For the monumentally industrious Philip Glass, the Qatsi trilogy figures as some of his most significant work, which makes it a highly appropriate vehicle for the Edinburgh International Festival to salute (at last) this iconic talent with a live realization of the scores, marking the composer's 75th birthday while developing the current year's east-meets-west theme.
In truth, this was a difficult event to evaluate. The mere fact of Glass's late arrival in Edinburgh is emblematic of an ambiguous relationship between Glass's approach to music-making and the norms of the 'classical' world. That is a matter not only of compositional technique, but also of performance practice—including, in extension, the restricted access others have had to performance materials (something, one might infer, that he learned the hard way from working with Samuel Beckett back in the '60s).
In many respects, Glass' career model more closely resembles that of a rock band than a conventional composer. It is worth noting that alongside his own birthday celebrations, his long-term collaborators Jon Gibson and Michael Riesman are both hitting the seventy mark themselves. A live encounter with the Philip Glass Ensemble is a bit like seeing the present-day Dylan, or the Stones, a transaction laced with a certain measure of nostalgia.
Then there is the unusualness of the material itself: a movie with a live soundtrack. What's that like? What does the live ensemble bring to the experience? It is a hard question to answer partly because each of the three respond differently – more differently than perhaps one would expect from a project whose components are—in terms of means—outwardly similar.
With Koyaanisqatsi, a further difficulty is to locate the right reference point. Being accustomed to listening to the 1998 CD release, it comes as something of a surprise to find that the movie soundtrack is a different and altogether more serene performance. Nor is finding the 'right' movie straightforward, with the DVD and theatre versions being cropped for widescreen. The original was shot and composed in 4:3 aspect ratio, and that's how many people will have encountered it on TV, with the traditionally tinny TV audio.
Locating points of reference for the music involves scouting for those difficult-to-find hardcore avant garde works of a period that one might say that Koyaanisqatsi marks the end of. Thanks to youtube one can now find things like How Now, Music in the form of a square or 600 lines, and correlate that uncompromising rigour with the emergence ofa style that is, shall we say, kinder to the listener—certainly the less engaged listener.
The result is a kind of holy music for a secular age. In this performance, with the ensemble in plain sight in front of the screening, the musicians are so unobtrusive as to be barely visible: an acute counterpoint to the thematic displays of exorbitant and violent energy in Reggio's imagery, which of course are hugely impressive on the vast screen. Nevertheless, the scale of intensity achieved as 'The grid' reached its climax said everything about the difference live performance can make. On leaving the theatre, Edinburgh seemed all of a piece, the massed movements of people, the tracks of car rear lights streaming in the rain as though continuing the experience of the movie.
By contrast, in Powaqqatsi the liveness of the music proved to be pretty distracting. Where Koyaanisqatsi was something of an attenuated, shoestring enterprise, its success afforded the second part of the trilogy a much more ambitious production regime. What that meant for the music was an extra layer of studio technique, drawing in a variety of non-western instruments and a children's choir, among other things. Unfortunately, that translates as 'backing tape', and in the opening Serra Pelada passage, the thrill of witnessing the live percussion subsided as 'live' and 'backing' crept out of sync and back in again.
One's attention became drawn to figuring which was which, and in consequence becoming a little irked in particular by the cheesy brass patches being used. Later, though, especially in the Caught! Passage, the ensemble worked up an intensity that matched the previous evening's Grid, while Muhammed Bahran's Call to Prayer was immaculate, albeit mildly discomfiting in the same way that Reggio's footage of devotional practice prompted worries about voyeurism.
Ironically, in Naqoyqatsi the fusion of film and performance seemed to be the most satisfactory of the three. Ironic because in other respects this is easily less satisfactory a film than the other two.
People frequently point to the solo cello part as having a 'humanizing' effect, but—in part owing to the long delay between the making of parts two and three of the trilogy—Glass's compositional style is noticeably evolved, using a harmonic language that is almost poignant in its distance from his prior asceticism. Possibly Glass and the ensemble had been performing Koyaanisqatsi live by this time, and as a result the score is conceived with scope for live performance in mind.
Ironically too, the advent of digital image technology enabled Reggio to approach the task of assembling the visual side in a way that Koyaanisqatsi seemed to envisage and prefigure, yet in consequence the result seems 'old fashioned' in a way that contrasts sharply with those previous episodes. The live performance serves to breathe Prometheus-like upon an otherwise somewhat sterile film. Broadly speaking, the unobtrusive mode of Koyaanisqatsi returns, despite the theatrical percussion, with Matt Haimovitz's cello obbligato an elegant and serene thread stitching the successive movements together.
Seeing the three films in succession enables the trilogy to be viewed as a singular aesthetic entity, but of course these films are resistant to conventional reading by virtue of their shared non-linear, non-narrative style. Conceiving them as a form of concrete poetry helps to draw out assonances within and between: the slowly gyrating rocket motor in Koyaanisqatsi echoed in the form of the empty drum shells that appear briefly in Powaqqatsi; the children racing on the beach in Powaqqatsi with athletes in Naqoyqatsi. Or within Powaqqatsi, the (presumably) injured miner being carried on shoulders in the Serra Pelada sequence resonates with the later footage of (again presumably) a Jesus being carried in an Easter procession. Then the footage of Michigan Central Depot that opens Naqoyqatsi, cathedral-like in its dilapidated and disused state, echoes Koyaanisqatsi in more subtle—one could almost say gently satirical—ways.
One notes, though, an ethical issue in that none of the people contributing to the first two films are shown in distress of any kind (the miner is seen at a distance, and his injury is not overt), while such images of distress as occur in Naqoyqatsi are from stock footage (of which there is rather too much). Moreover, in Koyaanisqatsi that ethical serenity is achieved at the cost of being somewhat monocultural. If that is a forgivably unreflexive aspect of Koyaanisqatsi, it is surely in need of more critical analysis in relation to Naqoyqatsi. There is an understandable desire to reflect the World Trade Centre attack which happened during the film's production and which one might consider as being foreshadowed in Koyaanisqatsi (not only in the exploding rocket sequence at the end, but the earlier demolishing of Pruitt-Igoe—a building complex designed, with chilling synchronicity, by the WTC architect Minoru Yamasaki). The way this reflection and response manifests is a bit ra-ra-USA, and one wonders whether the authors intended this to be irksome to non-Americans in quite the way they achieve, or whether simply whatever one's prevailing attitude might be is merely burnished one way or the other.
Whatever the answer, on all three nights the audience's response to the performances was to give Glass and his ensemble a standing ovation.
Photo: Stills from Koyaanisqatsi
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