NY Philharmonic Totally Rocked Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi Last Night

11/03/2011 1:10 PM |


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.

6 Comment

  • It was an amazing performance. I always thought they were close-ups of micro-chips not rug patterns.

  • It was an awesome performance. Having studied the work in college, seeing it performed live with Glass on stage was a joy!

  • I would give much to be able to see Glass play this live, let alone hear it while being shown on a big screen… It is, without any doubt, the most moving piece(s) of music I have ever heard, and the music gets better every time I listen to the soundtrack, or watch the movie. I can’t help but be a huge, and in this case, jealous fan….from northern NH, where culture is a long way away.

  • I think it may have been taped for future broadcast. I hope I am correct. Anyway, I do hope you get a chance to hear/see this revised version. The playing/singing (of which I was a part) was fantastic.

  • Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this would eventually end up as an alternate soundtrack on the 8K scanned blu-ray edition of the movie with uncompressed sound. I can dream, can I?

  • I saw the Wednesday performance and it was fantastic! Would love to hear it again if it was taped. They had some microphone feedback issues in the beginning, maybe they corrected by the second night.

    Close ups are of semiconductors, not rugs.