Godfrey Reggio’s crew urged him against using Philip Glass to provide the music for what would become Koyaaniqatsi. “They said, ‘He’s the master of the broken needle,’” the director recounts. “‘Why would you choose someone like this when you could choose Beethoven or Mozart? Vivaldi? And have the great music of the world?’”
Reggio’s response was that, as beautiful as that music is, none of it was written for the elaborate visual poem he was plotting. Having discovered Glass’ music via a piece – North Star – included in a documentary on the sculptor Mark di Suvero, he narrowed his composer options to a list of two: Philip Glass or Terry Riley.
On one level it’s strange that, out of the two, he ended up with Glass. Glass was opposed to the notion of providing music for cinema (somewhat ironic given his later career, where he would score dozens of Hollywood products – the current count is around 50 – from Candyman to The Truman Show), whereas Riley had already composed several soundtracks.
Despite Glass and Riley forming two points of the quintessential minimalist triangle – with Steve Reich – and to many casual observers not hugely different in style or substance, it’s hard to picture Koyaaniqatsi with Riley’s music in the place of Glass’ trademark arpeggio computations.
Try playing the film with the audio muted and a contemporaneous recording of Riley’s – Shri Camel, for instance – playing. Although the beautiful images by Reggio and stellar cinematographer Ron Fricke do not lose any grace in the translation, something doesn’t sit right beyond the obvious issue of the music not being composed specifically for those images.
Sure, those delicate, repeating figures aren’t massively dissimilar to Glass’ one-hand keyboard motifs in content (in the same way that, for instance, there isn’t a massive difference between the sounds of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith), but the numbing, blissed-out meditative aspect is totally at odds with Reggio’s vision. Riley’s music seems deliberately thought-emptying – musical mantras to assist decluttering your consciousness, an aid for achieving maximum transcendentalism.
Koyaaniqatsi is not meditative. If anything, Reggio’s film is angry. It is a piece of work that, though presenting the world operatically, is essentially rooted to the grit and grime of the everyday rather than simply providing an escape from it.
Reggio himself says he elected Glass because Riley’s music was “quintessentially spiritual” wheres Glass’ music “was more structured, and had more form, and that that would be very important to the film.”
This is important because Glass’ involvement went far deeper than the usual composer-for-hire role that he would later adopt in his Hollywood work. In truth, Koyaaniqatsi – and its sequels, Powaaniqatsi and Naqoyaaqatsi – are the product of an ongoing 30+ year conversation between Reggio, Glass and Fricke, their statuses as director, composer and cinematographer blurred to say the least.
It’s fair to say then, that as co-author of the trilogy, if Glass was replaced by Riley – or any other musician – the films would not only sound different, they would quite likely look different form they do now, move at entirely different speeds and to different rhythms, even be thematically different.
Rather than taking existing footage and interpreting its themes sonically, the collaborations of Glass and Reggio begin with literal conversations that at some point shift into creative conversations, with words replaced by sounds and images.
“He talks and I listen – that’s the conversation,” Glass told Sam Adams of The Dissolve. “Now, he needs a listener—he doesn’t do well talking at a wall – and I often have been the listener, and it has kept me alert and aware to the nuances of his thinking. But he went into ideas about society and technology and nature, which I wasn’t particularly connected to. But he was very actively seeking out writers and people who would help him with his thoughts. I empathized with that. I was not a leader in his thinking, but I benefited from it and participated in it, with full awareness and knowledge of what he was doing.”
Glass says that Reggio provided a strong political, social and ideological foundation for the qatsi trilogy, that came with its own fully-formed visual language and was supplemented with books, articles and lectures to illustrate its ideology.
The film language Reggio communicated to his collaborator was a visual depiction of “life out of balance” – the translation of the Hopi term Koyaaniqatsi. This involved what the director called “different modes of viewing,” expressed through accelerations and decelerations of extreme time-lapse sequences and “greatly accelerated real-time movements.”
Although the film came with its own pre-formed visual language, however, it did not have a defined structure. Glass has conceded that Koyaaniqatsi, as an assemblage of images, “doesn’t have a clear-cut beginning, middle or end,” and that you could rearrange its elements in various ways.
After swapping various elements about, almost randomly, the pair realized that “some kind of order” was required. Interestingly it wasn’t so much Reggio as a filmmaker who provided this order, but Glass’ experience in ballet and opera, “where dramaturgical concerns underlie the structure of the work. So when we applied that concern to a non-verbal film, what we were looking for was some kind of dramatic shaping of the kind one would find in an opera or ballet.”
Taking the various ‘movements’ of the film devised by Reggio, Glass – before writing any music – scripted the film into a visual opera, drastically reconfiguring the structure of the film with the director.
Beginning quietly, the film endures a series of crescendos – dramatic sequences that provide crucial gear changes in the energy and momentum of the film – before concluding with a long, quiet epilogue.
Each segment of the film was worked on in collaboration by Reggio, Glass and Fricke on a scene by scene basis.
“We did it reel by reel,” Glass explained. “Godfrey would show me an assemblage of images; the editor hadn’t really cut it, but I knew what the subject would be. For example, it might be a whole section of clouds; I didn’t know exactly how it would be cut, but I knew the subject was clouds and it would be seven or eight minutes long.
“Sometimes I was able to go far ahead of the process; I knew Godfrey would be shooting the opening images at the Serra Pelada mine in northern Brazil, and I wrote 10 minutes of music to fit Serra Pelada; then we recorded a demo of that, and then went to Serra Pelada, and the cinematographer was listening to the music when he was filming. I began to understand that the synchronization of music and film can happen in many different ways, not necessarily the way that we normally do it.”
