In Focus: "Bill Morrison: A Modern Master of Silent Film"

An excerpt from Bill Morrison’s Creative Capital-supported project, Decasia
Filmmaker Bill Morrison (2001 Film/Video) has two upcoming programs in NYC, and we talked to him about the process of bringing these programs to life. The first is Bill Morrison: A Modern Master of Silent Film, part of the New Sounds Live Silent Film Series at the World Financial Center Winter Garden, curated by WNYC’s John Schaefer (January 31 – February 3). We asked Bill about the ins and outs of putting together a program as complex as this, which includes bringing a 55-piece live orchestra for the event on February 3.

“The original plan was to screen only The Miner’s Hymns (52 min, 2011; January 31) with live performance of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score by the Wordless Music Orchestra, which we had premiered with live performance in the Durham Cathedral (UK) in July 2010. John then told me that he wanted to screen three other films, The Great Flood (80 min, 2012; February 1), Spark of Being (68 min, 2010; February 2) and Decasia (67 min, 2002; February 3). We originally planned to screen them with pre-recorded soundtracks, but we discovered that we would be able to present Decasia as a live performance with the great collaboration of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble.

This came as a total surprise to me. I had hoped we would be able to include another live performance, but wasn’t sure we’d be able to pull it off. Having been involved in producing live performances of Decasia at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2004 and at Angel Orensanz Foundation in 2007, I knew all too well how daunting it could be to coordinate an event of this scale. But through our friend, composer David Lang, who is on faculty at Oberlin, we were able to secure the services of this wonderful ensemble. And we will have an HD screening at the Winter Garden which should be really bright and beautiful in that space.”

Morrison was funded by Creative Capital in 2001 for Decasia, which will be featured in the Winter Garden program on February 3. We asked him about the enduring appeal of this film.

“Decasia really developed its own following and reached some kind of cult following quite apart from my efforts to promote it or prevent it from being shown without my permission. One reason is Michael Gordon’s score, which New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called “one of the first classics of the new century.” The symphony has gained its own notoriety in the classical music world quite apart from its association with the film. And the images I found are pretty astounding—even to me who has spent the 10 years since the release of this film looking for similarly degraded images. It also turned out to be a journalist-friendly film, inspiring writers to discuss the significance of decaying celluloid without being bothered by a narrative, or lack thereof. So there has been quite a bit of word of mouth, particularly among film and music students, which has attracted a new generation of viewers to the film.”

The second NYC program will be a one-week run of The Miners’ Hymns at Film Forum beginning February 8. The program is supplemented with three additional shorts by Morrison.

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