'Decasia,' Angel Orensanz Center, 1/27

Readers of this blog are acquainted with my fearlessness in commenting on topics about which I am entirely ignorant, but today's post breaks new ground: Decasia is a collaboration between the symphonic composer Michael Gordon and the avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison.

I was at last night's performance thanks to a recommendation from the New Yorker's Alex Ross, who calls the piece "one of the first classics of the new century." I admire Ross's writing so much that I read him even though I have no particular interest in his subject matter, and so Decasia was an experiment for me: I was afraid I'd find the music monolithically dissonant, an hour of noise. In fact, it was one of the most powerful musical experiences I've ever had, and the music was characterized by constant variety in service of a unified artistic purpose.

Gordon's interest is in effects that are essentially harmonic but that go beyond the harmonic palette of the traditional western scale. In the program notes he writes about the "fantastic sonority" of abandoned, long-untuned pianos, and describes his attempt to get the same sound from an orchestra by retuning the instruments -- for instance, one of the flutes is an eighth of a tone sharp, another an eighth of a tone flat. Some of the sonic complexity produced by this harmonic layering is mitigated by the orchestra's spatial disaggregation: at the Angel Orensanz Center, the musicians were placed on balconies all around the hall, with the audience sitting on the floor in the middle while the overtones recombined around us. The score emphasizes long, slow portamenti, in which instruments (usually the strings) slide through the intermediate pitches between two notes, generating every possible interval with the sustained or repeated tones around them. Harmony in such a piece is no longer binary (harmony/cacophony) or even multiple-but-finite (the sounds of a minor third, a sixth, a major seventh) but fully analog, infinitely variable and continuous.

I don't want to make this sound academic, because it wasn't an academic experience at all. Big, complex crescendi of amalgamated whirling movement suddenly gave way to shimmering, keening timbres or chiming minimal repetitions. Morrison's films are made from found footage in a state of decay: the people and scenes are in the process of being consumed by encroaching nitrate spots. Ross, in his 2004 review of Decasia, heard "an atmosphere of dread" and "what looks and sounds like the end of the world." What I heard was about decay not as an ending or a catastrophe but as a necessary component of the churning engines of time and life. The instruments pursue their themes, out of time and tune with one another. For a time, some of them come together in an otherworldly harmony or an insistent beat, and then, like lives, they pull apart again.