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The feral beauty of "Decasia"

To watch is to be transported by a dizzying mix of sound and image.

Southbank Centre, London SE1

There’s a scene about halfway through the multimedia film installation Decasia that has become iconic. A young man, stripped to the waist, is boxing; he throws punch after punch, tiring visibly in his efforts. But it’s a bout we know he can never win, because instead of an opponent there is only the void – a writhing, pooling amoeboid sprawl of nothingness. The nitrate film is decaying before our eyes, and we along with the boxer must fight to keep our grip on meaning, defend our fragile humanity from its nullifying death-embrace.

Decasia, once described as “the Fantasia of decay”, is a cult work – the kind that generates a glassy-eyed devotion from those who have experienced it. As a centrepiece of the Southbank Centre’s gleefully avant-garde Ether festival earlier this month, it left its audience reeling. The work grew out of a 2001 commission from the Basel Sinfonietta. The ensemble wanted an immersive piece that would combine live musical performance with multimedia elements, and brought the New York composer Michael Gordon together with the film-maker Bill Morrison. The result was a silent film made of antique, decaying footage, set to a symphonic score combining bass guitar and keyboards with more conventional orchestral forces.

The cellulose nitrate film stock used before 1950 was highly volatile. Its principal ingredients were those of gunpower, and its melting, desiccating decay led to many of the warehouse fires that destroyed much of film history. But Morrison’s visits to the US’s archives revealed footage still clinging to life. These fragments – from newsreels, silent melodramas, travelogues and documentaries – became the basis for the film-maker’s visual collage.

Morrison’s fascination with archival footage recurs through his works but nowhere is this obsession more intelligently and self-reflexively expressed than in Decasia’s blurred, juddering frames. “It was the idea that this footage had somehow survived despite its fragile medium that excited me,” he tells me. “I was still able to see some of the images, whereas with digital decay nothing would remain; I realised that the persistence of this analogue medium could be extrapolated into our own human struggle for survival.” It’s surely no coincidence that Morrison cut his film in 2001, shortly before and immediately after 9/11.

Gordon’s score responded to this same stimulus. “I tried to imagine what the musical equivalent of Bill’s images might be, what would happen if the instruments of an orchestra stood neglected for a hundred years and fell into disrepair. What would that sound like? The closest thing I could imagine was the sound of a piano that hasn’t been repaired for many years, the sort everyone has in their basement. I wanted to recreate the sound of that unturned piano, all cobwebby and creaky but with harmony still discernible, with the orchestra.”

The unsettling aura of Gordon’s score is established even before any performance begins. The traditional oboe A, to which all instruments tune, sounds as usual, but is followed by a second and then a third tuning pitch. Divided into three groups, the instruments of the orchestra form a (cob) web of different pitches, creating a sound-world that has a guitar-amp feedback quality.

Originally projected on to three separate screens enclosing the audience, and with its orchestra spread about the surrounding scaffolding, Decasia is a work to be experienced, that invites you to “enter a different environment”, as Gordon puts it, not just to be watched. In the darkened Queen Elizabeth Hall the Aurora Orchestra may have been conventionally arranged on a stage but their forces (including a highly polished brake pad) were unconventional to say the least – a musical attack force for the “massive sound-assaults” that Morrison had earlier promised listeners.

As eerie bell-like gurgles and metallic harmonics fill the room the screen jerks into life. No preamble here; we enter Morrison’s dance of images mid-whirl, as a dervish circles slowly before us. Part documentary, part meditation, as episode cuts to episode it’s clear that surrender is the only approach to the material. Most fascinating are the processes of decay at work in the black and white footage, creating seething bacterial shapes, puffy nuclear explosions or painterly accents out of abstractions. Through this palimpsest of images a second layer is tantalisingly visible. The urge to read faces into the fog, to find people, recognisable objects in the storm of visual stimuli, is overpowering. Occasionally they coalesce into something figurative, and a geisha or a schoolchild will appear for a moment before dissolving once again.

As momentum builds and our eyes become accustomed to Morrison’s kaleidoscopic world, recurring themes emerge. Human frailty finds expression in victims – of mining disasters (this act of burrowing underground seems particularly resonant), drownings and social violence. Women are abused and exploited. Only in the hooded figures of nuns do they become guardians and protectors, marshalling a crocodile of children in sailor suits as they march offcamera – to where we do not know. But as one child turns, staring deep into the lens before making her exit, the music fills with anxiety.

Morrison’s film was cut to Gordon’s completed score – a process that reverses the traditional cinematic hierarchy of image and soundtrack, and one that is integral to the work’s subversive agenda. “A lot of times when people use soundtrack it’s to reinforce the imagery,” Morrison argues, “or to create a sort of bench for the viewer to lie on. Decasia does something different; it is presenting challenging imagery alongside challenging music and requires two sides of your brain. Our job was to make those two things meet.”

And meet they do, in spectacular synthesis. There is a feral beauty to Gordon’s writing that takes the minimalist patternings familiar from Philip Glass or John Adams and roughs them up to devastating effect. Dramatic arcs are bigger, riffs are less rigid, but both the gorgeous simplicity of minimalism and the ferocity of punk rock remain. “It’s dizzying and gutwrenching and at times it makes you feel sick, like the sound of your own head screaming at you,” says Aurora’s conductor, Nicholas Collon, “but it transports you to a place you couldn’t otherwise reach.”

After just over an hour, visual processes start to reverse. A silhouetted Berber caravan of camels shuffle back the way they came across the screen; the sun crouches lower and lower into the horizon. Gordon’s musical patterns reprise the music of the opening in a transformed and transcendent coda. We have arrived, but where? Perhaps at a reconciliation, a surrender to those processes of decay that work within us. Morrison’s cinematic dance of death is at once a joyous testament to human survival and a ritual of its own destruction – a mirror whose doppelgängers find strange truth in distortion and deformity. Decasia enacts its own demise but, paradoxically, it is precisely this that keeps it alive in our cultural imagination.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten