“Many of the film critics I’ve talked to see Koyaanisqatsi as a cat that barks,” director Godfrey Reggio told a writer for one magazine shortly after the release of his critically acclaimed film in the early 1980s. “They don’t know what to do with it.” Indeed, writing at the same time, critic Alan Brien pondered this exact thought: “Faced with a film that has an unpronounceable title, no characters and no story, no dialogue and no commentary, where the conventional backgrounds – landscape and city streets, machines and crowds – have advanced to hog the screen, this critic must admit a problem.” While words do often fail to describe Koyaanisqatsi, the film remains a profound, sometimes even prophetic, experience nearly four decades after it was first unveiled to audiences.
Koyaanisqatsi – a Native American word loosely translated as ‘life out of balance’ – was released to great critical success in 1983. A quasi-documentary film combining the experimental cinematography of Ron Fricke with the intense minimalist score of Philip Glass, the core of Koyaanisqatsi is a critique of the modern society and its desecration of the natural world.
It is a careful examination of modern life, in all its poetic ugliness and beauty. Reggio’s vision is replete with dual images both mundane and profound: skies and oceans, cities and microchips, factory conveyor belts and subway escalators. The film juxtaposes the natural world with the encroaching artificial world; living, pulsating cityscapes with scenes of poverty and urban decay. Reggio presents the twin subjects of human triumph and human failure, and suggests that we have tipped the scale towards the latter as we move along the path to ecological catastrophe. The message is no less striking in 2017 than it was in 1983.
A restless Friday evening crowd at Melbourne’s Arts Centre could not spoil the film’s capacities to induce equal measures of apprehension and exhilaration in its audiences. Touted as an ‘experience’, Koyaanisqatsi Live has been a staple of the Philip Glass Ensemble’s repertoire since conductor Michael Riesman first took the production – consisting of the Glass score performed live in accompaniment to the original film – on tour thirty years ago in 1987. It retains all its original power. Indeed, the live performance of the work was crisp and energetic, foregrounding the score and providing it with an authoritative presence the original film might have lacked.
The score is integral to the film, melding neatly with the visuals onscreen. A shimmering chorus – in this instance one live vocalist above synthesised voices – accompanies the shimmering mirage of a jumbo jet. The bright edges of staccato brass give shape to silver clouds filmed from atop a mountain. With almost overwhelming force, cascades of arpeggiated chords form intricate patterns as night-time scenes are shown in accelerated time and motorways are transformed into the pulsating arteries of a living city.
In the film’s penultimate sequence, crowds are presented milling about in the streets, individuals are brought into focus and the camera lingers on their faces, sometimes uncomfortably so. The accompanying music evokes such a powerful contemplative mood that it has been borrowed frequently, most recently in the philosophically-inclined science fiction blockbuster, Interstellar.
A live performance of this work brings with it some difficulties that go well beyond surmounting the pure physicality of executing, cleanly, Glass’s cyclical motifs and sequences. (Here, mention should be made of the vocal sections – gruelling, extended passages of repeated intervals often with no lyrics and thus no natural pauses in which to take a breath.)
Because the score was composed in collaboration with the director and cinematographer, timing is paramount. Images and music often change abruptly. Conductor Michael Riesman was chosen to lead the very first tour of Koyaanisqatsi Live in 1987 precisely because of his metronomic sense of time. Riesman was able, claimed Glass, to conduct the music live and never be more than one or two frames out of sync with the original recorded soundtrack. The years have not wearied him, it seems, and all for the better: Koyaanisqatsi is the kind of engrossing work that demands to be experienced live, on a large screen, and alongside others.
In the live performance, the music “acquires a living relationship to the film,” remarked Glass favourably in 1987, perhaps not surprisingly given his affinity with opera and ballet. Koyaanisqatsi Live is something of a living document then: both the product of a society on the cusp of globalisation and grappling with urban industrial decline, and a remarkably prescient comment on a still unfolding ecological catastrophe.
Koyaanisqatsi has rightfully obtained cult status among film and music aficionados alike, but without its indispensable score – which the Philip Glass Ensemble performs masterfully in a live setting – we can only wonder at the fate of Godfrey Reggio’s urgent critique of modern society.