Philip Glass Bridging The Divide Between Film Music And Art

London Review – To begin: yes, I know Philip Glass is a composer.  So why include a review on ArtLyst?  Because for one night the Barbican Centre celebrated Glass’s prolific career by featuring a live performance with a screening of the 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi.”  Bridging the divide between film, music, and visual art, the film questions humankind’s interaction with the natural world – for better or for worse.

The combined efforts of the Britten Sinfonia, Philip Glass Ensemble, and Trinity Laban Chamber Choir created a treat both visual and aural to a full house.  The film is directed by Godfrey Reggio with cinematography by Ron Fricke and the famous score by Glass.  The first of a trio of films (the others being Powaqqatsi of 1988 and Naqoyqatsi of 2002), Koyaanisqatsi has become a cult favourite since its premier on 4 October 1982.  Without dialogue or straightforward plot, the film is not easily digestible, but the message is clear and executed beautifully.

The film begins with scenes from the natural world, exploring the tremendous and varied landscapes of the United States.  Throughout the course of the film the impact of man becomes more readily apparent – massive constructions, highways, air and space travel – and it becomes the responsibility of the viewer to contemplate the effects of man on the environment.

The magic of Koyaanisqatsi derives from the continuous ebb and flow.  Constantly alternating between order and chaos, slow motion and time lapse, simplicity and complexity, both the cinematography and the musical score keep viewers on their toes never knowing what to expect.  From slow panoramas of the Grand Canyon to the reflection of rapidly passing clouds on skyscrapers, there is no graspable sense of time or space.  The fluctuation between order and chaos is one of the most poignant visual techniques of the film: throngs of commuters emerge in neat queues on escalators, patterns of traffic become apparent on busy highways, and rigid modernist housing blocks become clouds of rubble.  Man both creates and destroys as part of the rhythm of life.  Grids of traffic alternate north-south and east-west, built structures form a patchwork, patterns of light become vividly abstract in the time lapse footage, and the factory production of hot dogs and twinkies are paralleled with the bustle of streets.

As stunning as the film is visually, it cannot easily be separated from Glass’s score.  Glass, typically though arguably classified as a minimalist composer, embraces the rhythm of the visual with a simultaneously repetitive and varied score.  A full orchestra performs the score, though the biggest impact comes from the use of keyboards and vocals.  The juxtaposition of robust cellos with electronic keyboards mirrors the film’s mix of the natural and man-made.  The haunting bass soloist chants the word “koyaanisqatsi” repeatedly throughout the composition calling attention to the title and theme of “life out of balance.”

The title utilizes a word from the language of the Hopi tribe to describe a sentiment that is not easily expressed in the English language.  The end of the film provides several definitions of the word from “unbalanced life” or more sinister interpretations such as “life in turmoil” or “a state of life that calls for another way of living.”  The use of Native American vocabulary further highlights the transformation of the United States from pre- to post- colonization and modern times.  Though many of the outfits worn are laughably old-fashioned, the themes of the film are just as relevant thirty years on.

Hypnotized viewers watch a single flaming piece of debris from a space shuttle fall to the earth.  The end of the film leaves viewers with translations of Hopi prophecies sung in the score: “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster,” “Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky,” and “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”  Each of these prophecies calls to mind visual vignettes from the film and is highlighted by Glass’s haunting and ominous composition.

Koyaanisqatsi can best be described as awesome, not in the California surfer dude sense, but in the most literal – it inspires awe.  The beauty of the planet, the tremendous powers of man, and the status of our existence are all called into question.  I feel honoured to have experienced the film with live score and Glass in attendance.  Though not visual art in the strictest definition, the visual impact of the Koyaanisqatsi and Philip Glass’s score is tremendous and poignant.

Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012