The Boston Phoenix
January 7 - 14, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Tone poet

Philip Glass returns to Koyaanisqatsi

by Tristram Lozaw

Philip Glass In the late 1970s, composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Ron Fricke set out to help Godfrey Reggio complete what was supposed to be his first and last film, Koyaanisqatsi. By contrasting images of natural beauty with those of urban decay, Reggio sought to show how modern society had become distanced from the former and overwhelmed by the spectacle of the latter.

With a little help from various benefactors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Koyaanisqatsi (the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance") was released in 1983. The 87-minute audio-visual tone poem -- call it music for the eyes and images for the ears -- has since become something of a modern classic. Reggio's time-lapse stream of images pulses, billows, and glides across the American landscape, from the breathtaking scenery of Monument Valley to abandoned tenements in the South Bronx.

Central to the film's success is Glass's score -- a gently shifting flow of music that underscores the on-screen images with Gregorian chant, softly floating melodies, and spare tonal figures sung and played on keyboards. Glass won several honors for his work on the film, including a Golden Globe for Best Score back when it was first released.

Now, a more comprehensive recorded score has surfaced, featuring a full 30 minutes of music that was absent from the original vinyl album. It's available on a digitally remastered Nonesuch CD. To mark its release, Glass and his ensemble have reconvened to perform the music live at screenings of Koyaanisqatsi, one of which will take place next Friday at Boston's Wang Center. Speaking from his home in New York City, the noted modern minimalist took time to reflect on his role in helping to mold the film's "extraordinary view of the ordinary."

Q: Are these recent concerts the first time you've performed Koyaanisqatsi live in more than a decade?

A: We've played bits of it in concert before, so it's not as if it hadn't been performed. We had been using it as a concert piece; now we've put it back together in its original form. We've got a new print of Koyaanisqatsi, and until recently the score hadn't been performed with the film.

Q: Have you revised the score?

A: Not at all. The piece kind of became a classic without our realizing it, and everybody knows it the way it is. It doesn't need to be rewritten. Because it's a marriage of the images and the music and it works so well the way it is, it never occurred to me to do any rewriting.

Q: You spent three years working on the score with director Godfrey Reggio.

A: We didn't mean to spend that much time on it, but it took three years to get the money to finish the film. You know, Godfrey and I would work on a few things, then he'd get more money and go out and shoot some more. He'd come back five months later and we'd work on a few more things. It gave us a long gestation period with a lot of time to think about it, to look at and reflect on it.

Q: How did you map your approach to scoring the film?

A: The structure we ended up with is not the actual structure with which we began. The order of the songs, of the parts, is somewhat different. We began with an assemblage of images, then I would write a part that was approximately in the time frame Godfrey was working with, and he would begin cutting the film to the music. Then when we got done, the whole structure of the piece was up for grabs. Many parts landed in completely different positions.

For example, the part we call "Cloudscape" -- at one point it was just a collection of images of clouds and water, an assemblage that didn't have any structure yet. Then I'd start to write [music for it] and ask, how long should we make it? And we'd say, well, let's try 12 minutes. So, I'd write a 12-minute piece, and then Godfrey would try to cut the images to the music. Then we'd discover, maybe, that 12 minutes was too long. So I'd rewrite the music to whatever length we had decided. Then he'd recut the film.

Q: So Koyaanisqatsi was much more of a collaboration between filmmaker and composer than most film scores. Have you enjoyed a similar synergy with other directors?

A: Most scores are not collaborations at all. With Paul Schrader [Mishima] and Martin Scorsese [Kundun], I did have a lot of access to them. And I was able to work with their editors in the process. But mainly, scores are contributions made after a film is completed. The moment of collaboration has passed long before you ever meet the filmmaker. With Godfrey we worked through the process together.

Q: Did Mr. Reggio build on the idea of what Koyaanisqatsi would be, what it would say, as filming progressed?

A: No, no. Godfrey came in with a very strong, almost political, social, and ideological construction. He had a film language he wanted to work with. He had a concept of the piece. And he even had a whole ideological background that he could supply me with -- books, articles, lectures. He's sort of a full-service intellectual. And it was different for each of the films I did with him -- Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Anima Mundi. So we had an opportunity to wed the parts of the film together very organically. In a sense you could say the text . . . although the text never appears . . . the text, the image, and the music become very organically intertwined.

