Alan Fletcher and Bill Morrison collaboration to premiere in Aspen
July 11, 2015
If You Go …
Who: Aspen Chamber Symphony
What: Alan Fletcher, “On a winter’s night a traveler;” Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4; Mozart, Symphony No. 40
When: Friday, July 10, 7:30 p.m.
Using Italo Calvino's novel "If on a winter's night a traveler" as a point of departure, filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Alan Fletcher have collaborated to tell a story of their own.
When Morrison visited Aspen last summer, Fletcher – the Aspen Music Festival and School's president and CEO – and his colleagues here had already decided on the 2015 season's musical theme: "Dreams of Travel." And when festival vice president for artistic administration Asadour Santourian suggested Fletcher compose a piece about Italy, where Fletcher has traveled extensively, Fletcher's mind immediately seized on the groundbreaking 1979 Calvino novel.
His collaboration with Morrison, visually and musically adapting the book, was soon born.
"I instantly thought of that title and the book, which is so much about travel and encounters, so I proposed it to Bill and he loved it right away," Fletcher said in an interview.
Fletcher largely composed the 16-minute piece last autumn, during his annual creative sojourn to an island on the Maine coast. While he stays in touch with Music Festival staff during the annual trip, its primary focus is composing.
"It's very quiet and I compose every day," he said. "It's worked really well so far."
Morrison put together the film working from a computer-generated version of Fletcher's score, editing it to the music.
"He chose to do some things in tremendous synchronicity and chose to do some things more freely," Fletcher said in a pre-concert talk with Morrison at Paepcke Auditorium on Wednesday.
Morrison has collaborated often with performing musicians and composers – John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet among them. Last year at the Aspen Music Festival, he screened his compelling collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell, "The Great Flood," about the 1927 Mississippi River Flood and the Great Migration, with a live Benedict Music Tent performance by Frisell. In the fall, his acclaimed found-footage films were the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"The type of film I make generally is not the type that people go to the movies to see," Morrison said. "They don't tell typical stories, to the degree they tell stories at all. … I find musical audiences are ready to embrace that. It's not like someone comes to musical performances thinking they will be told a story that will have an ending that is meaningful in a literal way."
The abstracted visual approach may make Morrison an ideal adapter for Calvino's novel.
The book is a mind-bending and self-reflexive narrative about authorship and the nature of stories. It opens, "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, 'If on a winter's night a traveler.' Relax. Concentrate." As the novel proceeds, alternating chapters begin a new story and new novel, while a reader character – that's "you" – searches desperately for the authentic book.
Calvino's postmodern masterpiece is not required reading for enjoying Fletcher and Morrison's piece, which premieres Friday with a performance by the Aspen Chamber Symphony.
"If you have not read the book, don't worry," said Fletcher. "All you have to think about is that this is a piece about storytelling and about how important it is that we all describe our life by telling our own stories."
Like the book, Fletcher's composition begins several new stories as it moves along, each one expressed in a different musical style. They are cut off abruptly and bookended with promenade-like musical interstices.
"My hope is that once you start to say, 'I like this one,' it goes away," Fletcher explained.
Morrison's film, a piece of which he previewed Wednesday, includes images of printing presses, of a priest unfurling a scroll, of newspaper stacks being readied for distribution – all referencing acts of reading and of storytelling – along with snippets of film noir scenes and genre movies, all in a grainy black and white. Most of it, like most of Morrison's work, is composed of archival footage on degraded film stock that flaunts the physical film's damage – water stains and burns dancing in and out of the frame. The self-aware aesthetic matches Calvino's.
"Much of my personal archive is constituted of shots like this that I've been interest in over the years," Morrison said. "This seems like a great opportunity to put some of those in play."
Unlike most films, which are edited, synced with audio and in the proverbial can months before an audience will see them, Morrison presents film as performance, not unlike a musician. For Friday's premiere, he has broken up the film into five large sections and will be seated in the back of the tent with control of the projection, so that he can speed up or slow down the film to match conductor Robert Spano's tempo.
"This whole week is leading up to a birthing of the film that will happen at the same time for me as it happens for you," Morrison said.
Late this spring, when Fletcher saw an almost-final cut of Morrison's film, he loved it. Its spellbinding visuals, however, posed a problem.
"I said, 'It's just fantastic. It's so good that I stopped listening to the music – and its my music,'" Fletcher recalled with a laugh. "I realized I'd been watching 7, 8, 9 minutes of it and had not even registered the music because I was so mesmerized by the images."
When he told Spano about the experience, Spano suggested a solution: to perform the piece without the film initially, then play it with the visuals. Thus, Friday's concert in the Benedict Music Tent will open with the music alone, followed by Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto No. 4 and an intermission. The second half of the evening will feature "On a winter's night a traveler" with Morrison's film and will then close with Mozart's Symphony No. 40.
To ensure the film will play after sundown, the Friday concert will begin 90 minutes later than normal, at 7:30 p.m.