Decasia, Decasia, Decasia!

The good thing about blogs is that you can correct yourself at any point. Normally, when I make a mistake, I correct myself very quickly. But in this case, I’d like to correct something I wrote over four years ago, in November 2002.

Back then, I went to see a film by Bill Morrison, called Decasia. I started off OK:

Decasia started life as a visual accompaniment to the premiere of a symphony by Michael Gordon. Last night, however, the symphony was reduced to a soundtrack, and the film itself was the center of attention.

But then, at the end of my review, I seemingly forgot what I’d written earlier:

The title (and the New York Times) seem to posit a link to Fantasia, which I don’t see at all. Fantasia is one of the greatest films ever made, and I’d hate to think that anybody setting images to music thinks that they’re working in the same tradition. I think a much more obvious influence is A Zed & Two Noughts, Peter Greenaway’s meditation on the beauty of decay. But in a way, the films got made in the wrong order: there’s so much more to the Greenaway than there is to watching old rotting newsreel. (And Michael Nyman is a better composer than Michael Gordon.)

Which is probably up there among the most spectacularly wrong parenthetical comments I’ve ever written. I stand by what I wrote about the film; it’s the music I was wrong about. Decasia is not easy music, and it was pretty idiotic of me to dismiss both it and its composer when I hadn’t even been concentrating on the music for most of the time I was watching the film.

I got a hint of how wrong I had been about a year ago, when Alex Ross put Decasia on a list of masterpieces from the past 25 years, along with the likes of Adams’s Nixon in China, Messiaen’s St. Francis, and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

I was reminded of that post a few weeks ago, when I saw posters on the street for Decasia Live. For six performances, Decasia was coming to Manhattan: the full experience, with large-scale projections and a live 55-piece orchestra.

I had to go, and so it was that I found myself at the fourth performance, at 9:30 on Friday night, sitting on the floor of the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street, surrounded by some of the most breathtaking music I have heard in years.

I went with Michelle, and as we were walking out we both said the same thing to each other: “We have to come again!”. In the end, I found myself going to both the remaining performances, listening to Decasia Live three times in a row over the course of two successive evenings.

I have no idea if or when anybody else will have the opportunity to do the same thing again, but I can highly recommend it. As I say, Decasia is not easy music, and it certainly repays repeated listening. You can buy it on iTunes (only $9.99! Cheap!) – but, as Alex Ross says, “it packs a punch on CD, but it needs a live performance to unveil all its power.”

(Weirdly, you can buy three bleeding chunks of Decasia on iTunes for a mere $2.98, which between them comprise about 34% of the total running time. Don’t do it. Why that’s even an option I have no idea, but Decasia is not split up into nice clean movements like many symphonies, and the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.)

I think that one of the reasons why contemporary classical music has difficulty gaining traction among many people is precisely the need to listen to any given piece more than once, and the difficulty of doing so. Much non-classical contemporary music shares this trait: I wasn’t even all that crazy about Crazy the first time I heard it. But it’s a lot easier to hear a three-minute recording many times than it is to listen to an hour-long symphony many times.

On the other hand, Decasia Live essentially sold out all six shows with a hearteningly young crowd, so there’s definitely a healthy appetite for intelligent music downtown.

What did they hear? I have no idea, to be honest, since the reaction of the people that I went with was all over the shop, and indeed my own experience changed markedly over the course of the three performances I saw.

One generalization I think I can make: If someone was not already familiar with the piece, then that person is likely to have been concentrating more on the film than on the music. (That’s certainly what happened with me, the first time round, although admittedly there wasn’t a live orchestra then.) And to a certain degree it’s true that the more you’re concentrating on the film, the less you’re concentrating on the music. By the time I went for the third time, I paid almost no attention to the film, and indeed looking at the film was if anything a way of relaxing for a small while from the intensity involved in listening to the music.

As far as my own experience is concerned, at my first performance I was struck mostly by the amazing textures and rhythms of the piece. At my second performance, I concentrated more on the structure of the piece – which helped me to understand it better, although I wasn’t quite as blown away by it as I was the first time around. And at my third performance, I let myself ignore the film pretty much completely, and immersed myself in music which by that point I knew reasonably well – after all, it was little more than an hour after my second performance had finished. This time around, I think I got more out of the music than I ever had before – and, interestingly, the real emotional punch hit me a few minutes after the performance had ended. I have no idea why.

Alex Ross is much better at writing about music in general, and about Decasia in particular, than I will ever be, so go read him if you want to know more about the piece. (Sample prose: “The darkest, grandest noise of the musical season so far—the fanfare to an angry American autumn… Gordon’s score weds the hypnotic aura of minimalism to the detuned snarl of highbrow punk… With chattering figures building into great washes of sound, the score is a feat of symphonic minimalism… Even as “Decasia” celebrates raw sound, it summons an atmosphere of dread.”)

More generally, though, let me recommend repeat visits to any great musical experience, whether it be a contemporary symphony or a magnificently-performed opera. Too often, I think, people have the opportunity to go back and relive a wonderful performance, and don’t. Many symphonies and pretty much all operas are performed more than once: take advantage of that, if you can! I remember once going to a London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Barbican in London, where Kent Nagano started off the program with a short piece by, as I recall, Olivier Messiaen. After playing it, he announced to the audience that new and unfamiliar music really needed to be heard more than once – so he played the whole thing a second time. I wonder if that kind of thing ever happens in New York.

Oh, and one other thing: Go student orchestras! Decasia was played by the Tactus ensemble at the Manhattan School of Music, and they were fantastic – just as every other student orchestra I’ve ever paid to listen to has been, from the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to concerts at the Julliard School. If anything’s lost in terms of perfection, it’s more than made up for with enthusiasm for the music and sheer love of performing. When was the last time you went to an orchestral concert and you saw the musicians grinning with exhilaration while performing? It can and does infect the audience.

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2 Responses to Decasia, Decasia, Decasia!

  1. Matt says:

    There’s not really much I can after reading that review than buy the CD (and thanks to the miracle of Amazon it’ll arrive tomorrow).

    Couldn’t agree with you more about live experiences too. Just a week ago we went to a wonderful concert which was effectively a reconstruction of the music and fanfares for the coronation of George II (http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/release/c54h/). Quite apart from the masterful quality of the playing and singing, and the exquisite control during crescendos, the enthusiasm of the orchestra and choir was infectious.

  2. akne says:

    Thanks to this blog I opened my mind.

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