It is not usual for a composer to spend three years creating the score to a movie,
especially when the movie is under 90 minutes and has no dialogue. Nor is it usual for the
composer and filmmaker to collaborate as closely as did composer Philip Glass and
filmmaker Godfrey Reggio in the case of Koyaanisqatsi. Nor is it usual these days for the
composer to conduct his own music ensemble in live concert style, accompanying the film
with the score; and certainly not 16 years after the film's first release.
"a 'tone poem' "
But then Koyaanisqatsi is not a usual film. It has been called a 'tone poem' among
other things, but that doesn't really do it for many people, although it does pay tribute
to Glass' reputation as a minimalist. Well, musically speaking.
Koyaanisqatsi is a film that defies description with its wordless statements and
sensory complexity which hungers for simplicity. (Told you it defies description . . .)
Reggio's work, finished in 1983, takes us around the world from Reggio's point of view
behind a probing, relentless, opinionated but silent camera, revealing that our mad
existence on this earth is 'life out of balance' (or koyaanisqatsi, as the Hopi Indians
put it). It uses time lapse photography and 'policy-driven' editing to speak with the
power of thousand words for every searing picture.
It needed music that became one with the images, and Reggio went to Glass. "We
didn't mean to spend that much time on it," Glass told the Boston Phoenix, "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."
"Aesthetic and image and music"
Not only was this process unique, it also created a level of collaboration that
infected the creative processes of both men. "I was watching as he shot it so I was
never surprised by the images," Glass says. "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 it was a collaboration that was meant to happen. . . It's very rare. We
seem to have a real way of combining images and music that's been very magical. I think
we've been extremely lucky."
And now on the screen and stage - LIVE! The Australian performances (in Sydney and
Perth) come a year after the first such performances left New Yorkers on a high that
expressed itself in "an unhibited cheering that was almost frightening in its
intensity" reported The New York Times.
"We've played bits of it in concert before," says Glass, "but now we've
put it together in its original form. We've got a new print of Koyaanisqatsi and the score
hasn't been performed with the film until recently."
Pieced together as it was over three years, the film and the score were driven by
Reggio's "very strong, almost political, social and ideological construction,"
according to Glass. But the structure was not what was intended. "The order 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."
"the optimum psychological state"
The film and the music gel as you watch, demanding that we relax and focus all at once.
"That's the best possible mental condition you can be in," remarks Glass.
"Being relaxed and alert is the optimum psychological state."
And while we're at psychological states, what about music as the ultimate intravenous
drug? "Well, I was talking to Paul Simon about the three major centres 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 it there's a fountain of youth,
it's somewhere in that neighbourhood!"