Visions of the Future Built on Tatters of the Past
St. Ann’s Warehouse, overarched by the Brooklyn Bridge, low-set on cobbled, waterfront streets among Dumbo’s brick warehouses, was an evocative location for the U.S. live premiere of Decasia, the much-touted Bill Morrison film accompanied by a rambunctious Michael Gordon score. Developed with the director Bill McGrath’s Ridge Theater, and premiered in 2001 in Basel with the basel sinfonietta, Decasia had its U.S. screen debut at Sundance in 2002 and has been showing on their channel since then. Three years old, the film is already deeply pedigreed—it’s in MoMA’s collection, was included in J. Hoberman’s “Best of ’03” list, and has been shown at the Tate, D.C.’s National Gallery, and the Tribeca Film Festival—and is available on Plexifilm’s DVD release (with Gordon’s CD out on Cantaloupe Music). But its mid-September weekend showing at St. Ann’s was full scale, in the flesh, and in livid decay.
For St. Ann’s, Decasia (which calls itself an “environmental symphony with projections” and takes its name from Decay + Fantasia) featured fifty-five musicians of Tactus (the Manhattan School of Music Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Patti Monson) on tiered risers surrounding the audience, playing Gordon’s score of saw-edged sonorities and brinking rhythms. An impressive visual surround was used not only to project Morrison’s film (spliced from found passages of deteriorating, nitrate-based film stock) onto three screens, interspersed with Laurie Olinder’s projections in St. Ann’s deep corners; it also provided inventive ways of meshing the sight with the sound, upping the theatrical risk and the sheer pleasure of spectacle.
Gordon was a founder of Bang on a Can; he’s also house composer with Ridge, who presented his Gotham at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with visuals by Morrison and Olinder, as well as 1998’s Chaos. For Decasia, the collaborators worked “fairly independently,” Gordon writes in the program notes, adding that, on seeing early takes of Morrison’s dissolving black-and-white film sources, “the first sound that came into my head…was the sound of a piano that hadn’t been tuned in many, many years.” He elected to “re-tune” the orchestra to “create this fuzzy sound, an exaggerated version of what in electronics is called ‘chorus,’ widening the pitch to create a thicker, more vibrant sound.”
This aggressive, dissonant latitude gained a huge, sensitized edge in the wraparound environs constructed by McGrath at St. Ann’s. A grind/buzz whirring (percussion? electronics?) picked up as the audience packed onto the wide floor area within a warped triangle of screens. These screens presented a kind of amphitheater effect in reverse, in that listeners were corralled where contestants used to have to battle, and the screens were scrims behind which the Tactus musicians sat on high tiers. When house lights dimmed and Decasia’s credits began to roll, massive, sustained tones played on strings and vibraphones piled onto the buzzing with a luscious, invitation-to-a-beheading promise.
Gordon’s score reached a variety of pitched, raucous frenzies, brass blaring, electric guitars razzing, the music riding on the jumping, blurbing, elemental wit and cataclysm of Morrison’s filmic barrage. Opening with a waist-up dervish whirling (an image with heightened ambiguity of transport and fervor in our day), the film surface crackles and lurches back towards its chemical fundaments. One detects shades of Cornell’s pioneering experimentalism, of Anger and Snow’s visual onslaughts, and of Guy Madden’s campy brilliance: rushes of kids bounding on a vintage auto’s riding boards as they and the vehicle repeatedly dissolve into glop, then recongeal; the prow of what appears to be a surfaced submarine motoring tranquil seas. As the score broaches nebulous melodies and aural chaos, the images run from pseudo-horror (two silent-film explorers splash to “safety” on a riverbank set), to ghostly reformations of a staring person suspended in boiling, pre-Eden quagmires—the place that all unconserved film is headed.
Gordon’s brash score veered towards recognizable antecedents: Glass’s motoric suspension, Branca’s massed chords, Feldman’s wedging cells, molting a few stages beyond anticipation. But its real lust seemed towards structured sonic frenzy, which it achieved towards Decasia’s end, with a pulsing full-ensemble sound driven by two bass drummers (fully visible behind the screens when film moments ran pale) doing a sort of Koto impersonation that they drove past competitive impulse, their Tactus colleagues thrumming and wailing, then flailing their sticks beyond professional drive, the rhythm coming unstitched as the dervish returned to the screen to whisk around and around. The drummers pressed on to some primal roiling of the manic beat, then eased the pace, as on the screens a horizon appeared, split between the light of a shattering sun and a foreground of terminal darkness. The sound stilled, the orchestra sat, exposed behind the scrims, and Decasia docked like some superdrive memory of Kitty Hawk, high-tech, highbrow, and trailing all the hope and detritus of the ever-exalted, always decaying human effort to fly.
“I was more than ecstatic about the realization of Decasia,” Gordon said in an email. “St. Ann’s turned out to be more intimate than the [world premiere] venue in Basel, and the music and visuals felt overwhelming—a feeling I like. If there’s one experience that represents my idea of the future and the future of the orchestra, this is it.”