Above is a trailer for Bill Morrison's film The Miners' Hymns, a melancholy celebration of coal-mining culture in the great northern English city of Durham. The film is centered on the Durham Miners' Gala, an annual summertime meeting which, from the late nineteenth century until the Thatcher era, brought thousands of celebrants into the city. The gala was famous not only for its union activism but for its carnival atmosphere, its massed choral singing, and its myriad brass bands. Morrison's film has a soundtrack by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson — a brooding ambient creation, recorded in Durham Cathedral, for large brass ensemble, organ, percussion, and electronic sounds. I became aware of Jóhannsson's music when I picked up his gently hypnotic disc Englabörn at 12 Tónar in Reykjavík in 2005; I've had mixed experiences with his records since, but this one packs a considerable punch. Although I can't yet comment on Morrison's film, I've relished his masterly manipulation of "found" footage since I saw his contribution to John Moran's The Death Train of Baron von Frankenstein at La MaMa in 1993; he is best known for Decasia, his film symphony with Michael Gordon. The Miners' Hymns plays at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month.
Interestingly, The Miners' Hymns is not the only Durham mining disc recently to cross my desk. NMC, the superb English new-music label, has issued a CD version of Big Meeting, an hour-long tape-collage composition by the Australian-born composer David Lumsdaine. In 1971, Lumsdaine and several of his students — he was teaching at Durham University at the time — set out with microphones to create an "electronic poem" based on that year's Big Meeting (as the gala is also called), recording hymns, songs, speeches, conversations, and brass bands all around the city. The piece, which was finished only in 1978, was originally in quadrophonic sound; Lumsdaine faced difficulties in attempting to convert the work to stereo, and a planned LP release never came about. For NMC, he has finally made a full digital remastering that seems a convincing alternative to the quadrophonic original. This YouTube trailer gives a flavor of it. Big Meeting is remarkable not only as a technical feat — I can't think of a electronic work that gives a more vivid sense of movement within a particular geography —but also as a haunting evocation of a lost world. If the sound of the miners' hymn in Durham Cathedral doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you must be one of the Koch brothers. Although the miners' gala carries on, its raison d'être is gone; the last of the Durham mining pits was closed in 1992.