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

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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.
[jump] 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."

"The venue is obsolete."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.

"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.

"Mind control... the only way to sleep and make music."

With a heart rate monitor and two very different head-mounted brain-monitoring devices tied into an Ableton Live setup through MIDI, the pages of music, even some of the "band," are likely to exist in a different place. The heart rate monitor, similar to a standard wireless exercise monitor used in gyms for years, is tied into the main laptop thanks to an Arduino microcontroller kit and some creative software translating its output to MIDI, allowing one "axis" pulse rate, to be translated to musical instructions. Similarly, the more basic "night time" headset that Mallman will likely wear at night, a Matel Mindflex augmented with an Arduino, offers another two axes - vaguely labeled "attention" and "meditation." The "day time" headset - the powerful and complex Emotiv EPOC - is tied in through a MIDI interface that allows for a full eight axes including various EEG data, facial muscle data and other feeds. Thanks to the help of software cooked up by a University of Georgia student, all of this data comes together in Ableton Live, allowing Mallman to choose exactly what musical elements those inputs will control, from scales to rhythms and anything in between.

But, being new territory, these devices don't always play as nicely as planned. Thanks to varying interfaces - analog two-wire sync, WIFI sync and old-fashioned MIDI DIN cables - synchronization and communication between the standard music creation gear can be stressful. Adding hardware-hacked, potentially wonky brain interfaces, untested software and constantly evolving musical concepts will make for some serious challenges.

"Right now my 'attention' and 'meditation' aren't working," Mallman moans as he tests the Mindflex kit. "Some guys put one of these on a mannequin to see if it'd work," he says, referring a test he found online showing a Mindflex signal being seemingly manipulated by an inanimate object. "But people use these to control wheelchairs," he says while picking up the Emotiv EPOC at his side. "I'm just trying to make music. It's a lot to learn."

"We're doing something historic. We want to do it on our own."

"This needs to make a big statement," Mallman says as we get down to the philosophy of Marathon 4. "It's like rugby teams that take ballet lessons... I need to do it in order to grow... I need to follow my intuition." During two years of planning, ideas and conspirators came and went. Mallman moved to Los Angeles to work on lucrative film score projects, but kept working on Marathon 4 during his spare time. While in LA, he got a call from DeVaan. "He said we had a van, so I knew I'd be coming back to Minneapolis [to do Marathon 4]."

They had talked to "big sponsors" to help with equipment and costs, but time and time again they realized that they had to "do it solo, without sponsorship, because intent vanished." So far, the only sponsorship they've taken on is from DeVaan's, the live streaming division of Implex. The van, a spotless 1992 Vandura conversion van with 77,000 miles ("Never driven in Winter!"), comes courtesy of DeVaan's father. Other hardware, from cameras to video mixers, have come in from friends and other creative types in the area like Playatta. The synthesis of all of this equipment and philosophy is pure DIY and pure Mallman, through and through.

"We've gotta make the back of the van look cooler though."

"Everything's coming together, it's exciting."

As we pull into Hotbed Studios in Northeast Minneapolis after a jaunt down to Burnsville and back, things seem to have gone well. The live video feed worked without a hitch and Mallman's backseat studio is starting to come together. He's on his phone, planning stops in Pittsburgh and Denver, arranging for guests and nailing down itinerary details while DeVaan and Griffin-Cassidy fire up the grill to cook some brats. It seems to be just sinking in that in just a few short weeks, they'll be on the road to New York City to start a westward journey. Nobody really knows how it'll end, but we'll all be along for the ride.

Here's the Marathon 4 schedule:

September 15: New York
September 15: Pittsburgh
September 16: Detroit
September 17: Chicago
September 18: Minneapolis
September 19: Omaha
September 20: Denver
September 21: Las Vegas
September 22: Los Angeles

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