Koyaanisqatsi is the greatest marriage of music and image since Fantasia. And to hear Philip Glass’ score performed live—as it was last night by the New York Philharmonic, the Philip Glass Ensemble (with Glass himself on second keyboard!), and the Collegiate Chorale—gives it the dominance the images ordinarily hold in a movie theater setting, highlighting its too easily overlooked brilliance: the aural evocations of artifice and nature, the grand emotion. Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 debut is an abstract film about “life out of balance,” according to its subtitle, a translation of its Hopi title: landscapes, cityscapes, and factoryscapes—beaches outside industrial plants, timelapsed skyscapes reflected in skyscraper facades—shot with either sweeping grandeur or neurotic fast-motion. Through imagery, the “out of balance” life appears gradually. But Glass’ music lends it an ominous edge immediately. His minimalist score forms in layers, like a multi-colored silkscreened print, until the final image—the soundscape—becomes clear. But unlike screen printing, the assemblage, the process, is the substance.
The score opens with tied whole notes played on a bass and lasting longer than you’d expect. It slowly develops with synthesizer accents, reminiscent of a John Carpenter soundtrack. Over images of southwestern desert, Glass incorporates organ parts (with ominous dissonant flourishes) whose drones evoke geological time—long, slow. As Reggio moves on to shots of clouds and seas, the synth sound switches to harpsichord—Glass’ musical representation of nature extending to timbre—in an anxious tempo to reflect their constant motion. By the time humans appear, the music sounds in staccato sixteenth notes with blaring chords like alarm-system caterwauls.
Reggio’s film is an eco-minded message movie with a spiritual edge; its high point, visually and musically, is a series of images linking hot dogs on an assembly line to people riding escalators, highway traffic, Pac-Man, bowling alley lanes, movie theater rows, and check-out aisles. (Playing it live must present a unique challenge; do the edits conduct the conductor?) Meanwhile, Glass writes Wagnerian brass for shots of urban throngs, Gershwin-esque jaunts for the city lights at night. He also suggests the horrifying majesty of man’s industrial dominance over nature: horns honk in horrified awe at mushroom clouds. He expresses the glory of airplanes, even automobiles, but it’s a slippery slope from there to fighter jets and tanks, to missiles and bombs, and from there to burned-out stretches of Koch-era Harlem, out of which rise apartment complexes like southwestern buttes.
The film becomes increasingly abstract. Reggio finds weird beauty in the fluidity of metropolitan bustle; a fast-motion car ride blurs colored lights until it’s like the trip in 2001. Extreme close-ups of rug patterns look like smeared 8-bit graphics mixed with street grids. But for its detour into the wholly nonrepresentational, Koyaanisqatsi ends where it began, following a downbeat coda, a choral dirge—as unexpected as that which follows Beethoven’s Ninth—that features a poignant street portrait of largely downtrodden city dwellers. Led by Michael Riesman, Glass’ frequent conductor, the three ensembles meshed beautifully, filling Avery Fisher Hall with energy. As soon as the film ended, the house erupted in a standing ovation that lasted longer than the end credits; it was particularly passionate for Glass and Reggio, who stood with the musicians and bowed awkwardly, their lives certainly out of balance. But in a good way.
The New York Philharmonic will repeat this concert this evening. Tickets are sold out.