Sunday, 25 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sunday 14th October
For previous instalments click here and here

Given my previous Julia Wolfe reviewreaders may not be too surprised to hear that composer Michael Gordon was another founder of new music ensemble Bang On a Can. But the genesis of this film soundtrack project lay not with him, but when Bill Morrison visited a film library and came across the scene of a boxer battling an amorphous blur (see image above) - and sought out more such decaying footage. In an interesting reversal, Gordon composed the music and Morrison then edited the assembled footage to fit.

One immediate reading of that boxer image might be that it illustrates disease. When we fall ill we are attacked by ever-morphing shapeless microbes which we have to fight off. This image just evens up the scale between the two. Alternately the decaying film of earlier eras could be seen as part of post-modern condition. We've become removed from the past and it's simpler, more linear world of derring-do. That title, after all, sounds a portmanteau of 'decades' and 'decay'. By it's nature much of the footage hails from that oxymoronically titled era of classic modernism - where technology was thought to be on the point of liberating us all. Both of those views have some traction. But it's ultimately saying something more universal and more double-edged than both of them.

Perhaps ironically given Gordon's past associations with Wolfe, this work is more similar to Christian Marclay. Both not only plunder the past for collage material, but incorporate it's 'foreign country' status into their aesthetic. Yet with Marclay that aesthetic is vinyl fetishism seen through hindsight, whereas here the distressed nature of the footage is important in itself. But of things previously mentioned in these parts, it probably has a closer-still association with 'Koyaaniqatsi' or even 'The Sinking of the Titanic'.

Yet, as ever, the differences become a better guide than the similarities. While 'Titanic' was about the transience of memory, this is more concerned with the inevitability of entropy. (Or, to give it its colloquial name, decay.) However, even that's not quite it...

From Lovecraft's many-angled ones to cheesy monster flicks such as 'The Blob', (above) formlessness is forever defined as a foe while heroes are square-jawed and clean-cut. But slowly, as proceedings unfurled, I found myself leaving the boxer's side and taking more to the blur. It came to seem less representing disorder than the return of some sort of primal order on which we've superimposed ourselves - like the Wyrd-world of shamanism that follows its own rules. And of course in shamanism sickness was often a means of spiritual insight. (In my typically lowbrow fashion, it also reminded me of the time vortex during the credits of 'Doctor Who'.)

In his pre-show chat, Morrison commented that in his search for footage he homed in on figures on the brink of revelation or triumph. (He noted sagely that indexing systems don't tend to have a category for that.) If the boxer was the starting point, the film opens and closes with images of a whirling dervish. Contrast this with the sequence which concludes 'Koyaaniqatsi' - a space rocket falling back to earth. These epitomise the difference between the films. 'Koyaaniqatsi' is concerned with the modern condition, which it sees as a life thrown out of balance. 'Decasia's concerns are less contemporary, more universal and more double-edged. Our struggle is to embrace that primordial world as much as escape it.

The importance in using found footage to achieve this end couldn't be overstated. The screen isn't displaying the summation of an artist's will, a thought brought fully formed to fruition, but an interaction with the chance processes of the wider world. Seeing those glitches and mis-shapes blown up on a giant screen, like the universe of microbes revealed by a microscope, and knowing they'd evolved by pure chance just makes them more beautiful. (Disclaimer: some of the 'decay' was artificially enhanced, though none of it was faked.)

Gordon's music is similarly double-edged. At times it's tremulous to the point of being blurry - as if the scores had been left out in the rain until the notes all ran together. At other times it was as stirring and strident as anything by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes it's both at the same time, the balance between them overlaid and ceaselessly shifting.

In one sense it pulls off the seemingly irreconcilable task that post-minimalism set itself. It combines the immediacy of minimalism with the power and epic sweep of classical music - the sheer thumping force of a full orchestra in full swing. True, it abandons the meditative serenity of minimalism, its language is much more volatile. But it retains minimalism's comparative sense of scale, it's refusal to hold the big above the small. (Perhaps not too much should be made that Gordon composed this piece rather than Wolfe. Wolfe's programme jumped from minimalism to post-minimalism and back, but was composed of shorter pieces.)

Yet of course it does something better and more important than any of that - it works as the perfect accompaniment to the film! It was as if those blurry strings were symbiotically linked to the flecks and marks upon the screen, one rising and falling with the other, not the product of two separate minds at all.

This festival had a fantastic-looking programme, from which alas I could only attend these three events. But even without seeing the rest, surely with 'Decasia' I caught the highlight of the whole shebang. The thing was a triumph!

And so to sum up...

Overall, I'd emphasise that while the three pieces I saw were unconventional and adventurous, they never fell into the inaccessible. It wasn't some great challenge to get your reward, like chewing raw wholegrain. It doesn't rely on in-depth knowledge of music theory. (Of which I have scarcely any.) It's just great music, waiting to be heard by anyone whose mind is open enough to give something a try...

In one of my few complaints Queen Elizabeth Hall's conventional venue layout worked against some of the more unconventional styles of presentation these pieces have used in the past. It was only Marclay that tried anything like this. But even given those limits perhaps more could have been done to take things in that direction. Perhaps if there's another year...

I would have loved to have taken in more events from this Festival but not enough money, not enough time! Here's just a couple of random YouTube snippets...

Coming soon! Back to visual art...

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