Last week I went to a free screening of The Miners’ Hymns, a silent documentary film by American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, who is best known for working with archival footage. Morrison was also on hand to introduce the film and discuss his collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. What made this particular screening unique was that it featured a live orchestra performing Jóhannsson’s score as well as Jóhannsson himself on synth.

The Miners’ Hymns is a documentary about the daily life and struggle of coal mineworkers in Northeast England (primarily Durham) from the early days in the 19th century to the infamous miners’ strike of 1984. Morrison created the film almost entirely from black and white found footage, with the exception of two color, aerial present-day shots of the former mine sites. As I sat on the steps of the Winter Garden, I was struck by how claustrophobic I felt during one scene as I watched the miners descend into the colliery and crawl through its sinister tunnels while listening to the brass-heavy orchestra and Jóhannsson’s ambient drone. Despite the lack of voice over or text placing the events into a historical context, the striking images Morrison chose and the accompanying score captured the spirit of the mining community, in particular the footage of the Durham Miners’ Gala. After the show, we were treated to a special encore performance of Jóhannsson’s title track “Fordlândia” off his 2008 album.

The compilation film and live score collaboration was the first of four similar events at the World Financial Center and part of the Wordless Music Series, a series that “pairs rock and electronic musicians in an intimate concert setting with more traditionally understood classical music performers.” If you’re in the New York area, The Miners’ Hymns is now playing at Film Forum. You can also buy the recording of the September 2010 live performance at Durham Cathedral here.

 

 

 

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