"Did I love that or did I hate that?" That is the question I asked my friend after Decasia mercifully ended. My body and face were both contorted, and all my thoughts on life were in question. That was when I realized that not only did I love it, but that this was a Spoleto event for the ages.
Three elements are at work during Decasia: the film, the score, and the performance.
The film is Decasia by Bill Morrison. Mr. Morrison is a Guggenheim Fellow, has received an NEA Creativity Grant, and won an Obie Award for his theatrical production designs. The main thrust of his work is collecting archival film footage and setting it to contemporary music. For Decasia, Morrison collected nitrate film stock that was on the verge of destruction The nitrate film stock is fragile and has a short shelf life. In the degradation of the film, Morrison found that old images had changed and that something new and beautiful had been created. Morrison spliced them together and created this non-narrative film.
The music is a haunting, droning score by composer Michael Gordon. Gordon is an American composer and has been commissioned by Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His score is relentless. The music held the audience in a vice grip and didn't let got from the first down beat to the final note.
This score was performed by the Spoleto Orchestra, under the brilliant and uber-focused conducting of John Kennedy. Kennedy is to be highly commended for his work. To keep all the different percussive elements of the score in order and on time requires not only musical artistry but the discipline of a Buddhist monk.
Those three elements combined for one of the most excited, challenging performances I've had the privilege of seeing. It had the feel of an evening that will be talked about for Spoletos to come.
This experience is not for everyone. The music at times can be almost impossible to listen to. One section in particular that featured the screeching of wind instruments held me in a vice grip. I felt like I couldn't breathe until eventually it mercifully ended. Some moments in this film are downright scary. When a group of school children are walked past two nuns my heart stopped. During a section when people would just simply turn and look into the camera, it was like I was looking into the face of death itself.
That might sound hyperbolic, but it isn't.
I am thrilled that Spoleto choose to program something this edgy and challenging. It was only one night so if you are reading this and didn't get to see it, I'm sorry. It was a great night in the theater and ironically a film about decay is something I will remember the rest of my life.