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Michael Gordon’s remarkable and critically acclaimed work for orchestra, Decasia, receives its United Kingdom premiere on October 14 during the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival.
In Decasia, Gordon transforms the sound of the orchestra into a hazy and blurred sonic experience, as if it were “covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated, and the musicians happen to come by, pick them up and play.”
Inspired by images from decaying archival film uncovered by filmmaker Bill Morrison, Gordon’s Decasia is an orchestral masterwork for the 21st century.
Gordon describes the music:
Decasia was commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta for the occasion of European Music Month, which was held in Switzerland in 2001. The piece was conceived as an environmental symphony. Wanting to control the experience completely, we built a concert hall with an enormous, installed set and multimedia design by Ridge Theater in a cavernous, empty warehouse in Basel. Directed by Bob McGrath, the production included projections by Laurie Olinder, a set by Jim Findlay and a film element by Bill Morrison, which was later edited into an independent film with the same title. Decasia now exists in two formats. The staged version completely alters the performance space, with musicians sitting on a multi-tiered set behind hanging scrims, which provide a surface for the projections and film. The audience stands or sits, surrounded by the set, engulfed in a barrage of sound and imagery. In the concert version of Decasia, Morrison’s film is projected on a scrim, which can hang behind or in front of the orchestra. Early in our collaboration, Morrison showed me damaged archival film that he had discovered. It was marred by corrosion and riddled by pockmarks –– the mottled remains of celluloid images. While imagining the music that might complement this film, I thought of a piano that hadn’t been tuned in twenty years. It’s a beautiful sound. Once you’ve heard that sound you never forget it. What’s the orchestral equivalent? I wondered. I set out to make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated, and the musicians happen to come by, pick them up and play. What would that sound be? I decided to re-tune the instruments of the orchestra. For example, there are three flutes. One flute plays completely in tune; a second flute is tuned an eighth of a tone higher; and the third flute is tuned an eighth of a tone lower. When all three flutes play in unision, the sound they produce is thickened. The whole orchestra is retuned in this manner. So, here are fine classical musicians who spent their whole lives trying to play perfectly in tune now trying to play perfectly out of tune, which is quite a task. The first sound you hear is that of eight brake drums. The brake drum is a percussion instrument that is exactly what it sounds like –– an automobile part from a junkyard completely covered with rust. The percussionist scrapes it slowly with a metal beater, creating the hiss that is heard at the beginning of the piece. Throughout Decasia, you hear music that is very simple, but it is covered up. It’s like something very beautiful that’s been layered with mud and junk, but you can still see how beautiful it is –– you can still see that it is shining. The resulting sound changes one’s bearing to tonality, melody and harmony. The music becomes unstable. You enter a realm, like standing at the gates of heaven, wondering if there are 500 choirs of angels singing, because the overtones and the out-of-tuneness creates a massive complexity of sonorities. —Michael Gordon