Filmmaker Bill Morrison brings his films to the Walker tonight

Categories: Film, Interview
Bill Morrison's approach to film is much like most modern day composers or musicians. With primarily discarded archival footage as his main axe, his visual storytelling resembles sample-based music. Often the origins of his source material become greatly obscured by the final expression in his work.

Decasia, Spark of Being and Light is Calling utilize multi-layered images that create a dreamlike translucence. Visually, they lend themselves naturally to music, which further puts a point on an intended (or unintended) meaning or narrative.

Gimme Noise had the opportunity to talk to Morrison about his films last week. Describing his process and ultimately how music works as an inspiration and companion for his films, Morrison, who has worked with ambient guitar master Bill Frisell as well as Walker regular Laurie Anderson and modern composer Michael Gordon will be present to discuss his work at the Walker Art Center tonight.

Gimme Noise: Do you feel your films as assemblage in many ways can require the music to hold it together?

Bill Morrison: They would work without the music on a certain level. But the music is an intrinsic part of the final. The images hold themselves together. The music is kind of a parallel universe.

How does that work? Are you giving the composer a finished piece?

We give each other sketches from recordings or rehearsals. I've been really fortunate to work with some amazing composers. With the work I'm bringing to the Walker I'm really proud of the music in them. With Film of Her as an early example, I was a young filmmaker when I made that. I knew Bill Frisell from working at the Village Vanguard. That is sort of the anomaly in the collection. I was working with pre-recorded stuff. I wasn't sure what the soundtrack would be. But that was the music I was listening to while I was editing the film so it worked really well and informed the film.

With The Mesmerist, he had this commison to write new music and he wanted me to contribute film for it. I had this project in mind using this decayed film. I made one short with it, The Bells. It had this very compelling narative. I had this idea of telling the narrative using the film for Bill's. There was a couple tracks from a trio record he had. When I sent it to Bill he was like, "I couldn't think of anything better for that."

We'd done two shorter films and we wanted to have a project we could work side by side which became The Great Flood. We could make a poetic case for the great migration that the electric guitar was where it came from that evolved into the blues. The inspiration relates to those earlier works was the personal relationship and led to something we could really work together on. He's really specific about who he works with.

Do you have plans to work with Bill again?

If you trace the arc of his discography he returns to people he's worked well with before. This was a large undertaking and took longer than either of us had anticipated. Now it's a locked film and the Walker will be the first time it will be shown as a film and not just to support Bill's act visually.

The Great Flood. Music by Bill Frisell

Who are some of your favorite film composers?

Actually, I don't listen to a lot of film music by itself. Certainly I love what Philip Glass did with Koyaanisqatsi. The repetition works with that film.

Yeah, I would guess that clicks for you. Your work has a lot of repetition, does that need to be in the music as well?

We're creating a trance. If it gets angular it can be too big a contrast for the film. In Decasia when things get loud and bombastic and though the footage might be serene it can create a tension. I can't make film for very fast music. In all of them there are passages like that but get treated in other ways. In The Great Flood there's a piece of music I always associate with Thelonious Monk's music. With Bill's music it can sound like a Monk tune, like "bebop," for lack of a better word, so we have other ways of dealing with that. We had scanned a 1927 Sears catalog, and a different way of treating the film. Using the text and images from the catalog it creates a type of animation and creates an energy that is uptempo. That worked with that piece really well.

Excerpt from Decasia. Music by Michael Gordon

Has a piece of music inspired an idea for a film?

Usually I'm working with contemporary composers and inspired by their previous work. I guess with the Górecki piece I had heard that in other film contexts. In that case we were going with an already written piece of music. We're going to be doing a film that will support Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at Kimmell Center in Philadelphia. In that case we are doing the first part which is based on Winter. I always look for Winter scenes, it's the centennial of "Rite of Spring" which was before the first World War. The sunset of the old age so I wanted pre-1914 footage to depict that. Especially Winter footage which I found at the Library of Congress.

One of the more interesting composer collaborations I've done was with Richard Einhorn. The audience would enter a black box space and were given a laser pointer. There were eight screens and the laser pointers would trigger an audio clip and that way the audience would create a pastiche of film that would sustain itself throughout the evening with the film and audio changing creating a film experience.

So you must have boatloads of film, do you physically collect a lot of your source work?

That's changed since the digital age. I used to make negatives and archive. Now my process is when I find something in the library. Like an old nitrate print that they are going to throw away. I send it to a lab and they make a copy for me. I will have an uncompressed scan of it. That is how I have been working for the last 5-6 years. I was affected by Sandy and lost a lot. I am the type person who wouldn't have thrown that stuff away. I prefer to call myself an archivist.

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