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REEL DECAY

Composer & filmmaker join forces at St. Ann’s to riff on decomposition

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Arts at St. Ann’s opens its 25th anniversary season with a unique event composed of decomposing film and music.

"Decasia" is a one-of-a-kind collaboration between filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon. The presentation of their new work at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, will be the first live performance in the United States of what composer Gordon calls "a kind of music and film extravaganza."

With musicians on a two-level scaffold that will literally surround the audience, and images projected on multiple screens around the space, the aim of the production, directed by Bob McGrath, is for the viewers to have a completely different aural and visual experience.

The film "Decasia" is an existential riff on decay and decomposition - personal, historical and cinematic. Composed of degraded film stock from various sources, the film can certainly be viewed as abstract. But it also has a linear quality to it and in fact, has a narrative thread, which moves along to Gordon’s score. The film is actually a sort of cinematic composition. With archival footage of all sorts that is in some way decomposing - scratched or burned - Morrison creates a meditation on existence itself. He has put it together with an enormous amount of care and attention to detail.

Framed by a Sufi dancer (also known as a whirling dervish), "Decasia" travels through birth, death, salvation and more. The second scene of the film is comprised of film reels bathed in some sort of solution, so that the viewer is aware that "Decasia" is also an experimental exploration of the history of cinema.

Each piece of footage confirms Morrison’s point: camels are led across the desert, forming a caravan of men and animals going towards a future. Young schoolchildren line up for their lessons. Babies are born; men are rescued from certain death. All of these scenes occur against burnt-out or destroyed sections of film.

The damage to the film already existed - that is, the filmmaker didn’t do any physical manipulation to the frames. In putting it together, Morrison searched for images in varying states of decay, and most of the footage is old nitrate film (the kind that burns easily).

"I would try to find images of people whose gestures seemed to defy mortality or would so pointedly ignore it that the decay licking at the film would serve as an ironic counterpoint," Morrison told GO Brooklyn. So the flashes, burning and scratches become "characters" in the film. This is evident in a number of scenes, such as a boxer whose punching bag is a scratched section of the clip. Elsewhere, rides on a merry-go-round emerge from a mutilated side of the film frame.

"I was interested in images that interacted with the decay, so that figures and ground were always interrelated," he said. So Morrison assembled shots that illuminated the idea of struggle. The images do reach a climax of sorts, and then familiar images return to bring the film to its end, with a story having been told.

Gordon’s score helps to give the film its linear movement, and it sets up and eases the tension throughout. The two parts of this project were created simultaneously, but separately for the most part. The two artists were commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta in 1999 to make a symphony with projected images. According to Morrison, the two shared thoughts on the idea of decay - one dealt with how to apply it to film (which in this case seems like the easy part) and one investigated how it could impact music. Morrison started working right away.

As Gordon tells it, "Bill showed me five minutes of rough footage and that was the inspiration for the entire piece. Then we worked fairly independently. When I had a chunk of music I’d invite him to listen." When he made a rough tape of the music, Morrison cut the film to that track.

At St. Ann’s Warehouse, the music will be played by the 55-piece TACTUS Contemporary Ensemble from the Manhattan School of Music. Gordon’s unusual sound for the film includes passages that seem to be sound effects or even electronic music but they are, in fact, made with conventional musical instruments. In order to achieve the sound, he re-tuned the orchestra. For example, the score calls for three flutes: one is played in tune, one out of tune - higher than normal, and the third is tuned lower than normal.

"Basically the whole orchestra is tuned like that for a very weird sound," he said. "It’s a challenge for the musicians - to have to play perfectly out of tune - but they go for it!" He also uses some odd instruments, like contrabassoons, which have a very low sound, and lots of brass.

The result of Gordon’s finagling is a moving musical journey that matches Morrison’s film in aesthetic and emotion. Although they worked separately for the most part, what emerged is a work with two distinct parts that together form an exceptional third creation.


Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.

 

Arts at St. Ann’s presents "Decasia" Sept. 9-12 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. between Dock and Main streets in DUMBO). Tickets are $40 for Thursday, Friday and Sunday performances at 8 pm, and Saturday’s performance at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $25 for the 10 pm performance on Saturday. For tickets call (718) 254-8779. For more information, visit the Web site at www.stannswarehouse.org.

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