Urban Cinefile
"David Puttnam asked me to write this and gave me $5000 to do so, and I was frightened by it. I delayed and delayed for about a year, and Puttnam got pissed off and went away, and then I wrote it"  -Bob Ellis, on the birth of his script, The Nostradamus Kid
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Composer Philip Glass and filmmaker Godfrey Reggio are collaborators in creating wordless movies (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Anima Mundi) that haunt you forever; now, the Glass Ensemble is accompanying Koyaanisqatsi live on stage in Australia. ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

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!"

Published 14/10/1999

Email this article


Koyaanisqatsi - with the Philip Glass Ensemble,

Sydney Opera House, Wednesday January 12 to Sunday January 16, 2000, at 8.00pm. Bookings: 9250 7777

Fremantle Arts Centre, Thursday January 20 to Saturday January 22, 2000, at 8.30pm


Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020