Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.
There is a breed of minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey. Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator.
As new opera directors rethink old chestnuts, so too does Morrison rethink Walt’s innovative concert program of film imagery wedded to music. How Morrison dances with the preexisting music is as original as that ambitious premiere in 1940. Dancing is an apt description, as Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish. Morrison’s approach to conveying that decay is as startling as Claus Guth‘s humanizing “Messiah” and as relentless as Guth’s collaboration with Chaya Czernowin in Mozart’s “Zaide.” Morrison’s aesthetic point of entry manages to be paradoxically unsettling and accessible at the same time: no mean feat. Typically, in many postmodern endeavors it is mystery and spirituality that is forefront, usually (and lamentably) at the expense of expressive directness and all traces of humanity. Morrison does not make that mistake, and the unfolding of his vision is hypnotically entertaining.
Using silent film footage and stock reels, Morrison’s imagery is akin to cadavers struggling with the effectiveness (or not) of embalming fluid. Nuns with schoolchildren, missionaries baptizing in a river, a boxer, crashing waves, a man reading a newspaper, a caravan of camels, landscapes, a geisha, miners, and volcanoes rise from the blemishes of a Dorian Gray portrait, once as handsome and muscular as the square jawed William S. Hart or as prettified as the coquettish Mary Pickford. It is a circular, phantasmagoric dance-to-your-death potpourri. The assemblage of primordial imagery, conjoined with Gordon’s aural language, craft an evocative, textured experience that is probably most effective on the big screen. The sole advantage to home viewing would be lack of interruption due to grumbling patrons walking out.
By taking this unpreserved archival footage, keeping it intact, and wedding it to the atonal composition, Morrison’s contemplative, non-linear narrative serves the nitrate deterioration like a protective skin. Decasia simultaneously celebrates decay and survival with an unbridled enthusiasm found in the most memorable cinematic experiments of the 1960s.