The Philip Glass Ensemble has been performing the music to the film “Koyaanisqatsi,” live with screenings of the film, since the year after the film’s release in 1982. This was later complemented by the performance of music from the film’s 1987 followup “Powaqqatsi.” So far, these cinema concerts have been given before more than 5 million people worldwide.
Upcoming performances in Tokyo will be conducted by Michael Riesman, musical director of the Philip Glass Ensemble, and Glass will play keyboards. The next film in the series, “Naqoyqatsi,” was released in America in 2001, and will open in theaters here in February.
What gives these films such longevity?
Godfrey [Reggio, the films’ director] is a true visionary. He saw into the future. There were many things in the films that people didn’t see at the time. A lot of people took it as a type of head trip, they didn’t think about the content. But now people are seeing how it reflects on the world. It is basically about the impact of technology on traditional ways of living. “Koyaanisqatsi” means “life out of balance.” I think it now reflects how we have re-adjusted our lives to live with this unbalance. The films are like a mirror on the world, and some scenes bring people to tears.
For example, which scenes?
The scene with the brownout often reminds people of the recent blackouts in the U.S., but they were shot in a brownout in Harlem in 1977. And it also shows firemen and police walking around in a daze. Obviously, it reminds people so much of 9/11.
It’s very curious, it’s like Godfrey is a seer, but he doesn’t like to think about it that way. Much of the film is not comforting, and that could make it a dark vision. But he doesn’t want the responsibility of what comes with that. And so we respond to the film in a different way now because of the way the world is today.
Many people think that the rocket that explodes at the end of “Koyaanisqatsi” is the space shuttle Challenger. But it was filmed many years before that. Scenes like this give the films a special life or longevity. In fact, those images are completely scary when you think about the Challenger disaster. Some people have even accused Godfrey of using voodoo or black magic to make the Challenger disaster occur. But then, you always get some extreme people.
With all the connotations the films have, has there been, since 9/11 in particular, any attempt to censor the films in any way?
No, not really. Actually, the one film that most closely reflects 9/11 is “Naqoyqatsi” [the third film in the series], which was completed in the summer of 2001, a few months before 9/11. It has images of bin Laden, and even images of the Twin Towers with explosions superimposed behind them. All filmed way before 9/11. It’s disturbing — the coincidence of events. And he debated about whether to leave them in or not, and in the end he kept them in, I think he felt an integrity in the film. And everyone involved in the film supported him in his decision. It really is a case of life imitating art rather than the other way around.
Didn’t this raise eyebrows at the film company?
Of course some people picked up on it, but those voices didn’t prevail — Godfrey’s vision prevailed.
Most film music is written while looking at the footage, either edited or unedited. How did you go about writing the music for these films?
With “Powaqqatsi,” I actually made the music before it was shot, in fact much of the footage was filmed with the cameraman listening to the music on a Walkman as he was filming. It was a powerful lesson for us all. It proves that the relationship between music and film is open to discussion, and we are discussing.
Have you had any particular success or failures with film work?
Of course there is some poor quality work sometimes — film is a risky business, but I haven’t had many films I would consider complete failures. My favorites are the “Powaqqatsi”/”Koyaanisqatsi” series and “The Beauty and The Beast” [Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black-and-white film]. I cut the original soundtrack and I wrote an opera that would lip-sync with the mouths of the actors as they spoke. Some very interesting artistic results, I was very happy with that.
Speaking of operas, yours have received very mixed reactions. Your first opera, “Einstein on The Beach” (1976), was greeted with responses from “a modern masterpiece” to “what a load of rubbish” . . .
Isn’t that great? I would have been worried if everybody accepted it. It would simply be entertainment, and it wouldn’t last. We need to push things into areas that are not fully explored, because that provokes us — and that is generally a good thing. And of course it upsets people — but bad reviews generally don’t bother me.
Having worked in areas of music ranging from opera and film music to pop and even dance music [Glass has collaborated with Suzanne Vega and Aphex Twin, to name just two], you have traversed that border between so-called high and low culture. Many people hold that barrier almost sacred. How do you feel about that distinction?
I ignore it, I am not making music for any gender, age group, ethnic background or level of education. It’s not about gaining membership of a certain subculture. I don’t want to be part of any self-appointed group of guardians of culture, fighting against the barbarians. In fact I am the barbarian — or at least I was, I am more accepted now.
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