Mark Mallman preps for Marathon 4, a week-long NYC to LA song

Photo by Erik Hess
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Rumblings of Mark Mallman's seven-day, cross-country song project, Marathon Four (or #MMM4), are slowly growing louder. Ahead of the September 15-22 trip from New York to Los Angeles, Gimme Noise spent a sunny afternoon with Mallman and his crew, Stuart DeVaan and Hamil Griffin-Cassidy, at DeVaan's Hotbed Studios to talk about where the project comes from, what lies ahead, and the hardware powering this technically and musically ambitious pursuit.

After completing Marathon 3, a 78-hour single-song performance at the Turf Club in 2010, Mark Mallman was ready for new challenges. With Marathon, the core idea was to "do something so long that the brain forgets the world," he says and M3, by many accounts, was a resounding success on many levels.
Immediately afterward, he became determined to continue the tradition and build a new project, but this time it would have to be different. By the end of the 78-hour performance, he had become a "possessed performer", he says, tapping into a raw vein of unconscious creativity. But what's next? What lies beyond that? While the basic premise and drive to begin a new Marathon project came swiftly after the completion and recovery from the last, the ideas would need some time to take root.

"If you can't say it, point to it."

While working on anther, admittedly smaller, project ("I was trying to replace the chain on a chainsaw... so that I could play piano solos with it... I had no idea how to change a chainsaw chain though") Mallman needed some help. Stuart DeVaan was just the man for the job.

As a member of the long running power-tool-wielding rhythm/ambient outfit Savage Aural Hotbed, DeVaan definitely knew his way around a chainsaw, but his experience as an internet technologist would prove to be just as valuable. DeVaan and his company, Implex, had provided services, software and a high speed internet link for live video streaming during Marathon 3 at the Turf Club just months prior, to great effect. While wrangling with the chainsaw, Mallman mused about Marathon 4 and the two of them brainstormed. "Let's leave the stage behind us."
Photo by Erik Hess

"The venue is obsolete."

"With Marathon 3 we had 15,000 to 20,000 people watching online and only 400 in the venue, at the Turf Club," he says. "We're abandoning the venue entirely." For Marathon 4 "there'll just be four of us... plus a guest here in front of me... and it'll all be streamed live." All of it? "All of it, warts and all." Working with live video from multiple angles would prove to be a challenge, one that will require constant attention to a running video mix. They turned to Hamil Griffin-Cassidy, an experienced video producer known for his work on the long-running live MTN Freaky Deaky until it ceased production earlier this year. With that, their core of conspirators was off to a running start.

Mallman, DeVaan and Griffin-Cassidy, along with other conspirators, honed their ideas and came up with a plan. A van, kitted with at least five video cameras, driving cross-country with nightly stops at art galleries and rock bars, would serve as the venue. After running tests, including a constantly-streaming drive to Arizona, DeVaan worked out a robust solution to allow Marathon 4 to solidly exist in the largest venue they could think of - the Internet. Both the video and the live music being created in the back of the van would be broadcast to the world in real-time through an elaborate pipeline of gear and data wrangling software.

CCTV cameras, camcorders, mixers, analog-to-digital converters, software running on powerful laptops, a two-carrier cellular data system complete with outboard antennas, and a video encoding system tucked safely away in a data center would allow an audience of hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands, to tune in. The venue had been abandoned. They would be mobile.

Photo by Erik Hess

"Gas. Food. Bandwidth."

Once the constantly moving venue was settled and a week-long New York City to Los Angeles journey had been plotted, what of the music? Marathon 3 was a full-band effort with as many as five musicians forming a band on stage every hour and it ran from a thick binder filled with hundreds of pages of lyrics and chord changes. For Marathon 4, Mallman's decided to shed the band (or most of it, anyway) and dig deeper, right into the rhythms of the human body. At the core of Marathon 4's mission lies a bevy of technology giving Mallman the ability to supplement his guitar, circuit-bent, keyboards and other live instrumentation with something completely new and different - the very essence of human thought and physiological response. And in the tradition of many musicians before, it's being done DIY.

Some technologies, like MIDI, have been around for quite awhile. Instruments like synthesizers, drum machines, even laptops running a wide array of software, have been talking to each other for quite some time. They can share synchronization and transmit instructions - "play this note," or "sustain the notes you're playing." or "shift key by so many octaves" - that can be interpreted in myriad ways. With MIDI, an entire live setup can exist in the back of a van, with instruments and modifiers controlled by an array of inputs like keyboards, drum pads, knobs, computer programs, or even the human body's physiology. But that last technology's relatively new, if only because nobody's quite done it like this before.

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