Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

Philip Glass Ensemble; Western Wind Vocal Ensemble/Riesman (Orange Mountain Music OMM0058)

29 September 2009 3 stars

GlassChances are that many people's first encounter with the music of Philip Glass came through the seminal film Koyaanisqatsi. Released in cinemas in 1983, and enjoying subsequently a healthy afterlife on video and DVD formats, Koyaanisqatsi was Glass's first foray into the world of film scoring and soundtracks. It is an area, of course, he has since staked out as his own. So this glance back to the beginning of his engagement with cinema is valuable for showing where he got off to a start.

This is the first release of the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi to appear in unedited form, exactly as the soundtrack occurs in the movie. A pared-down version was released back in 1983, featuring just over half the music of the film, and Glass was pushed to re-record the score in augmented and retouched form in 1998, with the results released on Nonesuch Records. This new CD on Orange Mountain Music, by contrast, goes for the opposite tack, its aim of fidelity going so far as to include the original sound effects from the film.

Koyaanisqatsi was a collaboration between Glass and director Godfrey Reggio. It is something of a cinematic tone poem, entirely without dialogue and made up a number of different vistas on the earth and man's place upon it. Its exquisite cinematography, using slow motion and time-lapse photography, along with the emotional punch of its subject, using different environments to communicate perhaps a point of no return in terms of the earth's ever-accelerating entropy, are married to Glass's music in a genuinely startling manner. The film retains its strength to this day, and one would have to be hard-hearted not to be moved by the breadth of its unsettling beauty.

Along with this, from a musical perspective it might be said that Koyaanisqatsi marks the most successful use of Glass's music in film so far, distilling his compositional aesthetic in an economic and exploratory way, in fluid line with the streams of the moving image. It certainly sets the benchmark against which he continues to work in the field. Movie scoring these days of course has become Glass's bread and butter, with its liberal application being one of the main characteristics of a style that is oft-imitated but usually not equalled on its own terms.

What are those terms? I hardly need describe them – you doubtless already know what to expect: relentless wind ostinatos, an intoning bass, pulsing female vocables, booming low brass chords, largo minor stings, polyrhythms, simple harmonic progressions with no hint anywhere of a modulation in the vicinity nor on the horizon. In the context in which these elements occur, however – that of the movie – we do not analyse the music or break it up in any such ruthless way. We just hear it, without it being any glaring object of scrutiny: its real service is to the accompanying visual image, with which it takes off to where it can't be touched.

This score well reflects the film's continuous gliding movement, an inner dynamo that propels it ever onward. Even were there no film this score would doubtless always suggest journey: considered either as one geographical, as 'this way of life we're bound upon', or in some other literal or figurative sense. The function and effectiveness of the film, apart from the direct enjoyability of its play of colour, pattern and variety, is to manage a detached, god-like view of a world recently finding itself abandoned by God, with a hurtling trajectory and uncertain control now left up to its own responsibility. That epic quality is mirrored somewhat in the score, which considered as a piece of absolute music is strong enough to lend itself as background to whatever else you might be doing while you have it on. There was a storm outside while I was listening to it, to which it was wholly sympathetic.

So how well does Koyaanisqatsi work without its visual component? Given the spectacularly successful melding of visual and sonic that defines the film itself, does the separation amount to half the experience of Koyaanisqatsi – to an impoverishment by fifty percent? Actually, the effect of the disc is more to bring to mind the overall feeling of the film in its absence, while allowing us to listen to the music that bit closer, undistracted by the procession of arresting images. Once you have seen the film you are unlikely to forget it, and the association is always there in your imagination.

On its own, the achievements of this score are quite good. It is definitely background music; but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Its relative simplicity can be relaxing, good as a mood-setter or as a CD to put on when driving the car at night. If you are the type who feels revulsion towards Glass's music, though, it is unlikely to do anything to abate that impulse.

By Liam Cagney