All this week, John Schaefer's New Sounds Live is hosting it's Silent Film Series at the WFC Wintergarden with films by Bill Morrison, the documentary filmmaker. Morrison's films are typically assembled from vintage found footage, woven together to craft a story that brings to life otherwise-forgotten places and people. He then commissions a composer - often one of the various Bang on a Can members (see here, here, and here) - to contribute a score to the otherwise-silent films.
Tuesday night, the series kicked off with the U.S. premiere of The Miners' Hymns, piecing together nearly a century's worth of footage from the Durham mines of northeast England - from the difficult conditions in the early 20th century, to the introduction of machinery mid-century, to the violent clashes with police during the miners' strikes of 1984. A color sequence shot from helicopter towards the end of the film shows that the mines have now all closed, replaced by "temples of modern leisure and consumerism" (acc. to the program notes) such as shopping malls, glass condos, and Sunderland F.C.' s Stadium of Light.
The film, which was commissioned by the British Film Institute, was accompanied by a score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson that combined electronics (performed by Jóhannsson) with acoustic instruments, played here live by the Wordless Music Orchestra under Brad Lubman. The score was conspicuous in it's heavy use of brass, reverberating throughout the marble and glass atrium with bold fanfares and quiet dirges, a tribute to the colliery brass bands that used to play at local celebrations. For all of my past complaints about the boomy sound of the Wintergarden, here it was the perfect acoustic.
The dark, claustrophobic shots inside the mines resonated with the memory of recent events, including the 2010 disasters at the Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and the San Jose Mine in Copiapó, Chile. (The film was premiered three weeks prior to the Chilean incident.) It was a stark reminder of just how dangerous this work is, and how fortunate most of us are to sit behind desks for a living, with carpal tunnel syndrome the worst threat to our well-being.
And, yet, for all of the mines' difficulties, the film - and Jóhannsson's soaring, majestic score - seems to lament the loss of mine-inspired pride and solidarity that sustained these communities for more than a century. It was impossible not to get choked up by the final scene, showing miners and their families parading through the town behind union banners, eventually arriving at the millennium-old Durham Cathedral (where the premiere screening took place in 2010) for the annual Miners' Gala. It was the sort of face-to-face ritual that is quickly fading from our modern world, replaced with virtual chat rooms and Skype sessions that conspire to keep us all in our bedrooms - though, ironically, these are the same digital tools that fueled last year's Arab Spring and Occupy protests.
Other Morrison films being screened this week include The Great Flood with a score by Bill Frisell, Spark of Being with music by Dave Douglas - and Morrison's best-known work, Decasia (2001), with an accompanying "symphony" by Michael Gordon performed live by the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble. All screenings are free, more information here. More trailers after the jump.