Tuesday 24 August 2010


For Part One click here.

...and indeed the next night Philip Glass did return, this time to perform live his score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 “non-narrative, non-linear audio-visual tone poem” film ’Koyaanisqatsi’.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this time around the night was a sell-out, for this shortly became the equivalent of a ‘hit’ in Glass’ circles.

It’s the popular face of minimalism precisely because it isn’t really minimalist at all. From the off, a deep baritone voice appears and indicates that things are now going to be different. If ’Music in 12 Parts’ had an accompanying film it would home in, magnify to a microcosmic view, perhaps show cells dividing and multiplying. ’Koyaanisqatsi’,  significantly, starts with a commanding view over a landscape. It owes just as much to the conventions of symphonic movements, containing not just dynamics but even bombast and swoop. The music is divided into sections where themes even develop - all anathema to any pure-of-heart minimalist!

I must confess I used to hold a beef about all that. I once considered Glass the Neil Gaiman of minimalism, parading its unique features whilst simultaneously watering them down for public consumption. Nowadays, even if I still prefer Reich or Bryars, I prefer to appreciate what I’m getting rather than worry about it not being something else. And sometimes the hit is simply the thing everyone likes because it works so well.

Glass sums this up himself by describing the piece as ‘post-minimalist’. An eternally minimalist Glass would have laboured forever under Reich’s shadow. As things stand, he decided to go beyond minimalism – and created something characterful in its own right. Famously the film’s title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance.” Yet the work itself is very in balance!

It’s interesting to note the parallel move away from pure minimalism and into film scores, soon followed by plays and operas. (Though from his early days, Glass was inspired by film and visual art as much as by music. There’s an anecdote of him visiting Paris but taking more to Godard’s movies than Boulez’s music.) So perhaps the extent of the collaborative nature of the production is unsurprising, with the film not put to the music or vice versa, but emerging through cross-fertilisation between the two creators. With film soundtracks, or even pop videos, you always feel one element is dominant. The music is being put to the visuals or (more rarely) the other way around. Not here.

Instead we’re shown a different perspective in quite a literal sense. The film shows things from every perspective apart from the ones we’re used to, great distances or extreme close ups, fast or slow motion. One shot, lasting more than three minutes, shows nothing but planes taxi-ing on a runway. (It’s an interesting effect that we don’t separate these different perspectives much in our minds, but accept them for what they're not - our normal perspective on the world.)

Reggio has said “"it is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means." But this is a rather disingenuous description of a work clearly quite polemical in intent. A less-cited translation of the title word, though one the film itself spells out, is “a state of life which calls for another way of being.”

Early sections show life on Earth pre-existing us. We’re then shown technology before we are any people, as if we have become in some way ancillary to it. The first human figure we see is dwarfed by a giant mining truck. The later city scenes show us crowds as if we are rats in a maze of our own making. One scene shows revolving doors, seen from above and placed at the top of the screen, disgorging human figures like the production lines we’ve witnessed earlier. The film has a semi-pallendromic structure, finishing where it begins, as if advocating a return to nature.

There’s perhaps two key images. In one, a voluminous full moon falls behind a skyscraper. In another, as one of the semi-pallendromic scenes, a space rocket takes off – but burns up, and falls back to earth. We attempt to ignore the nature we live off, but do so at our peril.  In fact I have sometimes wondered if it’s only the absence of words which stops the film tipping into hippy techno-fear.

However, an interesting aspect of the work is the way technology is presented not as evil or destructive so much as bewitching. This is especially noticeable with Glass’ score, which does not reflect the usual militaristic clich├ęs of ‘environmental destruction’ or the sugary laments of ‘urban decay’ - but is as compelling for the nature scenes as the cityscapes. Perhaps a more generous reading could be made; where what’s being argued is that our relationship with technology cannot be one of simple utility, that the technology we create must reflect us and be emblematic of our relations with the world we live in.

You can see the whole film on Google Video (below), avoiding the stop-start irritation of YouTube clips. Though of course a fullsize cinema screen with a live ensemble is  not just the optimal but the intended way to see this. I’ll leave the choice to you...

Coming Soon! Something...honest injun!.. a little more recent.

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