Editing provided another chance for Glass to be influential on the process. Not only did his score often determine the editing choices – timing, sequence of shots, pacing – but his experience in opera and ballet was again crucial in providing creative solutions.
“Well, this kind of process is actually my specialty,” he said. “This is what I am best at, probably because I’ve been working in the theatre for so many years, and also working with visual artists. I’ve learned to develop musical-visual interactions whether the context is balletic or operatic. I’ve even written music for sculpture. So this is one of the situations I’m very experienced with.”
Of particular influence to Glass, in his unspoken role as co-author of the Koyaanisqatsi text, were Julian Beck’s Living Theatre and working on theatre projects with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. He has talked of their dance/music projects having meaning only where it is “inferred” by the viewer, rather than having implicit content of its own.
“Early on in my work in the theater,” he told Charles Merrell Berg, “I was encouraged to leave what I call a “space” between the image and the music. In fact, it is precisely that space which is required so that members of the audience have the necessary perspective or distance to create their own individual meanings. If you didn’t have that space there, if the music were too close and therefore immediately on top of the image, there wouldn’t be anywhere for the viewer to place himself. In that case, it’s like what you end up with commercials. That’s why television commercials end up looking more like propaganda than art.”
What Glass calls the “placement” of music, he is fetishistic about. In the combination of music and visuals he thinks about their arrangement spatially. For Glass, music can either be “under the image,” “on top of the image,” or “next to the image.”
This dimensional view of sound and picture cues for Glass what information it is that his brain his processing. It’s essentially an expanded view of what some composers and directors might call “going with the image” or “going against the image.”
In Glass’ methodology, the music can sometimes be the subtext of what is on screen. By his definition, here he is talking about musical analogy being “on top of the image.”
A favorite example of this can be four in the “large, slow-moving clusters of brass” that Glass uses to represent the clouds in the central “cloudscape” scene of Koyaaniqatsi.
While the notion of providing an aural counterpart or counterpoint to cinematography is not radical, perhaps where Glass confounds is in the individuality of his sonic decodings of image.
“One artist will say, ‘clouds sound like brass to me,’” he offers. “Another artist will say, ‘they sound like strings to me.’ But, still, that’s an important issue to consider because it involves the ways in which we, as individuals, personalize these things. It’s not really important that clouds sound like brass to me, but rather that I make the use of the brass a convincing artistic decision. That’s what’s important.”
Perhaps paradoxically, although Glass hints that he selected brass to insinuate the gravity of clouds (“In a way, I regarded the clouds like I regarded the music, as a huge mass of forms which actually have no physical substance. And yet at times, the clouds as well as the music, did have a sense of artistic weight, and… gravity”), he verbalized the film’s near-menacing sequence of a Boeing 747 take-off with voices, because he thought of the plane as being lighter than air and wanted to emphasize that with music that had a quality of “lightness.”
He describes it as a “poetic metaphor,” but is it really just inverted literalism that he elects “heavy” sounds for clouds – which are light, and float – and “light,” floating sounds for jumbo jets – which are heavy, and can only fly with the aid of jet propulsion?
As Glass himself suggests, it doesn’t really matter. It only matters that his use of sound is convincing. But it is only through precise sequencing of these convincing moments – which in isolation are beautiful, but ambiguous – that some sort of reading of the text is possible. The real quandary with Koyaanisqatsi is that, throughout, narrative – meaning – is something that Reggio and Glass appear to simultaneously lust after and find distasteful.
Generally regarded as being an environmentalist critique of modern society, the deliberate vagueness of its message has seen Koyaanisqatsi lambasted by some as fodder for “unconstructed hippies” and “New Agers, who like blissing out to lulling music and pretty pictures and don’t care about ‘meaning.’”
Even modern classical authority Alex Ross was – initially – biting of the project’s artistic success:
“When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet.”
Though, interestingly, when Ross saw a live performance of Koyaaniqatsi – one of the occasional tours Glass and Reggio do of the film and live orchestra – he “understood it as something else altogether – an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure… For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.”
But even that ambivalence can be claimed by Koyaaniqatsi’s authors as some kind of strategy, or at least a useful side effect of the project. It could be argued that Koyaaanisqatsi is a living text – if there is one recurring criticism of it it is precisely that people’s feelings about it tend to change on a viewing-by-viewing basis.
Not only that, but viewers’ interpretation of Koyaanisqatsi has a tendency to shift on a similar basis, or – as with Alex Ross described – depending on the context in which it is experienced. Others have suggested that its meaning is time-sensitive, and fluctuates according to the times we live in.
Berg put it to Glass himself that a recent viewing of the film had left him with a completely different experience to previous viewings. “Now the film’s critique of modern society is almost secondary. The images of the 747s, the skyscrapers, even the traffic, have a vitality, and a sense of beauty, experiences that are more typical of the experimental film or the more poetic forms of the documentary.”
“Exactly!” enthused Glass “You did notice that. Good. I, too, am very struck by that dimension. Four years ago, for example, we thought Koyaanisqatsi was a very political film. Now, it doesn’t look that way at all to me.”
One point at which Reggio and Glass opinions did diverge was in the translation of the Hopi prophecy at the film’s conclusion, which is the only literal text in the film, and which was converted – in its Hopi form – to music by Glass, who carefully studied the rhythms and syntax of the music to preserve a sense of authenticity to the message.
Glass felt it over-literalised the film, but Reggio felt that – working with film, a relatively accessible artform, despite Koyaanisqatsi’s gnomic overtures – they had a chance to push one message out to a wide spectrum of the population.
“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”