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New Music, New Stories From Century-Old Celluloid

When crumbling reels of century-old silent film are paired with brand new music something magical and dreamlike can happen. The latest collaboration between filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon, The Unchanging Sea, creates a mesmerizing new narrative from 17 ocean-centric short films, dating from 1897 to 1928.

Until the early 1950s, film stock was made from cellulose nitrate, which was both highly flammable (remember the scene from Cinema Paradiso when the theater catches fire?) and prone to deterioration. With age, celluloid breaks down and blisters, leaving images looking like they are under attack by hordes of man-eating amoebas.

These fantastical images, from the dawn of cinema, are catnip to Morrison, who edits the old clips with a director's efficiency and a poet's sense of expressive detail. While the surreal and sometimes disturbing images in The Unchanging Sea are not unlike our own dreams, there's something oddly comforting in watching the film decompose on screen. The bubbling decay is especially appropriate as it casts a watery spell. Morrison's characters seem to wash up on shore and recede into the ocean's depths.

Gordon's sumptuous and undulating score, commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, is equally dramatic, though not overly pictorial. Waves of ominous chords from the depths of the piano come crashing in as the sun rises over an endless ocean. The heroine, napping on a shoreline boulder, is introduced with long, sighing figures in the winds. Within her dream – and the film's 30-minute span – she will find love, wealth and tragedy.

Hollywood blockbusters these days are shot through with so many computer-generated special effects and whiplash edits that the brain grows weary. Funny then, how these 100-year-old films, without dialog, fancy lenses or lighting, appear so fresh you can't take your eyes off them.

The Unchanging Sea comes out Aug. 24 via Cantaloupe Music.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.