Koyaanisqatsi with Philip Glass Ensemble

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Published: 17th March, 2017

What better way to commemorate the 80th birthday of composer Philip Glass, than with a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, accompanied by a live performance of the soundtrack by the Philip Glass Ensemble.

First to the film: released in 1982, Godfrey Reggio’s *Koyaanisqatsi* took more than five years to film, and forms the first of what was to become the “Qatsi” trilogy. Qatsi is the Hopi word for life. Koyaanisqatsi is usually translated as “life out of balance”.

The film is an assemblage of footage of natural and urban phenomena. It opens with images of primitive rock art depicting humans, shifts to a rocket’s fiery take-off, after which we are transported back to the relative calm of rock formations, rippling desert sands and other natural scenes, before being ultimately confronted by the impact of human progress on the environment.

Use of time-lapse and slow-motion footage lend further impact to the images on the screen, alternately compelling our gaze to linger on images, and in other scenes, to convey our frenetic pace of life.

There is no narrative in the film. Rather, it is Philip Glass’s magnificent score that ties the film together. Director Godfrey Reggio defended the lack of vocal narrative by saying, “our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live”.

This was true in the early 1980s and is now even more salient.

As for Philip Glass’s score, it bears remembering that his unique form of minimalism was, at the time the film was made, considered unpalatable by classical music pundits with a more Romantic bent, and cinema-goers   who had grown up on a diet of film that bore the undeniable influence of European Romantic music.

Nevertheless, the film was, and is, inconceivable without Glass’s music. And it did much to bring his music to a wider audience.

More than thirty years after the release of Koyaanisqatsi, not only is Philip Glass’s music frequently used for film scores, but his compositions are now considered mainstream.

It was heartening to see such a diverse crowd flocking to Hamer Hall on Friday night, to watch this extraordinary film. Some of the audience may have seen it upon its initial release; others would not yet have been born.

People of all ages were taking photos of the stage prior to the performance, eager to capture a snapshot of this momentous occasion: a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, with a live performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble.

But as the lights began to dim, the phones had been tucked away. The musicians took to the stage, with one exception – the eagerly awaited Director of the ensemble, and long-time collaborator with Philip Glass, Michael Riesemann.

A composer in his own right, Riesemann has conducted most of the works Glass has composed for screen.  Invited by Glass to join the ensemble in 1974, he has remained a member ever since, and is the linchpin of the ensemble whose sound has remained consistent for a number of decades.

Performing a soundtrack alongside a screening is challenging. Timing is key, and given its small composition, the ensemble’s work was highly exposed.

Yet with Riesman’s gentle coaxing from behind the keyboard and the proficiency of the musicians themselves, the score was performed seamlessly, and with a refreshing sense of immediacy. At no time did I feel that the score was being churned out robotically.

To be able to see such a landmark film on a massive screen was wonderful. But the joy of being able watch the film with an accompaniment by this esteemed ensemble was indescribable.

Earnest applause induced the ensemble to return to the stage several time to take their bows, and swelled each time Riesman stepped forward.

Koyaanisqatsi is a film that stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

This viewing was different. The film has stayed with me, as expected, but I keep seeing the image of Michael Riesman exiting the stage for the final time that evening, and am filled with a yearning for the return of the Philip Glass Ensemble.