. Margot made a few attempts over the years to introduce him to the world of avant-grade music as she knew it, several tried clustered together in the early days of their relationship, then declining over time. She never truly gave up, but the fewer attempts spaced farther apart meant she’d come to an understanding that he wasn’t ever going to appreciate it the way she did. Now he thought about it, though, he’d marginalized it the same way everyone else seemed to. He hadn’t been prepared to hear it or appreciate it, so he hadn’t. Eric wondered then what he’d lost, and if his relationship with Margot had suffered and how much. He hung his head.
Karl put down one stein and picked up another. “So, are you ready to do your part at the organ this afternoon?”
Eric nodded. “I think so.”
He shook his head. “Not really.”
Karl sighed. “Well, good. Burchardikirche will be pretty full, so.”
Eric stood up from his stool. “Think I’ll relax while I can.”
He was nearly at the entrance to the hotel when Karl called after him. “Herr Eric?”
Eric turned to face him. “Ja?”
“What Lena said, about listening. Will you do it, for Margot’s sake if not your own?”
They locked eyes for a moment, and then Eric headed up to his room.
Eric walked back into St. Burchardi at just after three. Already a few dozen people were milling around, hoping to find spots where they could both hear and no be trampled. Lena and another man were at a folding table pushed against a wall some twenty feet from the organ. The man was fidgeting with a camera connected to the laptop; Lena was pushing keys and clicking a mouse. She said a few words in German, the man fidgeted with the camera some more—he must have been focusing. Eric approached them. “This is getting simulcast online, isn’t it?” he said.
Lena looked up. “Yes.”
“Wish you’d told me. I would have looked nicer.” He had a polo shirt and jeans on. Given he was about to be on camera, he felt underdressed.
“You’re fine,” she said. “People won’t be looking at you. Well, they will, but not at what you’re wearing.”
This didn’t make Eric feel much better, but he didn’t press the point. “So, is there a training or a meeting or something? I don’t know what I’m doing yet.”
Lena said some more words to the cameraman, he said something back and then walked toward the door, pulling a pack of cigarettes from a pocket. “Yes, we can do that now,” she said. She leaned under the table and pulled out two boxes, each about three feet long and a couple inches wide and deep. She opened one to show a pipe, brass, running nearly the length of the box. One end of the pipe appeared slightly smaller than the other. “So, this is one of the pipes that’s going to go on the organ.” She pulled a pair of cloth gloves from a pocket and put them on as she spoke. “You’ll get a pair of these. The gloves are to keep your natural oils from getting on the pipe and leaving a mark. So, we’re going to take the shallow ends of these and place them in the two open spaces on the organ. Then we’re going to open the valves for those pipes and keep them open with weighted bags like the ones that are already on them.”
“That’s it. Once the valve is open, the note will be played.”
“And played and played, but for how long?”
She checked her notes. “You’re placing the E above middle C, so… a little over seven years.”
From where Eric was standing, he could just see the opening where his particular pipe would go. Then a group of people came between him and the organ, and it was gone. The note she’d just described sounded familiar to him, but just then he couldn’t place it.
“About earlier,” Lena said.
He shook his head. “There’s no need, really.” He looked over at the entrance people were using. Karl and a woman—his wife, probably—came through just then. “Somebody explained things to me.”
There was a long pause. “I really am sorry about your wife,” Lena said.
“Thank you. I’ll— I’ll be back.” Eric drifted away from the table then and started looking around. Lining the walls of the church were year plaques; for a thousand Euros, someone could buy a plaque representing one year of the concert and put their name on, or a message, whatever they liked. Some messages were whimsical; one or two quoted Shakespeare. Cage had the plaque for 2422; Eric knew enough to know it had been bought in his name, as Cage had died a decade before the project started. The plaque mused that perhaps what the world needed was an extended performance of 4’33”. Lena’s speech earlier echoed it. All around him, all he could hear was the buzzing of the growing crowd. The organ they were all here to see was drowned out.
He was lost in his wonderings about who had bought the plaque in Cage’s name, why they had settled on that quote and more importantly that year, when a hand rested on his shoulder. It was Lena. “It’s time,” she said. “We have to go.”
She led him back through the crowd which had organized itself into rows with no real guidance. Once the two of them reached the table, Lena nodded at yet another man, this one dressed in a suit, who said something over a speaker and the crowd died down to just the camera clicks coming every second or two. The man said something else and Lena handed Eric his pair of gloves. She pulled a pipe from one of the boxes, and when he was ready she handed it to him, taking the pipe from the other box herself.
As he approached the organ, even the sound of the cameras seemed to fade away. The chord coming from the organ rang through the church clear as anything. Lena placed her pipe into its slot and motioned for Eric to do the same. He thought for a moment, I am part of this now. For you, Margot. He slid his pipe in and the man in the suit came over with two small bags and tied them to the valves, opening them. The music changed entirely to everyone else, but all Eric could hear was Margot’s hum.
“4”33” by John Cage. Copyright © 1960 by Henmar Press Inc. Used by kind permission of C.F. Peters Corporation. All rights reserved.