Q: Were you ever given too much information to work with?

A: Well, that happened, and I would just stop listening. Basically, I tuned out. That happens naturally.

Q: The pixilated visual sequences in Koyaanisqatsi fit your quick, circular keyboard motifs like a glove. Were there sequences that were more difficult to work on?

A: I was watching as he shot it, so I was never surprised by the images. We never got stuck, we always seemed to know what to do next. It was a very lucky or happy coincidence of aesthetic and image and music that made it work. I remember when Godfrey first showed me the opening sequences, the long images of the desert in the Southwest. The music I wrote for it was very slow and very extended, even though there was nothing like that in anything I'd written before. But I just looked at the pictures and said, this is it, I heard it right away. So I think that it was a collaboration that was meant to happen, we didn't have any problems of that kind at all.

Q: That's fairly rare . . .

A: It's very rare. And the same damn thing happened again with Powaqqatsi and Anima Mundi. We seem to have a real way of combining images and music together that's been very magical. I think we've been extremely lucky.

Q: Surely there have been differences of opinion.

A: There's one sequence that Godfrey took of façades of building on Wall Street that he cut from the film. I thought he should have left it in. The music for that sequence, "Façades," became a very popular piece for me.

Q: Both your music and the film make a double-edged demand, asking us to relax and drift as well as focus intensely.

A: That's the best possible mental condition you can be in. If you're too attentive, you get obsessed and distracted. If you get too relaxed, you fall asleep. You have to balance the two. It's like having two wires that have to be exactly the same length in order to work. Being relaxed and alert is the optimum psychological state.

Q: A few early reviews of the Koyaanisqatsi score complained about its "numbing repetition," said that it was a broken record.

A: [Chuckles.] Well, where are those critics now? It has a bigger audience than anyone anticipated. But to be truthful, not everybody is going to like this kind of thing.

Q: Your style of slowly evolving, minimalist repetition was a seminal influence on electronic trance and trip-hop music. But you wrote pieces like Koyaanisqatsi to be performed live by musicians whose technique could handle the taxing score. Today, similar lines are digitally sampled and looped with the push of few buttons. Is that cheating, or is it the use of a worthwhile tool?

A: No, I don't think anything is cheating -- any way you can make it work. I think all of it's interesting. I don't judge people any way negatively because of that.

Q: You worked on two albums with Polyrock in the early '80s. Your North Star had a rock edge. You collaborated with David Bowie and Brian Eno on symphonic versions of Bowie's Low and Heroes. But have you tired of pop? Do you have any use for rock or pop music these days?

A: Oh yes, I do. I'm interested in a lot of things. For instance, I've worked with Aphex Twin. And we give a concert every year at Carnegie Hall [this year it's February 22] for Tibet House in New York. This year we'll have Patti Smith and Michael Stipe and Shawn Colvin. I've already rehearsed a piece with Michael, and Patti and I will probably do something together. I try to do something new every year.

Q: Are there plans to work up Lodger, the third part of the Bowie trilogy?

A: Yes, David told me a year ago that he was taking a year off and that he wanted to work on it when he came back. And that's coming up.

Q: Your recent work includes the score for Kundun, which got an Oscar nomination, pieces based on Jean Cocteau films, and the 3-D digital opera Monsters of Grace. And you've returned to Koyaanisqatsi, which is a psychedelic raver's dream. You turned 61 in December, but your recent work is some of your most accomplished, adventurous and, one might say, youngest.

A: That's a funny concept. I was talking to Paul Simon about the three major centers of a human being -- the physical, intellectual, and emotional senses -- and how all of them are coordinated in music. We were saying that the practice of music -- the writing and playing of music -- means bringing into alignment those three parts of your being in the most harmonious way that you can. And we were convinced that if there's a fountain of youth, it's somewhere in that neighborhood.

Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble will accompany a screening of Koyaanisqatsi next Friday, January 15, at 8 p.m. at the Wang Center. Tickets are $21, $26, and $38. Call (800) 447-7400.

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