Category Archives: Philip Glass

Teh End of History

Pop historian-philosopher Yuval Noah Harari fascinates and horrifies us in equal measure with his long-view description of human evolution (see Sapiens (2014) and Homo Deus (2016). It goes a little bit like this:

In the dark ages, humans believed in superstitious fictions that gave their life meaning. They existed in close connection with nature, but also at its mercy.

With the Enlightenment, humans gained control over nature through science, and turned themselves into the measure of all things, but this made their lives feel empty and meaningless. The religions of authoritarianism tried to fill that void with awful results.

New scientific and technological advances are now calling into question the basic assumptions of the enlightenment: behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology show that human being are not rational, their beliefs and actions are conditioned genetically and culturally. Machines are becoming smarter than humans, able to predict and manipulate their behaviours in increasingly sophisticated ways. All these developments point at an impending transition to a new stage in history.

Can democracy and markets survive this change, or will they be replaced by collective intelligences and platforms that aggregate and automate decisions in complex ways?

Can humanity survive the battle between the forces of reaction and acceleration?

Will we find meaning again in new religions of fandom and singularitarianism?

Noah Harari tells all this with a dispassionate voice, avoiding linear narratives of progress or decay. With each phase transition in human evolution something is lost and something is gained. A mystery always lingers, we listen to its music.

The dark ages were full of mystery and emotion, they contained a sense of permanence, and order, with human existence tightly embedded in the cycles of the celestial and terrestrial spheres. Free will in believing and sinning opened the way to moral behaviour and heroism, but this was part of a bigger story told written by the Deux Ex Machina.

Delia Gonzalez’ latest album, Horse Follows Darkness brims with that sense of thrust through layers of gnostic mystery and invisible force fields, into a space of revelation hidden at the heart of the dark forest. Hidden Song is the theme track for the werewolf gang that runs things that neighbourhood.

Delia Gonzalez – Hidden Song

Go get Horse Follows Darkness from DFA records.

We are the children of the enlightenment. Our most successful societies protect and nurture us, encourage us to express ourselves and our creativities in a myriad ways. Those of us endowed with genius can make their selves (even souls) seen, heard and felt that way, and when this happens, all witnesses are seared by a flash of joy. We might be alone in the universe, but we can gift each other universes.

Modern composition has many moments of such humanistic beauty, here is one from Philip Glass’ North Star.

Philip Glass – Lady Day

Some information in discogs.

Many of our favourite musics are produced through collaborations between humans and complex technological artifacts (electronic music) or seek to induce trance-like states where humans start behaving as if they were components of technological systems (dance music), or had been bodily spliced with technology (EBM/post-punk).

Caterina Barbieri’s take on our technological structuration is more abstract. Her electronic compositions give us nerd-rapture inducing vistas of cybernetic worlds where human and machine intelligences have already merged; we listen to their message with a mix of alienness and familiarity, as if told in the tongues of the natives of those strange new lands, distant descendants of the mild cyborgs who today inhabit online gaming clans, collaborative consumption platforms, and the deepest code architectures in GitHub’s sprawling cathedrals.

Caterina Barbieri – Information Needed to Create an Entire Body

Acquire Patterns of Consciousness from Important Records.

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster

Featuring : Philip Glass + Terry Riley

Koyaanisqatsi

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.

Terry Riley – Anthem of the Trinity

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.”

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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.”

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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.

koyaanisqatsi-2

“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.”

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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.

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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.”

Philip Glass – Koyaanisqatsi

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.”

 

 

What a Day.

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Painting by Adolfo Bimer, who we first found at But Does It Float.

Aphex Twin – Icct Hedral (Philip Glass Orchestration)

What is horror? Horror is that day that feels as if its contour map was the palm of the paw of a cyclopean beast ready to crush you, with total indifference because to it you are nothing.

Horror is knowing that you are traversing an unknowable universe, a universe which is not home, a universe where there be monsters, the abominations that Bosch and Goya and Polanski and Lynch sought to convey, abominations which are metaphorical and also real.

Not knowing which is which, that is horror.

It is that day when you wake up out of joint, as if you had been trying to squeeze through narrow dream-passages, between the legs of our mother of darkness, who birthed you into more darkness, into a day of Horror.

When as you try to shower yourself into light, thin filament-hair-crack-spider legs tingle just beyond your field of vision like flagella in the digestive system that will dissolve you in a bath of acid in this day of horror.

