premiere performance: City Symphonies trilogy

June 10, 2019

On May 26, Spoleto Festival USA presented three powerful City Symphonies by Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison, performed for the first time as a trilogy by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Gotham (2004) for New York, Dystopia (2008) for Los Angeles, and El Sol Caliente (2015) for Miami Beach celebrate the character of place and how it evolves, pairing image and music to share the energy, chaos and beauty of urban life.

Gordon describes the trilogy:

The City Symphonies are part of an ongoing series of orchestra/film collaborations I have created with filmmaker Bill Morrison. How to capture the aura of a city? The sound and images converge as a biography of both time and place. In Morrison’s signature style, film is both newly shot and drawn from archival black-and-white footage. Decaying celluloid allows for an ongoing commentary of hidden and revealed imagery. The orchestra sings the city’s song in fractured tunes, rhythmic pulses, and harmonic echoes.

At the start of our creative process Bill shows me one of his rare finds — a snippet of decayed footage — and we go from there. In Gotham, the subject is New York City, where we both live. In Morrison’s film, images of old New York begin with a surprising scene of a man tending sheep. As the camera pulls back, the surrounding urban landscape is revealed, and we see that he is tending sheep in what is now the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. The opening music is spare, a solo violin and piano. As the visuals expand the sound extends to the all strings, winds, and brass.

Gotham begins with the Sheep Meadow, but moves on to capture the intense city that we love. Hyper pulses and blaring glissandos in the trumpets contribute to the industrial howl. Gotham is not a tourist’s view of New York – gritty sidewalks, manhole covers, and construction activity fill the screen. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. It’s exciting. Why do we live here? We took a fresh look.

Dystopia is Los Angeles. We start on the highway at high speed and don’t slow down. I explore the lines between clear harmony and dissonance, pleasure and trouble. There is a sense of a phonograph record speeding up and slowing down — you hear the beauty, but in an altered state. Disparate sounds and musics poured into a great blender. Bill’s visual material combines new footage shot in modern Los Angeles and well as historic footage of the city. Included is the first film ever shot in LA ,’’South Spring Street, Los Angeles,” by Thomas Edison. We are in 1898. There are horse drawn carriages. As we enter current LA, Morrison offers a rare glimpse into the under-belly of the city as he traces the vast machinery of waste processing, a by-product of our hyper-consumerism.

The third City Symphony, El Sol Caliente, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Miami Beach. The players are arranged on the stage in an architectural pattern to allow for sound to move spatially through the orchestra. These sound waves ebb and flow, connecting to the natural forces that envelope this tiny vibrant strip of land. Newsreels, tourism clips, home movies, as well as Bill’s newly shot footage, fill the screen. Bathing beauties, hurricanes, families vacationing, and art deco hotels are there to capture our imagination of this iconic destination. We see men wrestling alligators and manatees, symbolically wresting South Florida from the swamp and into the world’s imagination as a tourist destination. Yet this fragile barrier island lying off a continental peninsula at sea level will probably not survive this century without a drastic intervention on its behalf. How will we wrest Miami Beach from nature in the 21st century?