Music is a central component of the films of Bill Morrison (currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective at MoMA) and his collaborations with contemporary composers reflect his early interest in music as “a soundtrack in [his] life” and are informed by his artistic training as a painter and filmmaker.
While studying fine art at Cooper Union in the mid 1980s, Morrison was encouraged by his college professor and artistic mentor, the experimental filmmaker and abstract painter Robert Breer, to animate his paintings. Morrison began building his films image-by-image, pouring liquid on the negatives, working with an optical printer, and discovering how each frame changes imperceptibly and how a series of frames could create a distinct experience. He found Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi (1983), which features a Philip Glass score, to be a musical and narrative revelation; he learned that with moving images he could better portray the emotional depth that he sought to express in his work, an element that musical scores further enhanced. Two student films—with scores by jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and blues-man Robert Pete Williams, shown at PS122 in 1989 and 1990, respectively—brought him to the attention of New York’s Ridge Theater, which was working with filmmakers and composers.
Morrison became Ridge Theater’s resident filmmaker in the early 1990s; his films were projected during theatrical stage productions, either as background for the actors or as distinct experiences. Footprints (1992), for example, which he created for their production of Jungle Movie, features a compelling soundtrack by Jim Farmer composed of dialogue from science and dramatic films. Footprints created such a strong impression that all action would “come to a screeching halt” when it was played onstage.
During this time, Morrison began supplementing his original footage with archival footage, which he found to be a rich resource of images on which to build, and collaborating with a range of composers like Conrad Cummings, Michael Gordon, Jim Farmer, and John Moran. For Footprints, he altered the film negative by pouring Drano on the Academy leader, and made an optical print of it before it had completely deteriorated. Later, for films such as his magnum opus, Decasia (2002), he turned to 35mm nitrate archival footage, in which the natural deterioration of the negative had dissolved the image in beautiful patterns.
When Morrison was working on Light Is Calling (2004)—a work he calls his “one hit single” because it is a short-form film based on one scene from the film The Bells (1926)—composer Michael Gordon gave him 10 to 12 tracks to consider for the score. Morrison and his wife, artist Laurie Olinder, listened to the CD over and over again during a road trip, finally selecting an all-violin work that would be adapted for and performed by cellist Maya Beiser. For his feature-length projects—Decasia, Spark of Being, The Miner’s Hymns, and The Great Flood—Morrison and the composers built the project from the same point, independent of each other, sending clips back and forth. Bill makes a final edit to the final recording as the last step for every film.
Morrison delves deeply into the archives for scenes in early silent dramatic films, documentaries, and newsreel footage that relate to his interests and subject matter; he then reworks them while keeping in mind the original backstory. Alexandra Vrebalov was the first composer that Morrison invited into the archive, during his research for Beyond Zero 1914–1918 (2014), which premiered at MoMA in October. She joined Morrison at the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, where he finds much of his deteriorated nitrate. Inspired by seeing the footage, the texture of the images, and her own experience of the Serbian Croatian War, Vrebalov wrote into the score an anti-war Dada poem and Serbian choral voices, helping to contemporize and universalize the work, which visually tracks the development of military technology used in World War I. Vrebalov’s piece was performed by the Kronos Quartet, and Morrison edited from the composition; he had gathered different visual palettes from which to work and had four months to edit to the music.
Bill Frisell’s musical style incorporates blues, country, folk, and jazz in a postmodern mix that gels well with Morrison’s visualization of film history, and the two Bills have worked on several pieces together, including The Film of Her (1996), about the formation of the film archive and paper print collections, on which Morrison worked with an existing soundtrack by Frisell; and The Mesmerist, which used two existing Frisell songs—“Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa” and “Again.”
Their most recent effort, The Great Flood, begins dramatically and unfolds like a mystery, slowly drawing us into the epic story of the great Mississippi River Delta flood of 1926 and 1927 that displaced one million people. The pair worked side by side on incorporating the idea of the revitalization of African American music that occurred with the great migration caused by the flood, and the film also reminds us of the environmentally disastrous tsunamis and hurricanes of today.
On Friday, November 21, the Bill Morrison: Compositions exhibition concludes with a special live performance of The Great Flood (2013), featuring musicians Frisell, Ron Miles, Tony Scherr, and Kenny Wollesen.