Don’t worry if you can’t say it; just sit, watch, listen

By Jeremy Rosenberg

Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels are of a unique form of art. Combining poetic cinematography and moving music, these films immerse the viewer in a world of visual and auditory sensation. This is not, however, an art of pure entertainment, for the films are also full of commentary on modern life and the balance, or possibly lack thereof, between nature and technology. Director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass collaborated between 1975 and 1982 to create the 87-minute Koyaanisqatsi, which contains no dialogue and no narration. The title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance,” and the movie has been alternately hailed as a resounding testament to humankind’s technological achievements and a harsh criticism of our fast-paced, impersonal world. However, the film portrays nature and technology as equally capable of both profound beauty and great destruction, and the message of Koyaanisqatsi does not side with either extreme. To paraphrase some of Reggio’s own words, Koyaanisqatsi is not saying that our modern world is bad or good; rather, that it is both. This is shown in the stunning visuals of everything from waterfalls to factories to time-lapse shots of people moving through the streets in car and on foot. The film has won several awards and stands as a monumental achievement in both film and music.

On Friday, October 3, CAPA presented a special screening of Koyaanisqatsi at the Chicago Theatre. What made this viewing unique was that the original score was not being played. Instead, it was reproduced live by Philip Glass and his ensemble. The ensemble, which consisted of ten people, including conductor Michael Riesman, a sound mixer, and Glass himself, produced a mix of “live” synthesized music, pre-recorded sounds, and live instrumental playing and singing. The instruments employed by the musicians were all woodwinds, keyboards, or voices. No brass sounds were live, and there was also the conspicuous lack of a live bass voice, which is featured prominently in the score, providing the drone chant of the film’s title word. This voice had to be electronically replicated for the performance.

Friday’s performance was, sadly and surprisingly, poorly attended. Sadly, because both the music and the film as a whole are pieces of art that more people should experience; surprisingly, because the film itself is certainly not unknown, and Glass is a popular composer whose music is not harmonically inaccessible to the average listener, unlike some other contemporary music.

Indeed, his minimalist style is both calming and engaging and is perfectly suited to the imagery in Koyaanisqatsi. The group that did attend the performance was incredibly varied in terms of familiarity with the film. The audience ranged from a woman who wore a Koyaanisqatsi t-shirt to a young man who had not heard of the film before, or of Glass, but attended because his friends had told him it would be good. And it was. Those who did go to the concert received a performance that was not simply a recreation of a spectacular film. This was no mere screening, but something more, something greater. Koyaanisqatsi is the type of film, along with masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001, that is infinitely more rewarding to see on the big screen. In a theater setting, this film envelops the audience in picture and sound in a way that cannot be mimicked at home, no matter how large your television and how loud your sound system may be.

But then one must ask the question of, “Why the live music instead of playing the original soundtrack to the film?” After all, it is hard to imagine much variance in interpretation to be possible in a score that has to adhere so closely to the film it accompanies. The answer, however, was readily apparent shortly into the performance Friday night. Glass’s music can, under certain circumstances, be somewhat soporific. In this case, however, it was positively invigorating. All of the intricacies of a live performance were working in the film’s favor. The musicians played with an intensity and immediacy that is not always present in the original soundtrack. Also, fleeting imperfections aside, the performance was a testament to the skill of the musicians, for they made the difficult score sound easy and formed an almost frighteningly tight ensemble.

The highlight of the performance was easily the vocal ensemble work. At one point in the film, when an airplane is seen slowly advancing through hazy heat, the musicians sang with a vibrancy of feeling that all performers hope to achieve. No, this was not a flawless performance. No live concert can be. The occasionally imprecise rhythm and mistiming were easily forgiven, and the performers were given an immediate and well-deserved standing ovation. In short, live is the only way to see Koyaanisqatsi.