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Michael Gordon

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Decasia (2001)
Work Notes
Contact for video rental information.
Text Writer
Film by Bill Morrison, the Ridge Theater
Red Poppy
Year Composed
1 Hour 0 Minutes
Programme Note
Michael Gordon Decasia (2001)

Composer note:
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

Decasia is dedicated to Louis Andriessen.

Decasia, Volume 2

  • Ensemble
    Basel Sinfonietta
    Kasper de Roo
    Cantaloupe Music:
Reversing the normal process of combining music and film, Morrison tailored his parade of images to Gordon's score: its incessant pulses – by turns buoyant and threatening – support a sound world in which the amplified instruments, carefully tuned microtones apart, create layers of fiercely dissonant harmony, punctuated by beats and difference tones. Like Morrison's film, in which newsreel footage of vanished worlds and long-forgotten events is constantly teetering on the edge of being lost for ever, with decaying images falling apart or being swept away before our eyes, so Gordon's work seems to present simple musical objects – melodies, harmonic progressions and cadences – through an aural haze, as though covered in dust and cobwebs. The disjunctions between the aural and the visual are sometimes startling and disturbing – one of the most massive climaxes in the work, with shrieking dissonances and pounding rhythms, is matched to a clip of young children filing into what looks like a convent school. But film and music combine in a compelling way: as you watch and you listen, you wouldn't want to miss a moment of either.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,17/10/2012
Decasia is a celebration of the mysterious, flickering beauties of decaying things, enacted in film and music. The film is the creation of experimental film-maker Bill Morrison, and consists of an artful collage of images from a collection of old, decaying acetate film. In a continuous stream lasting 70 minutes we see brief grainy sequences of Whirling Dervishes, solemn processions of convent girls, camels processing over a far horizon. The images are pockmarked by scars and blisters which swell and multiply like swarms of bacteria, twisting the image beneath like a lens and often obliterating them entirely. Accompanying all this is a score for impressively large orchestra by Michael Gordon, leading light of the so-called Downtown school of New York composers. The idea of decay is pictured here too, but to completely different expressive effect. Whereas Morrison’s images are fleeting and fragile, the sounds Gordon conjures from his players are massively sonorous... The first sound we heard was the throaty, ringing scrape of brake-drums, eerily suggestive of time running through a giant hour-glass. Then came a pulse on electronic keyboards, whose pitch was hard to place. Keening layers of melodies from the violins, high gull-cries from the piccolos and flutes, stentorian blasts on the brass, all had the same disquieting quality of being out-of-focus. It was as if a piece of hard-line, driving New York minimalism had been left out of doors for decades to gather moss and cobwebs... Later a recurring image of a setting sun, entwined with the music’s groping convergence towards a single note, suggested an epic closure was in the offing. But the image faded, and the music collapsed into a final stray trumpet note. It was a subtle and surprising move, suggesting decay was still at work.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph,15/10/2012
Gordon's music [...] is amplified to ear-drilling volume. It consists of layer upon layer of tiny cells, motifs circling each other menacingly, glissandos the dominant feature. At times Morrison edits images to key moments in the score, yet there is no sense of music underlining images: their symbiosis is more subtle, more elusive.
Nick Kimberley, Evening Standard,15/10/2012
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