Bill Morrison and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns made its first appearance last year in Durham Cathedral, a setting that appears at the end of this film, which is constructed from archive footage of Durham miners’ lives from the 1900s through to the pit closures and strikes of the 1970s.
Perhaps because it was originally conceived as a live music and cinema performance, with Jóhannsson’s powerful score played along with the film by a brass ensemble, The Miners’ Hymns‘ impact lessens slightly when transported to the small screen with this DVD release. Not only do we lose Morrison’s haunting double-screen set-up, but also the warmth and presence of music performed live in a very significant (not to mention resonant) space. Excerpts from the performance are included here as an extra, and it’s easy to imagine the chills felt by the audience as the building they sit in appears in ghostly multiples on screen, making clear the film’s dual themes of loss and continuity while the music swells around the cathedral’s ancient walls.
However, the opportunity to pore more closely over the footage in The Miners’ Hymns, sourced by Morrison from BFI National Archive as well as local TV archives, is a welcome one, as is the chance to appreciate Morrison’s skill in transforming this documentary material into poetic, often mysterious, cinema. While showing us some of the miners’ daily graft in unsentimental detail, the director, whose 2002 film Decasia was an ode to the degenerative processes of old film, is also mesmerised by the formal qualities of his source material, lingering on the coal itself as it’s hacked from its seam and poured in obsidian-like fragments through the machinery that will take it to the surface. Elsewhere, in contrast to the dark underground footage, men pick up coal fragments on a pebbled beach and load them into a horse-drawn cart, in a slow, meditative sequence that feels especially timeless.
This sense of temporal oddness is deliberate: Morrison has trawled the archives for sequences that echo one another over the years, so the men and horses we see in one shot might be from the 1950s; in another, the 1920s. This device, particularly when we see children from two different generations playing on slag heaps, is very moving, but its strangeness stops it being overly romantic or nostalgic - rather, it’s slightly distancing. Perhaps Morrison’s literal distance from his subject matter - in that he’s from the US - adds to this effect; a similar quality seems to be present in the way Jóhannsson, who’s Icelandic, tackles his musical source material.
Music is at the core of The Miners’ Hymns, from the title - taken from the song ‘Gresford’, which commemorates a Welsh mining disaster in 1934 - to the choice of brass instrumentation, inextricably associated with colliery bands. Jóhannsson’s score is simple but cumulative in effect: short melodic sequences are repeated and built upon throughout the film, with a layer of electronic texture and concrete sound used sparingly alongside some of the more industrial, abstract footage. With each note slow and measured, we’re invited to focus on the timbre of the brass, noting its austere, mournful qualities and drawing parallels with the heavy machinery and raw power of the industry it laments. Occasionally the dynamics are a little extreme, with dramatic, emotional swells in volume at what feel like odd points in the film; again, you can imagine this aspect of the music being far more effective in a live setting.
Jóhannsson’s melodies are drawn from hymn tunes such as ‘Gresford’, and at times you sense those Victorian, Church of England-ish inflections in a certain cluster or notes or a particularly emotive cadence. But perhaps because he’s coming to them from relatively anew, the composer makes these familiar tunes fresh, interrogating the passion and faith at their core. I started the film feeling that the music was too ‘obvious’; yet by the climax, where miners process into Durham Cathedral for the yearly Miners’ Gala, it was hard not to be swept up in the solemnity and dignity of both sound and picture. Both Jóhannsson and Morrison treat the miners’ stories with great respect, teasing out the elements that resonate with them as artists with starkly moving results.