June 19, 2005

Glass's "Koyaanisqatsi" and the art of film scoring:

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. At Lincoln Center, I understood it as something else altogether--an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure. What made the difference, apart from the fact that I was no longer a facile collegiate ironist, was the experience of hearing the music live, with Kurt Munkacsi's sound design adding heft and definition to every gesture. 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.

"Powaqqatsi" and "Naqoyqatsi," the sequels, don't match the force of the original, though they are absorbing throughout. Glass supplies many passages of cool, aching beauty, but the urgent side of his early style, the technique of eviscerating repetition, is diminished. As a whole, the trilogy mimics the uneven shape of the composer's career, which has ranged from achievements of staggering originality ("Music in Twelve Parts," "Einstein on the Beach," the Violin Concerto) to statements of baffling neutrality (a world-music cantata entitled "Orion" is the newest instance of the latter). These days, he often seems trapped in his formulas; he writes "Philip Glass music" in place of music that happens to be by Philip Glass. But he has won his place in history, and he may figure out a way to knock us sideways once again.

I dearly love both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, but Naqoyqatsi was a really disappointing film; it relied way too much on digital processing of imagery instead of the fantastic cinematography that made the first two so compelling (along with the music of course). I hope I can see the films with music played live at some point, it sounds like it adds to the experience of the film.

Posted by Bill Stilwell at June 19, 2005 10:51 PM
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