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The Sky Above, The Earth From Above the Sky

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/02/2011 -  
Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

The Collegiate Chorale, James Bagwell (Director), Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Riesman (Conductor)
Godfrey Reggio (Film Director/Producer), Ron Fricke (Photographer), Alton Walpole, Ron Fricke (Editors), Kurt Munkasei (Sound Design)

From Koyaanisqatsi
(© Institute for Regional Education, 2000. All rights reserved)

It is hardly a surprise to learn that New Orleans-born Godfrey Reggio was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest before turning to film-making. Or that seven years was spent in the making of Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance). Every shot of the 86-minute film breathes both divinity and visual finesse.

Yes, some walked out of the movie in Lincoln Center last night. But they would have walked out on Bergman, Griffiths and probably Altman as well. For Koyaanisqatsi is all too pure. And I don’t mean that as a judgment. It is a pure film, with no dialogue, no story. The visuals–literally thousands of them from across America–concentrating on the pure geological wonders of the Southwest to factory industries to the crazy roads in Los Angeles and New York–are not exactly literal, but their effects–rapidlycrazilyquick or v-e-r-y–s-l-o-w–are not meant as special effects, but to offer an artist’s interpretation of everyday human events.

Yet one must ask what Koyaanisqatsi would mean without the music by Philip Glass. One could see the movie (though watching it on anything besides a large screen would be inane). So last night, the New York Philharmonic, conducted by the man who conducted the original film music, Michael Reisman, gave us both music and film in a somewhat grandiose setting.

M. Riesman (© Eli Reed/Magnum)

Many conductors dread leading orchestras in Philip Glass music. Not that they don’t appreciate the compositional value. But so carefully intertwined are the lines, so subtle the repetitions, that it is hardly an edifying experience. Add to this that Koyaanisqatsi, with its rapidly moving images, must be exactly synchronized, with chorus, orchestra and the Philip Glass Ensemble (a kind of concerto grosso with vocals, some sung in Hopi language) as intricate as the music.

But Riesman, a composer himself, and longtime collaborator with Mr. Glass, was the right man to conduct. And the Philharmonic, in those rare times when playing as full ensemble, was the right group to balance out Glass and his eight players, on keyboards, winds and percussion.

The collaboration conductor, composer and musicians–some of whom go back almost 40 years–is a sterling one. Nobody could doubt that. But what of the music itself?

I confess that was my first time to see the film and hear the music. They were both stunning in parts, though the obvious thesis–let’s get away from urban madness and see what nature can give us–is after almost three decades, somewhat mundane.

From Koyaanisqatsi
(© Institute for Regional Education, 2000. All rights reserved)

Not that I wouldn’t see the film over again. Some of it coul be derived. From Flaherty’s The River, from Antonioni’s Red Desert (the explosions), but that would be coincidental, for the pictures are all extravagantly good. And the aerial shots are still so overwhelming that they have yet to be duplicated today.

Mr. Glass begins with music which literally replicates his beloved deep-bass Tibetan-Bhutanese trumpets, followed by a choral intonation of Koyaanisqatsi, the name of the film. As a collaboration, I would gather he and director Reggio must have worked hard indeed on the editing. Glass increases speed when Reggio increases speed. Glass slows down to his usual arpeggios when Reggio shows rock formations in the desert.

Clouds are illustrated with brass, factory work with Modern Times-style chattering music. And in the final shots–the only long sequence in the entire film–Mr Glass has the Collegiate Chorale again intoning, with even more urgency, the Hopi thoughts about the end of the world, the world out of balance.

That scene shows, in all its agonizing slow motion tragedy, the explosion of a rocket, slowly, slowly drifting down, curling up like an ash as the fire envelops it.

The movie, and the music are spectacular, still. Not as cult or icon movie but as a certain kind of reality. Yet I wanted to know, needed to know the inspiration where Mr.Reggio precluded the use of any language at all.

With his jesuitic training, his sense of philosophy, he must have studied Wittgenstein, for his own rationale echoes the Swiss age of several decades ago.

"It's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”

Harry Rolnick



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