The Winter Garden at the World Financial Center is a peculiar space: cathedral-height ceilings, a low-slung series of steps that can double as seating for particularly crowded events, and rows of palm trees that make the negotiation of sight lines a challenge for attendees at concerts where film or video plays a part. Such was the case on Tuesday night, the first of a four-night tribute to the filmmaker Bill Morrison, known for his use of found footage and a fondness for talented musical collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon. The Miners’ Hymns, the film shown Tuesday, was accompanied by a score by the Icelandic composer and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson. Jóhannsson joined the Wordless Music Orchestra on electronics for the evening’s concert.
Much of Jóhannsson’s recent work, including the albums IBM 1401 – A User’s Manual and Fordlandia — has addressed the tension between human society and the advancement of technological progress. The Miners’ Hymns navigates familiar territory. The instrumentation here is more brass-heavy than most of Jóhannsson’s work, a nod to the brass bands that existed in the region documented in the film. Jóhannsson’s role as composer is always clear, however. Many of his preferred motifs can be heard: soaring melodies shot through with subtle dissonances, nods towards certain sacred traditions, and moments of unabashed sentimentality.
The film opens with aerial shots of northeastern England, the remains of coal mines still very visible even as onscreen titles point out that they’ve been inactive for decades. Gradually, Morrison’s film ebbs backwards in time, showing the mining community as it existed in earlier decades of the twentieth century: first crowds; then images of men going to work; scenes of daily life; and finally images of unrest, police clashing with protesters and facing angry crowds.
Jóhannsson’s score often evoked conflicting emotions, the booming brass summoning a sense of grandeur even as percussion or electronics ran an unnerving rift through the proceedings. A elegiac jazz-informed trumpet accompanied scenes of men walking to the mines, and harsher, dread-infused passages played as images of the process of mining were shown.
From this dissonance, the true strength of Jóhannsson’s music emerged. On the one hand, this film clearly empathizes with the miners, and the culture that surrounded them. On the other hand, Morrison’s film doesn’t shy away from showing the devastation wrought on the land by mining: besides the modern-day footage of the still-scarred landscape, some archival footage of small children and a dog playing amidst the byproducts of the mines inspired a few shudders. There is a paradox at the heart of this film, and seeing Jóhannsson’s score performed alongside it helped demonstrate just how much that paradox was also reflected in the music.
“The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World,” the piece that closes Jóhannsson’s score for The Miners’ Hymns, here accompanied footage of a procession of bands and organized labor through the streets of a northeastern city. The crowd eventually entered a cathedral, a celebration with echoes of a memorial. “The Cause of Labour…” is arguable the most rousing composition in Jóhannsson’s body of work; others are more sublime, but this seems to be the apex of a certain style. That same impulse also runs through “Fordlandia,” which Jóhannsson and a string quartet from the Wordless Music Orchestra performed as an encore. It, too, featured many of Jóhannsson’s signatures: a motif gradually growing louder, a sentimental melody underscored by a subtle electronic squall. Questions of labor, of community, and of the disruptions and breaches of the same all hung above the crowd, issues and paradoxes no less relevant now than they were during the years when some of the footage shown had first been recorded.