The single most elucidating moment of my very expensive liberal arts education was the time my sociology professor popped a VHS in the VCR. He didn’t do a word of teaching that day; whether he was hungover, hadn’t prepared a lesson that day, or just wanted to watch us trip out, the film he played blew my mind. It was Koyaanisqatsi.
Some 36 years after its release, Philip Glass, who created the film’s soundtrack in collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio, is playing the score alongside the film, tonight in Boston, Sunday in Amherst, Monday in Vermont, and eventually in Paris, where the entire qatsi trilogy will be played live.
Though Glass is touring with this decades-old film, he isn’t resting on his laurels. Last night, during a conversation at WBUR CitySpace in Boston, he and Reggio, whose last collaboration was 2014’s The Visitors, announced that they’re working on a new project.
“I can say that we’re involved in a movie,” Glass told the crowd of nearly 300 people.
“Well, an opera,” Reggio corrected. “An opera which would be made into a movie…”
“It could be an opera,” Glass allowed. “We even wanted a friend of ours [Glass’s Einstein on the Beach collaborator Robert Wilson] to work with us on it. And he likes the idea of the opera, but I actually like the idea of the film. But it doesn’t really– actually, we’ll end up doing both, I think.”
Without going into further detail, Glass said Reggio has already given him “two or three generations of ideas”; the problem, as usual, is raising money. It took several years to raise funds for each qatsi installment, Glass noted; as popular as they are, they’re unlike any other films.
And there lies the conundrum. Koyaanisqatsi isn’t for everyone. The film is almost completely wordless, except for an incantation of the title, a Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Not everyone can get behind the slow-motion and time-lapse imagery of placid landscape scenes giving way to urban, technological frenzy, paired with the alternately ominous and breakneck music of the Philip Glass Ensemble. There’s a reason Glass’s music got skewered on South Park. (“What the hell is this?” blurts Ms. Broflovski.)
If reactions to the film are varied (though, to be fair, it retains a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes), Reggio attributes it to the need for active participation and interpretation from each audience member. “The film is autodidactic, which means the person sitting next to you could either be asleep, bored to death, or having a big experience.”
“I always sit in the back of the theater when the film is playing,” he went on to say. “And you can tell when the audience is in: if they look like they’re all dead, if they don’t move. If everyone’s moving around, I can tell they’re ready to hit the road.”
The key, of course, is to appreciate the oft-hairaising interplay between music and imagery. Unlike with most movies, Reggio said, music here is the “emotive narration of the film,” and is “one with the film” rather than an occasional embellishment. At the same time, it doesn’t merely mimic the imagery. “When the music was too close to the picture,” Glass recalled, “We said, ‘We’re putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.'”
“There are only about six or eight moments when you have an exact synchronization,” Glass noted as he described the experience of playing the score live. “The rest of it, the images and the music are flowing together; they’re like two rivers that are flowing next to each other.”
One of the most memorable instances of interplay between sound and vision is “The Grid,” a segment where, at first, what sounds like a minimalist take on Gershwin is paired with luminous images of midtown skyscrapers at night; as the full moon disappears behind a building, the music ratchets up in accompaniment to time-lapse photography of an infinite streak of cars zipping across the urban grid.
Reggio explained the inspiration behind the sequence; “The idea– if there’s such a thing– is that we’re on speed in rush hour, out-running the future.”
The phrase “if there is such a thing” betrays Reggio’s reluctance to spell out the film’s message. “Try asking him what the movie means,” Glass said. “He won’t tell you. He’ll talk a lot, but he won’t tell you what it means. You’re supposed to figure that out yourself.”
Still, Reggio did offer some clues when he discussed the “deliberate delineation” of the qatsi trilogy. “The first film is about the hyper-industrial northern system of living… We were looking at the hyper-industrial, technological grid. The second film [Powaqqatsi] deliberately was, of course, about people; people who live a handmade life, whose virtues are being predated upon by our thirst for technological happiness. So: the price we pay for the pursuit of our happiness is the destruction, from this point of view, of the southern world, because that’s where all the goodies are. And the third film [Nagoyqatsi] was not about the North or the South but about the homogenization of the planet into the globalized world.”
Interestingly enough, an early version of Koyaanisqatsi had to be scrapped. “The first version had to be completely thrown away,” Reggio recalled. “It wasn’t working. His music was working, but we couldn’t get the image.”
Once the visuals fell into place, there were some snafus with the audio. Originally, Reggio said, the iconic “koyaanisqatsi” chanting that begins the film was recorded by a choral group, The Western Winds, in a more alto register. “That sent me through the roof,” recalled Reggio, who wanted something more along the lines of the basso profundo he employed during his time as a monk. Enter Albert de Ruiter, who had “the lowest voice on two planets.”
The original mix, by the film’s music director Michael Honig, also had to be scrapped after Glass’s conductor Michael Reisman and producer Kurt Munkacsi heard it. As Reggio remembers it, “They went ballistic because they said, ‘You got all the notes right, but in the wrong language. Philip’s music is not orchestral in that way. It’s just the opposite of what the business does, trying to give you something synthetic that sounds orchestral. He gives you something orchestral that has a huge sound to it.’ They were so pissed off about everything that we could’ve lost the film then, because of how upset the crew was.”
Luckily, disaster was averted. “Kurt Munkacsi mixed it in half the time and it’s the score you hear today.”