In June of 1978, hundreds of ancient film reels were discovered in a construction site in the remote Canadian town of Dawson City. Over 500 film reels were eventually restored, the only surviving copies of these films. I first heard of the Dawson City Film Find as an art student in the late 1980s. It seemed to be a fitting addendum to the more famous local history — the story of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898, when the town of Dawson City went from being a seasonal First Nation fishing camp to a city of 40,000 gold-crazed stampeders within a matter of months. The Dawson City that the Gold Rush stampeders imagined they were going to find was quite different from the one they finally arrived at in 1898.
That town, without a history or organic growing period of its own, was in some ways a re-imagining of other frontier towns, with their traditions of glamour and excess. Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush became the subject of some of the first news films ever shot, feeding a curious public through the new medium of cinema. What actually went on there and what was reported and repeated was constantly embellished and caricaturized so that the town at times resembled a stage show of larger than life characters, real and imagined. The characters who actually passed through Dawson City are like something out of a Hollywood Frontier theme park: Chief Isaac, Jack London, Fred Trump, Sid Grauman, Tex Rickard, Klondike Kate, Alexander Pantages, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Fatty Arbuckle, Daniel and Solomon Guggenheim, Robert Service, William Desmond Taylor. By the 1920s, stories and images of Dawson City had inspired major Hollywood movies, most notably The Gold Rush which was Charlie Chaplin’s first feature released by United Artists, and had its world premiere in this very building on July 18, 1925. Dawson always was a place situated between dreams and memories. There always has been a blurry distinction between the two, and that has also always been the domain of cinema. I tried to make a film that behaved the same way.
I was looking for a quietly epic soundtrack to help me tell this far-reaching story of silent film buried in the Northern tundra. I was led to Alex Somers from his work with the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. I showed Alex some of the films and within a few weeks he produced 25 minutes of music that became the inspiration for my first rough cut of the film. Over the course of many subsequent edits, Alex composed and produced the astounding score from his studio in Reykjavik. He brought in his brother John Somers to create the remarkable sound design, and later the composer Ricardo Romaniero to arrange and orchestrate the score so that it could be performed live. I am thrilled that Chris Rountree could be here to conduct Wild Up and Tonality tonight. And I am grateful to Kristy Edmunds and her devoted staff at CAP UCLA for letting us unearth this treasure at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel – the former United Artists theater.
— Bill Morrison
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a special film to me. A gesture of patience and surrealism in how it bends time through the ages and folds memory in on itself. Analog film is the medium: lost, then found… Music and sound design color the memories and the stories on screen collaged together to form an entirely new story. I first started making this music in the spring of 2014 and worked on it on and off for two years. When I first met Bill Morrison and he told me about the film he was making, a film made only from very old films accidentally discovered frozen in the ground in northern Canada, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. This was basically my dream project… To bring life to something so ripe with metaphor and so inherently flawed was really creatively exciting for me. So much of the music I make is about imperfection. Finding imperfection and letting it bleed out and turning that imperfection into something far more controlled and owned. It was a dream collaboration and I’m so happy to be able to perform this music for you all tonight here, together with the lovely ensemble Wild Up. Thanks for coming tonight! And thank you for listening…
— Alex Somers