Marathon man: my obsession with long piano pieces Part I

I don’t know how I first got into marathon programs. It probably happened during childhood, when I became fascinated by Wagner’s Ring Cycle, not so much for the music, and not so much for the idea of a four opera cycle as for the fact that a local radio station used to broadcast all four operas together in an annual Ring Marathon. Naturally I tuned in for this fourteen hour event every year.

At eleven, I tried talking my junior high school rock band into doing the world’s longest version of the Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A few years later I conceived of a Sing-a-Long event in Central Park, where everyone would gather to sing “One Million Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” That never happened. But I did manage to pull off a marathon listening “happening” at my summer camp, which we called “The Thing.”

“The Thing” took place in the camp’s performing arts center. I manned the turntables, put play lists together, and campers either listened, danced or slept. Had I known then about Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” the piano piece that’s supposed to be played 840 times, I would have organized an Appel Farm Arts and Music Camp “Vexations Thing.”

My fascination with long piano pieces or marathon programs hasn’t diminished, although I have to admit that sometimes the idea proves more interesting than the execution. For example, I’m glad to know that one can stretch Simeon ten Holt’s minimalist manifesto Canto Ostinato out to indefinite lengths, but smart enough to keep my own performances between 45 to 75 minutes these days.

If I’m in the mood for Morton Feldman’s slow-motion sound world, I know that his 20-something minute long Palais de mari is a viable alternative to 90 minutes worth of Triadic Memories. Generally I save my piano marathon activity for air travel. I must have been the only passenger on a recent London to New York flight listening on an Ipod to Michael Finnissy’s five and a half hour The History of Photography in Sound in Ian Pace’s extraordinary premier recording.

Still, I’m thrilled that Stewart Goodyear can play all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in a single concert, and that Nicholas Horvat has the nerve and the stamina to bring off marathon concerts devoted to, say, Philip Glass’ complete piano music or all 840 Vexations repetitions in a single sitting. And I have plans in the works for a New York revival of Serious Immobilities, the late Arthur Jarvinen’s 24-hour long set of variations on Vexations.

Piano marathons abound on YouTube. If you want ten hours of the same “sad” new age piano piece over and over again, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBk6228JekI. Want to watch the late spiritual teacher and musician Sri Chinmoy celebrate his 74th birthday by playing 74 different pianos in one afternoon? Visit here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwD5z_zpw8A. Or Nicholas Horvath in one of his “shorter” Vexation marathons, clocking in at a mere nine hours and forty one minutes? Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gImDzmNuEDA, and hope that his record-breaking 35-hour-long version will surface.

Any thoughts about long piano pieces, piano marathons, and other related topics?

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