Then you walk down the hill towards the train station, a glimpse of a room in a basement flat imploded like a charnel-house, in it a bed, a shapeless outcrop in an ocean of garbage, in the bed a blackness and in a blackness an eye, teeth, and something red, and then you have walked past and it’s gone, you are going down the hill in this day of horror.

The train leaves town, you stare out of its windows and catch your own reflection (that’s a whole new country of horror), also something in the seat behind you, a face that is not a face but a blotch of ink in translucent paper, eyes that are not eyes but the glimmer in the abdomen of a carrion fly, teeth, something red, a stench of putrefaction as if you had passed through region of death, which you have, remember, this is a day of…

…Horror, or whatever is its closest neighbour, children silhouettes that would be macabre if they came into focus, jaunting in the mist of the dawns around a witch tree down in the Sussex Downs through which the train speeds rickety like a victim, from the pan to the fire.

There is a book in the library and that book is always out and the book is a compendium of instances when you look up into the glaring windows of the buildings of London, and its back-alleys and its parks and the metal sludge of the Thames, and you see something that shouldn’t be there, shady deals between satanic forces, a barge of worms and the blink of a gargoyle, imagine a preview of that book whence Machen & Moore stole some of their pages and that is what you get today.

Horror Horror Horror.

And then underground, into that network where a sickness spreads glazing eyes and cramping fists, past an out of bounds door ajar, within it a pillar of light, within the pillar limbs flailing in colours yellow and then red, symbols on the wall and an eye tracking you as you walk past, blink, horror.

Arrive at a cylindrical cathedral and stand at the edge of a pit grafted with metal, where mice and rats scurry, or what is that that is not a rat. You balanced precariously over the yellow line as a whistle rises from the black tunnel, glaring eyes and metal teeth and that whistle, a tap in your shoulder, a multitude of faces that are not faces and mouths gaping like blotches of ink behind, chanting ‘the worm king’s hungry the worm king’s hungry’, tap becomes shove and you fall into the pit and inside the all-encompassing whistle and the burning yellow.

Which puts an end to horror.

Happy Halloween week!!

Leæther Strip – Never Trust Anyone At The Carnival

Philip Glass orchestral version of Aphex Twin’s Icct Hedral is included in the Donkey Rhubarb EP. It makes us think of the Candyman OST and of course this is an awesome thing.

Never Trust Anyone at The Carnival is a garish combination of John Carpenter/Goblin tremors and lurid Italo strutting. If it was going to look like something, it would look like the mega-garish textures of Moore/Bolland’s legendary Killing Joke, specially . It concludes the remastered reissue of Leæther Strip’s 1990s teenage demos in Dark Entries Records.

Bionics

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(This is one of those posts that take us as long to decorate as it does to write – thanks to 50watts for being there.)

Marshall McLuhan said that all technologies are extensions of man through space and time. Today we dwell on some that don’t extend us through those dimensions, but bring these dimensions inside us and allow us to know them better, in part because they fracture them, under the cracks expands an infinite cave we fill with emotion. Also with wonder at the storm of human creation, which in moments like this isn’t just indistinguishable from magic, it is magic.

Philip Glass - Glassworks -

I looked yesterday at the prototype of a city of glass, perhaps a metaphor for the perfect transparency & openness towards which some argue, digital technologies hurl us. It looked brittle and sad, like the future habitats of We, or the Ice Age refuges in Quintet.

It looked the opposite of Philip Glass’ magnificent Glassworks, where everything is movement and irrepressible energy, birds of fire & spiders of light spiralling & barrelling through spaces efficient like a mathematical proof.

In Rubric, they reach their epic apex, singing a saga of truth-hunters – the knights of the grail, theoretical physicists, alchemists, statisticians and psychonauts, all of them striking matches in the black fields of the cosmos.

Philip Glass – Rubric

solaris

I haven’t seen Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris, but I have listened to Cliff Martinez’ soundtrack for it as much if not more than Edvard Artemyev’s.

It may be that the colder mornings necessitate its warm embrace, the serene curve of its harmonic chains, subtle like the ebbs and flows in the collective subconscious of slumbering mankind, or the gradient in the dunes of the desert of our memories, Solaris.

They act not just as buffers between the spikes of reality and the psychic softness within, but as spray that renders that reality static, a diorama leisurely spinning at the placid pace of no-bullet time.

Cliff Martinez – First Sleep