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Michael GORDON (b. 1956)
The Unchanging Sea (2018)[28:54]
Beijing Harmony (2013) [14:40]
Film: The Unchanging Sea (1910 and 2018) [30:00]
Tomoko Mukaiyama (piano)
Seattle Symphony/Pablo Rus Broseta
rec. 2016/17
CANTALOUPE MUSIC CA21141 [CD: 43:34 + DVD: 30:00]

This project, by composer Michael Gordon and film-maker Bill Morrison, strains in a challengingly pleasing way at the boundaries of classical manners and mores. It pushes the skiff out further than Nyman, Glass, Pärt and Zhukov.

Essentially, this set from Cantaloupe serves up a film score twice: once by itself as an audio experience and once with its accompanying film. The music does not suffer without the images. The two-disc package features the Seattle Symphony's recordings of The Unchanging Sea (and one other score) on an audio CD. The region-free DVD of Bill Morrison's film is based on silents with Gordon's identical score. Gordon and Morrison have worked together before (review). This is the fifth of their collaborations, which began with Decasia in 2001.

The principal source for The Unchanging Sea is a 1910 short film by director D.W. Griffith. This is smoothly interleaved and married up with brief extracts from seventeen obscure or part-lost silents. All have been rescued from the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress. These are preoccupied with sea travel, beach scenes, dreams, ship-wrecks, and footage shot in Seattle in 1897 when the S.S. Willamette sailed out of Puget Sound at the height of the gold rush.

Tomoko Mukaiyama's piano tolls and trills away over a slowly seething, tense, remorseless and even apocalyptic orchestra. The notes tell us of Gordon’s fascination with the sea "in all its turbulence, majesty and mystery". The film material is not perfectly or even serviceably preserved. The pictures are shown in their deteriorated and image-melted nitrate stock glory. Not only is the image speckled and surface scarred but sections of images are at times melted completely or in bands or oily scabs running down the centre or either side of the frame. There are a few (very few) title boards but they are rarely in evidence to distract from what is a hypnotic score and moving image. The effect carries the sense of travelling through time.

The CD also includes the shorter Beijing Harmony. This piece was prompted by the Echo Wall at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. The notes tells us that Gordon “imagined that the sound would bounce off the stone floors and buildings to create a fanfare of echoes - an acoustical rebounding and ringing that would slowly grow in zeal and fierceness.” This steady growth follows a similar chugging pattern as with The Unchanging Sea: a surging and a welling-up.

The recordings have been produced by Dmitriy Lipay and are vivid. Both the music and images are mesmerising.

Rob Barnett


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