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NAQOYQATSI: SOUNDTRACK

Review by Brad Green:
Electronic strings are the sonic equivalent of computer generated images of flowers. However convincing and beautiful the details of a digital rose, it will never smell as sweet as blossoms in the garden. However rich and engaging the overtones of a sampled cello, it will never resonate like an acoustic instrument under a master’s bow. Especially when that master is Yo-Yo Ma. 

On this warmly toned soundtrack, Ma’s cello is the cynosure of music that belies Philip Glass’s reputation for clinical dispassion. In a context of the inexorable march of technology, Glass might well have been tempted to launch relentless electronica at us. Instead, his score for this third instalment of Godfrey Reggio’s wordless Qatsi trilogy, counterpoints the digital age with the organic expressiveness of acoustic timbres and an instrumental virtuoso. 

“Qatsi” is the Hobi Indian word for life, and to be pedantic the three films of the series are not quite “wordless”. Each begins with a musical chant of the title. The first, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) translates as "life out of balance”; the second "Powaqqatsi" (1988) as "life in transition"; and this third instalment "Naqoyqatsi" as "war as a way of life".

For mine, Reggio would have been better to let the music and images speak for themselves. The bass-heavy “Naqoyqatsi” intonation here sounds like an overture to a B-grade, demonic possession horror flick, and the phrase creates a narrowing perspective. Qatsi (1, 2 and 3) alone and unsung would have been preferable. These collages of music and fast-cut images stimulate a contemplation of life beyond simple tags and labels. Certainly violence and technology are all around us, as is technology in the service of violence. It has always been so: since our hairy ancestors picked up a bone with which to hunt, a la the first sequences of A Space Odyssey: 2001.

I don’t know whether Reggio or his impressive list of executive producers (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and, now, Steven Soderbergh) perceive these films as profoundly philisophical. I hope not, because in that sense they fail. However, as stimuli for contemplating the journey of life, they triumph -- and not least due to the absence of narrative structure.

Playing like extended, sophisticated music videos (a phrase that sounds sadly like an oxymoron in the shadow of MTV) the scores are as integral to these films as dialogue to a conventional story. Here the Glass trademark of incessant quavers, and the mixing and matching of rigidly configured common-time and ternary rhythms, echoes both the pulse of life and restrains the weep of Ma’s Cello and the melancholy of Glass’s own arpeggios from straying into sentimentality.

While the subtlety of Ma’s performance is an obvious highlight, the score is no showcase for gratuitous technique. There are few remarkable cello flourishes, and only one cue is carried by that instrument (more or less) alone. Nor does Glass tackle the global theme with a leviathan orchestra. Rather, his tight ensemble arrangements rely for effect on subtle variations in intensity and harmonic colour. A few syncopated accents of deep brass, or the pretty music box tone of the cue Religion, being enough to sprinkle a sense of life’s dynamics across a musical metaphor of its universality. 

The result is mesmeric even when separated from Reggio’s visual montage. After a while the mind begins to wander down that bridge between the natural and artificial worlds. If humanity is born of nature are not all the designs of man nature too? Perhaps it ultimately depends on how much of our soul we put into our machines. A viewpoint inevitably evoked when one listens to the soul of Yo-Yo Ma expressed through a device that in its day was as much a product of technology as the synthesiser. The cello. 

Published September 4, 2003

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REVIEWS

TITLE: Naqoyqatsi
ID: SK 87709
Sony classical
SCORE: Philip Glass
CELLO: Yo-Yo Ma
ORCHESTRA: Members of the Philip Glass ensemble
CONDUCTOR: Michael Riesman







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