It was on Monday, 8 July, that Jay-Z announced that the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail would be accompanied by six pieces of visual art, and on Wednesday he unveiled the first: for six hours, he took over Manhattan's Pace Gallery to perform the track Picasso Baby on a constant loop. A mingling of art installation, PR campaign and video shoot, it was unquestionably an impressive feat.
But Jay-Z was not alone in his six-hour musical endurance test. In May, the Birmingham Opera Company was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society award for opera and music theatre for its 2012 production of Mittwoch aus Licht a six-hour long performance that incorporated a helicopter string quartet and a trombone camel dance.
That same month also brought A Lot of Sorrow, a collaboration between Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and the National that saw the band perform the track Sorrow, from their 2010 album High Violet, over 100 times at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"By stretching a single pop song into a day-long tour de force, the artist continues his explorations into the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound," read the official MoMA statement, noting that the band's explorations of "romantic suffering and contemporary Weltschmerz" through song had much in common with Kjartansson's work. "As in all of Kjartansson's performances, the idea behind A Lot of Sorrow is devoid of irony, yet full of humour and emotion," it continued. "It is another quest to find the comic in the tragic and vice versa."
Beginning at noon on 5 May, the band occupied the VW Dome in the gallery's courtyard. While some audience members remained in situ for the duration, others spilled in and trickled out over the course of the day. There was a setlist: the word "Sorrow" printed out repeatedly. In total, the band ran through the song 108 times including an encore.
Sorrow is a song of heartbreak and rejection, a tale of how sadness has trailed its protagonist throughout his life and now, in romantic disappointment, has come to consume him completely. "Don't leave my hyper heart alone / On the water," it runs. "Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy / 'Cause I don't wanna get over you / I don't wanna get over you." It makes for a sort of fully immersed, near-indulgent experience of sadness, and as such made a perfect contender for Kjartansson's project.
"He pitched it to MoMA, and MoMA approached us with it and we were kind of right away in favour of it," the band's lead singer and lyricist, Matt Berninger, explained to me recently. "There was a hesitation about the thing being artsy-fartsy, and certainly some eyebrows were raised at the artsy-fartsiness of it, but we didn't care because we kind of knew what we were doing."
The band's enthusiasm for the project was heightened by their appreciation of Kjartansson's work, and the artist's genuine passion for the song. "He said he would put Sorrow on in the studio while he was doing other works," Berninger explained. "It became an obsession of his. He's a really funny guy. And it was tuned in perfectly for us."
"Also his whole thing isn't about endurance or pain," he continued, "it's about how you take something that's emotionally dark and how you keep doing it, and the catharsis is almost like a prayer."
Berninger referred to Kjartansson other explorations of this idea including BLISS in which the artist, along with a group of professional opera singers, performed the final aria from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for 12 hours. "So it's a very emotionally tense thing you do over and over again," he said. "He also had his mother spit in his face for six hours he was just standing there, and she spat in his face every few seconds. And [he looked at] the humour of all that, the humour inside that sadness."
It was this that really provided the connection for the band. "It was right in our wheelhouse," he said. "The humour of melodrama, the humour of wallowing, is definitely something that is in almost all of our songs. I think some people focus on the sadness or the melancholy but there's also a lot of silliness in there. And there's also a lot of joy in that darkness, there is something that I love, that we love, about the emotional melodrama of some of that stuff."
Indeed played over and over, certain moments within the song begin to surface and become exposed, including the line "Sorrow's a girl inside my cake" a line that the band have often cited as an example of the humour that lies beneath the more obvious melancholy of their music's appearance.
The National: played Sorrow 108 times in a row at MoMA (including encores). Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Structurally, the song also lends itself well to repeated performance. "The music is this circular meditation so it actually works very easily to repeat it," said Aaron Dessner, one of the band's guitarists and principal songwriters, "because it winds around on itself. It's like it was written to be like that, we didn't have to rework it to be like that, it resets itself naturally."
For the band, the effect of playing the same song over and over, almost to the point of fracture, was perhaps unexpected. "It actually made us like that song even more," said Berninger. "It was also a weird bonding thing not just between us, but also there were about 80 people that came right when the doors opened and rushed right up to the stage and did not move for six hours. There was a sweet, really nice bonding thing for all of us."
The performance took place as the band was in the thick of launching their new album, Trouble Will Find Me, and the meditative quality of the task brought a peculiar respite. "The weeks and months leading up to that and the days after that were filled with so many little things we felt we were chasing," Berninger said. "And so six hours of being one place doing one thing other than sleeping, afterwards I felt like that was a retreat in a strange way."
"I think for everyone it definitely felt like one of the best days the band has ever spent in terms of doing something meaningful and weirdly transcendent," added Dessner. "Though my back collapsed, it definitely taught us that we had the capacity for that endurance it was at least three times the length of a normal show. I also felt that the song held up, that every version was compelling across 108 times. Well, it felt compelling. I felt weirdly confident afterwards. Like wow, our songs aren't so bad after all!"
"I never got bored the whole time," said Berninger. "I had a bit of a meltdown, after almost a hundred times where I got choked up, for whatever reason, stuff just swimming round my head. So I had a hard time singing it that one time out of 108. It turned our brains to jelly a little bit, but ultimately it was a very good thing I think. It wasn't easy. And no, I don't want to do it again."
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