Saturday, October 10, 1987 Albuquerque Journal

"Koyaanisqatsi" Roars with Live Orchestra

Booming sounds suggesting vast forces of nature and melting patterns of choral voices expressing pity for human plight filled the Hiland Theater Thursday night. Yes, the film "Koyaanisqatsi" was back, but this time with a difference.

Composer Philip Glass, who composed the remarkable sound track of the remarkable movie, was present at two showings of it with 13 musicians and technicians to play its score live as the film unrolled.

The music for this 1983 film, which has become a cult classic, has been a major peak in a composing career generously studded with them, Inspired by the revival of Abel Gance’s "Napoleon," a decades-old silent epic that was shown with live orchestral accompaniment in a number of cities, Glass accompanied a showing of "Koyaaniqatsi" with live music two years ago in New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall. The Lincoln Center audience gave this event a standing ovation, so Glass planned to tour with the performers and film.

The tour began in New Orleans a few days ago. It attracted 900 people to two showings in the Albuquerque location Thursday.

The live performance of the score was more imposing sonically than any ordinary sound track could be – Glass brought lots of amplifiers and big speakers with him. But hose who sat in the back of the Hiland say this version actually was quieter than playbacks on big-theater Dolby quadraphonic set-ups.
But for all ears and tastes, the fact that the performance was happening live, with adjustments and improvisation in a few spots to keep up with the screen action, made it much more vivid than any canned music could be.

All or nearly all the voices in the track were digitally recorded and realized in the performance (although digital sound storage has become so good it is rather hard to tell what is recorded and what amplified life, particularly when the lights are out and the movie is running).

The quartet of saxophones and quintet of electronic keyboards at the core of the performance made grand, oceanic music during the first few minutes of the film, which is a cinematic essay without characters or explicit plot. These grand, roaring sounds became symbols of great natural forces as they accompanied superb natural vistas, some apparently shot in the Four Corners area.

When the film showed natural forces perverted – mammoth strip-mining operations, outdoor nuclear detonations – the music maintained the same general sonority, with different meaning. The dialogue of nature symbols between the film and music is remarkable, deserving the attention it has received.

When the film turns to alienation and rapidation of urban life as a further perversion of nature, Glass resorts to long inundations of rapidly repeating phrases that are effective analogues to the visual images they accompany. Visual and musical images of urban speed-up are continued for so long they erode a listener’s responses and eventually become as much a celebration as a criticism of the civilization they show.

Toward the end of the film victims of urban life are singled out by the camera, and the music takes an affecting, neo-romantic turn.

Glass has been a major force in the American music scene at least since New York’s Metropolitan Opera produced his opera, "Einstein on the Beach," 11 years ago. Another opera of his, "Satyagraha," currently runs at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and he is working on another with noted novelist Doris Lessing for future performance at Houston Grand Opera.

His hypnotic, repetitive music, which grew from experiences he had with Indian ragas and North African melorhythms, is quite the right kind of thing to underly and reinforce "Koyaanisqatsi," a film conceived and directed by Santa Fe’s Godfrey Reggio. These showings were marvelous introductions to glass’ work.

- David Noble

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