Composer, songwriter, performer Mark Mallman has spent the last 20 years releasing albums, touring, and becoming a Minneapolis music legend. His expansive catalog of infinitely catchy and masterfully orchestrated songs has rocked the airwaves worldwide from MTV to NPR. He reached a new level of creativity and intimacy with his debut book The Happiness Playlist, a memoir written about the six months he spent listening exclusively to uplifting songs as an experiment to make his way through varying bouts of grief brought on by the death of his mother, the end of a relationship and winter in the frozen city of Minneapolis. His latest album, The End Is Not The End, was released in 2016. The Happiness Playlist is his first book.
It was 9:59 PM on October 10, 2010 at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was deep into hour 78 of an epic, non-stop rock concert. My fingers were bleeding. My left ankle was possibly broken. And I was hallucinating — I’m told I turned to guitarist Chuck Prophet and called him a “space kangaroo.” Although the club only had a capacity of 400, there were over 15,000 people watching — we had been livestreaming since minute one and the thing had gone full-blown viral. When the clock struck 10, I fell over my piano in a heap of sweat and tears and a swell of cheering enveloped the stage.
That was the finale of what I’d dubbed “Marathon 3.” I couldn’t even see straight, let alone remember any of this. What I’m recounting to you has been pieced together from watching video footage and from what I’ve been told.
The whole monster stemmed from some absurd idea in 1999 when I performed for 26.2 hours. (A marathon, you see, is 26.2 miles long.) In 2004, I did it again, this time for 52 hours, followed by 78 hours in 2010. Last year, I pushed the notion of long-form music performance to the 180-hour mark with “Marathon 4,” the world’s first transcontinental musical webcast. My team and I set up a mousetrap of electronic musical instruments in the back of a 1992 Dodge Vandura and drove from New York City to Los Angeles. I wore EEG MIDI controllers on my head so I could sleep and play music at the same time. That was seven and a half days’ worth of, as Kraftwerk once put it, “Musique Non-Stop.”
As a professional composer and musician, marathoning has always been a dessert item for me, a sweet confection squeezed between actual tours and actual records. Each marathon song takes months of prep, and always costs me valuable dollars that I could be using for things like, oh, I don’t know, rent and food. But there’s this something inside of me, something intangible, unnameable even, that compels me to keep doing it. At first, the FM radio personalities seemed to prefer asking me “How did you go to the bathroom?” over “Why do you liken what you are doing to Henry David Thoreau going to Walden Pond?” But by 2004, when they finally started asking me “Why?” I replied, “Why climb a mountain?” And this year, all my intuitions were validated.
This year, within months of each other, two major music artists in very different genres, Jay Z and the National, each performed singular works lasting six hours in New York art spaces. First was the National, at MoMA PS1 in Queens, on May 5th, playing a six-hour piece conceived by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Basically, “A Lot of Sorrow” was the National playing the song “Sorrow” over and over — but still, they were marathoning. On June 10th, Jay Z performed “Picasso Baby” for six hours at the prestigious Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Though critics were more concerned with the celebrities in attendance, it’s important to note that the rapper invited leading performance artist Marina Abramović to share the stage with him. Abramović recently did her own marathon performance, albeit not musical, the 736.5-hour “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in May. And mere weeks before Jay Z’s performance, Andrew W.K. played a 24-hour drum solo in Times Square. This rash of mainstream marathoning suggests more than a trend. Marathoning might very well be live music’s newest movement.
In the same way that Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is regarded as the gateway to conceptual art, the new Jay Z documentary Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film, which recently premiered on HBO, could very well be the rocket fuel that blasts marathoning into orbit. While name-dropping Picasso isn’t exactly subtle, it is very Pop Art. Andy Warhol would no doubt have been pleased, but the avant garde catnip of the piece is Abramović’s involvement. By not just namechecking Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Jean Michel Basquiat, Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Art Basel, Christie’s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Tate Modern in the song but actually including the iconic Abramović in the performance, Jay Z really did elevate the genre.
Certainly, playing music for hours on end has existed since the rituals of our cave-dwelling ancestors. At this very moment, John Cage’s 639-year-long automatic organ performance “As Slow as Possible” is being played at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, and will continue until the year 2640. Rock fans know the lore of late-20th-century bands from Can to the Grateful Dead dipping into the avant-garde to perform concerts spanning anywhere from six to 15 hours. Then there are the Guinness Book of World Records types: artists like Sunil Waghmare, who sang popular Indian songs for 105 hours in March 2012. Austin guitarist David DiDonato broke the record for the world’s longest guitar solo at Austin club Red 7 in May 2012, playing for 24 hours and 55 minutes. Bands like Low, the Boredoms, and Oneida have all recently stretched their wings deep into long-form music. Most recently, Low performed a 27-minute song at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, sparking a literal revolt from mild-mannered sculpture garden concertgoers. Did these people not read the words “Art Center” on the ticket they purchased?
But why is it art? In the press accounts of each of my marathons, I recall words like “gimmick,” “stunt” and even “prank” — but never the word “art.” And though a great portion of my art school education was in performance art, the context of rock music seemed to have obscured my intent. Unbeknownst to me, the Onion submitted documentation of my 52-hour rock song to the Guinness Book of World Records, who rejected it due to the “subjective nature” of what a rock song is. The Onion printed the rejection letter, and I felt like my idea was finally breaking some ground: The “subjective nature” of a rock song is exactly what my marathon songs are addressing.
It has been said that the advent of abstraction was the result of technology: specifically, the invention of the camera. Possibly this long-form music movement is the byproduct of other technologies, i.e., livestreaming and virtually unlimited data storage and distribution. Or maybe it’s to underscore the physicality of live performance in an age where we have the entire history of modern music at our fingertips while we kick back and check the “likes” on our latest Facebook post. What does marathoning mean in this ADD culture, and why is it all of the sudden popping up everywhere? It’s beyond the now. It’s in our veins, our blood. Music is ritual. Music is communication. Music is wrapped up in the very fabric of our DNA. We are exploding this common thread running through the primal core of musical expression: music that never stops, from jungle music of constant birds, to the perpetual music of our own human hearts, to the trailer park wind chimes of an infinite breeze.
On September 22, 2012, I completed “Marathon 4.” I took off my headphones and stared at the limitless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. I had been making music for 180 consecutive hours and my ears were still ringing from the transcontinental webcast. My hearing was damaged and would never be the same. My knees were sore from being bent for seven and a half days. I felt a million miles of distance from the waking world after being strapped in a moving vehicle over 3200 miles, from constant improvisation and constantly being on camera. But, above all, I felt the impenetrable joy of music. Along the way, I had performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. And at both of those institutions I was not met with defiance but acceptance, like how I imagine Jay Z felt as he faced Marina Abramović during “Picasso Baby.”
“Marathon 4: the Transcontinental Musical Webcast” didn’t make the New York Times and I wasn’t on the Today show. But that week, I did something that no human being had ever done in the history of the world. Marathoning had been a life-changing adventure, and I was once again new. I’ve had countless fans and interviewers ask me the how-to of marathoning, and I always have a million answers. But when they ask me why, I always have the same reply: “Why climb a mountain?”