Column Date 2006-05-21

Life in the slowest lane

Slow is beautiful.

Or, as Ferdinand the Bull might have said in that marvelous children’s book: “It gives you time to smell the flowers.”

The idea of living life in the “slow lane” began, I suspect, in the 1950’s with a man named “Preacher” Roe.

The “Preacher” was a left-handed pitcher for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and in a world of 90-mile-an-hour fastball pitchers, he was completely the opposite. He had a good curve ball, a good sinker, but his best pitch was his slow ball.

He had only three speeds, he was fond of saying: slow, slower and slowest. But that was obviously enough to befuddle most National League batters, and Roe won 22 games back in 1951.

A few years later came the national anthem of “slow” -- the “59th Street Bridge Song” by Simon & Garfunkel: “Slow down, you move too fast, You got to make the morning last...”

“Make the morning last” -- what a concept! Particularly for the 60’s when life in the “fast lane” was all anybody wanted.

But the most astonishing example of “life in the slow lane” has to be this recent story from Germany:

In the little town of Halberstadt, they are performing a composition by John Cage entitled “As Slow As Possible.”

Cage, you may remember, was an American experimental composer whose best-known work, titled 4’33”, lasts four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and is performed without any of the musicians playing a single note.

Now I have never been a fan of Mr. Cage’s work. (Aside from putting two minutes of his music on a tape loop to scare kids at Halloween. Yes, we really did that. For years. And it always worked.)

But this group of German musicians and music lovers has taken Mr. Cage’s wishes literally: “As Slow As Possible” will be played as slow as possible.

Their performance of this piece, which actually began in September of 2001, is scheduled to take 639 years.

That is not a typo, friends: it will take 639 years -- or about 25 generations of musicians -- from start to finish. Any given human being will hear, at most, perhaps 12% of the music.

Why would they do such a thing?

Well, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, one of the people who helped start the ball rolling, so to speak, told The New York Times: “...acceleration spoils everything. To begin a performance with the perspective of more than a half-millennium – it’s just kind of a negation of the lifestyle of today.”

There are two more things you should know about this performance: First, the whole piece is being played on an organ at St. Buchardi church. An organ is being used because its notes can be held indefinitely.

And second, with unemployment hovering around 20% in the region, the town fathers happily expect this event to attract tourists for many, many years.

Airfare to Halberstadt is around $600, round trip, in the off-season.

Or, in the true spirit of the performance, you could walk.

©2006 Peter Tannen