Decay in ‘Decasia’ illustrated by ear-shattering music

“Decasia” is a movie about decay that uses salvaged footage.

Michael Gordon’s score for the “Decasia” is viscerally unpleasant. When paired with Bill Morrison’s film, which includes scenes of drowning, death and a C-section, it’s almost unbearable. But that’s not to say that the listening experience was devoid of value.

Half the string section plays each note slightly higher than conventional tuning (which would have an A vibrating at 440Hz), and half the orchestra plays slightly lower. The result, aside from being difficult music to listen to, is a sonic representation of the visual decay shown in the film.

The musicians, feverishly counting the rhythm of their parts, had their eyes glued to conductor John Kennedy, whose indications were painstakingly deliberate. Kennedy was wearing headphones and listening to a click track, a series of audio cues that allowed him to keep perfectly in time — a necessity for a piece that includes extremely complex rhythms and demands accuracy. Throughout the course of the piece, instrumental sections gradually fall out of time with one another and separate, an effect known as phasing. This sonic separation represents loss, the deterioration of the union between two voices. It’s both fascinating and grotesque.

It was a highly demanding performance for the musicians, who did a fine job. One of the four synthesizer players wrung out her right hand after long sequences of repetitive movement. A bass trombonist grinned at a trumpeter, whose part also required that he take a mallet and skim it on a brake drum for a majority of the performance. Because the music reached such intense volumes, all the orchestra members wore ear plugs.

If you want to know what this piece sounds like, imagine listening to a long build-up, a gradual rise of pitch and intensity before a harmonic resolution. Then imagine hearing that same gradual rise of pitch played a quarter of a second behind, and a quarter of a tone lower. Multiply that by 10, add a full orchestra and you might get a sense of what “Decasia” had to offer.

Natalie Piontek is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.