The hills are alive with the sound of music? Maybe, but it’s the music of the city, or rather music inspired by the ethos of the city, that takes precedence during Spoleto Festival USA’s presentation of City Symphonies. The performance is an amalgamation of the creative genius of filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon. The two have created three separate works: Gotham (2004) inspired by New York, Dystopia (2008) for Los Angeles, and El Sol Caliente (2015) for Miami. Each one is intended to convey the idyllic, the atrocious, and everything in between that is the human experience of life in the big city. For the first time ever, each of the three films and musical accompaniments will be presented by the Spoleto Orchestra in succession as a unified performance at Memminger Auditorium on May 26.
Gordon and Morrison have been putting their heads together on various projects for nearly 20 years combining Morrison’s thought-provoking visual assemblages of archival footage of city life with Gordon’s post-minimalist, pronounced, and often chaotic musical manner. “Gordon’s music can be described as post-minimalist because he loves to use repeating driving patterns and sometimes the vernacular feel of rock music,” explains John Kennedy, conductor of City Symphonies who has been working with Spoleto’s orchestral presentations for nearly three decades. “There’s an electric bass and electric guitar sometimes utilized with the orchestra. He’s also really into taking the kinds of common harmonic structures that we hear in music all around us and sort of taking them apart as if they’re being peeled apart gradually.”
These eclectic productions are meant to evoke the limitless potential that exists within a big city — the beautiful and the terrible, the entertaining and the outrageous, the uplifting and the degrading. In a place like New York or Los Angeles, it seems that anything could happen. The streets have a pulse and personality of their own which can transform instantly from one block to the next. The city is an entire self-contained and variable universe laid out within a few hundred square miles.
Morrison created and collected hundreds of snippets of city scenes for his films. “The audience will be seeing a lot of older black and white footage and even documentary type historical films that Morrison found through archival research, and they sometimes depict things that are not necessarily what you’d think of when you think of these cities,” says Kennedy. “They show how deep cities are in the unexpected and how, within these huge worlds, so much energy is passing by us. There are so many simultaneous stories happening at once. And there’s also the historical aspect to them in that these are shadows of experience of the past that occurred in the same place as we are today.”
Because of the archival nature of the films, the production as a whole feels a bit like watching a vintage movie, without the typical narrative format. Kennedy says that Gordon “likes to write for orchestra with pretty strong volume and lots of conflicting rhythms that may sound chaotic on the surface, but they actually do lock into each other quite meticulously.” In this way, Gordon’s scores pair nicely with Morrison’s assemblage-esque films. Though the compiled scenes vary from one another, together they create a unified portrayal of the kaleidoscopic nature of city life.
“What he’s really dealing with is cultural decay, layers of history, and mixing things up in juxtaposed positions which are sometimes unexpected,” explains Kennedy. “They both have this sense of creating a perspective of the world in time, so their work is very effective together. The subject of cities is really fantastic for their aesthetic because cities have such layers of history that we live amidst at all times — even in a place like Charleston where we’ll walk down a street that’s had so many stories that have taken place over hundreds of years.”
If you’re a symphony enthusiast, you may find this performance to be distinctive from the standard repertoire you’re accustomed to. Gordon’s music can seem quite avant-garde, especially considering that its newness is juxtaposed with historical imagery. But Kennedy insists that if you listen with modern music in mind, you will find it more accessible than may be expected. The music is not so dissimilar from the dramatic film soundtracks of today’s films. “Anyone who goes to the movies is used to hearing incredible stylistic diversity,” says Kennedy. “We take it for granted that some of the most different and challenging music we might be exposed to is in film, yet in the concert hall, a person may not be as big of a fan initially. But for someone who lives in the present, I believe this music will actually come across as being very evocative of today’s world.”