A Compelling Tale of Tragedy and Recovery

Filmmaker Bill Morrison and Composer-Guitarist Bill Frisell look anew at “The Great Flood” of 1927.

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Hundreds lost their lives and thousands were displaced, land and livelihoods lost, making for another component of the Great Migration, which brought people from the agrarian south to the industrialized northern regions and the opportunities of the West.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer-guitarist Bill Frisell tell this story of tragedy and recovery in their acclaimed feature-length film “The Great Flood.” The Harriman-Jewell Series and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will present a viewing of the film on April 22 with live musical performance by Frisell and his ensemble in the Atkins Auditorium.

Clark Morris, executive and artistic director of the Series, was enamored when he saw the film in Aspen, Colo., a few years ago, and determined to bring the project to Kansas City. After last year’s well-received performance of Frisell’s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” this project was the perfect encore.

“There is a very visually artistic element to this project, so I think it’s appropriate to partner with the Nelson.” Last year’s performance was also at the Nelson-Atkins, and “(the audience’s) response to the space was very strong,” Morris said.

“Morrison works with a lot of archival footage and he doesn’t clean it up. He allows the imperfections in the actual film to come through and he arranges those clippings in a very artistic way that tells a story,” said Morris.

Patrons of the Series saw Morrison’s work in Helzberg Hall during Harriman-Jewell’s 50th anniversary season, when Kronos Quartet performed “Beyond Zero: 1914-1918,” using archival footage from World War I. “The Kansas City Star” described it as “an enthralling, emotive experience.”

“The Great Flood” premiered in 2011 and was released on DVD in 2013. It was listed as a highlight of the 2012 London Film Festival, a NYT Critics’ Pick and given a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for Historical Scholarship in 2014.

There is no narration and no dialogue in this 75-minute film, and the music constructs as much of the story as the flashing images. According to Neil Genzilnger of “The New York Times,” “its soundtrack is an artwork in its own right, one worth savoring as you would a fine recording.”

The soundtrack, featuring Frisell on guitar, Ron Miles on trumpet, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Tony Scherr on bass, is a sparkling yet somber soundscape. Placid tones from guitar and trumpet coalesce into a new timbre, with an array of metallic accents from Wollesen’s cymbals. At times the tempo matches the flashes on screen; at others, the music serves as undercurrent, a steady groove gradually becoming a rush against the images of devastation and ruin, the footage degraded and smudged, with splotchy, blistered discolorations creating layers to the visual rhythm that pulses against views of rising water, loaded train cars, or bedraggled workers.

In concert, the musicians are on stage in front of the screen, improvising on pre-determined themes, making each performance a unique experience.

“Morrison’s style and the music gives, at least to me,” said Morris, “a very dramatic and profound sense of that flood. It wasn’t just a moment in time, it was something that impacted the country and continues to impact the country today. . . . There’s a direct history with Kansas City and the impact that this flood had on our region and the Midwest.”

Morrison has frequently employed this aesthetic of decaying film footage as process and vehicle for storytelling, including in his film “Decasia.” In a review for “The New York Times,” Dave Kehr wrote, “Mr. Morrison’s film is founded on an enduring paradox: that decay produces its own kind of beauty, and even functions as a kind of creation.”

Even as the ambiguous corrosion of the deteriorated film lends ominous shading to images, Morrison uses footage of people dancing and smiling — people intent on rebuilding their lives. They may not have escaped with their possessions, but they retained their traditions.

Just as Morrison transmutes imperfections to a new artistic whole, together with the musical commentary of Frisell and ensemble, so does “The Great Flood” indicate that out of the incredible tragedy and displacement of the ’27 flood came a migration that enriched the cultural landscape, changing the demographics of the United States.

The Harriman-Jewell Series presents “The Great Flood” at 5 p.m. April 22 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Tickets cost from $20 to $40. For tickets, and info about related educational opportunities, visit www.hjseries.org or call 816-415-5025.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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