The Miners' Hymns
Last year, I attended a screening of The Miners’ Hymns during the Tribeca Film Festival. I was drawn to Bill Morrison’s silent film because Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson composed the original score. The music suited the film well—I wrote “Morrison’s curation is aided by Jóhannsson’s dignified composition to majestically illuminate a more universal message”—but did not render as resounding an impact as normally occurring in Jóhannsson’s separate work. The sound was guided by the narrative and constrained by the movie theater’s speakers.
This year, Jóhannsson was making one of his infrequent and brief trips to the United States to perform The Miners’ Hymns (aided by the Wordless Music Orchestra) as part of the New Sounds Live: Silent Films/Live Music series at the Winter Garden Atrium. Aside from a performance in Durham (the former mining community in the UK featured prominently in the film), this was only the second time a live score was set alongside the film. And to no surprise, the live music was more riveting in the cavernous atrium—no cinema screening could parallel this experience.
As the evening began, WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced the filmmaker (the series features four of his films), the musicians, Jóhannsson, and the conductor Guðni Franzson. At fifty-two minutes long, The Miners’ Hymns took the pace of the musicians, pausing between pieces so the orchestra could have a moment to break, breathe (especially the brass) and reset for the next segment. This resulted in few moments of inactivity on the screen, which may have bothered first time viewers. Subtle lighting effects played behind the orchestra since lighting them brightly would have interfered with the movie. Most notably, as the film presented the modern day Durham region for the second time, the lights shifted to crimson, perhaps to emphasize the transformed region.
Following the film was an unexpected treat, a single serving of encore. Only a string quartet remained to assist Jóhannsson with the song “Fordlândia”, from his album of the same name inspired by Henry Ford’s failed industrial operations in the Amazon. The magnetic strings filled the atrium soaring unencumbered with the weight of a film. It was appropriate too. The Icelandic composer may have selected his conceptual song about Amazonia to reflect the strangely warm winter evening in New York.
Listen to the event below and visit PopMatters’ Facebook page for a larger selection of images from the evening.