"She’s tired of killing but can’t help feeling bloodlust"
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 American experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass. Now, perhaps more relevant than ever, the film engulfs audiences in its deep sensory expression of technology versus the world, the fusion and fission of sound and image, or as its Hopi name suggests – life in transformation, life as war. On Friday, 19 August, Koyaanisqatsi comes to Heineken Music Hall for a unique live performance from Philip Glass and his ensemble. To mark this special moment, we spoke to the most prolific all-rounder of contemporary music about the work’s continued pertinence, its evolving meanings, bringing sound and image closer through virtual reality, and his artistic relationship to nostalgia.
What is your most distinct memory of making Koyaanisqatsi?
This was maybe 1979 or 1980. I remember watching it and thinking this was a completely new way of making movies. Images and music without any words at all. I was immediately attracted to the form, all the content was expressed through the emotions of the music, the melodies and the images. I think that’s remained true after all these years. Godfrey Reggio has made 6 films in total, and he has stayed close to that original idea. People have done similar things but none of them have done it with the power and the poetry that he brought to the project.
There’s no question that a live performance brings to the image a power and impact that you don’t get with recorded music.
What are your hopes for its upcoming performance in Amsterdam? I’m guessing your audience has changed since it was first shown.
In a way it hasn’t changed at all. There were young people who saw it back then and there are young people who will see it today. But what will happen this time is that the young people may come with their parents, or even with their grandparents. The piece is about 34 years old, but the fact is that the message is still powerful and the images still very fresh. It’s a story that’s true for us all, it’s about the impact of technology on the way we live. If anything, the story has become more urgent and more real.
I’m guessing you didn’t expect Koyaanisqatsi on YouTube.
Oh no, that was something we never considered! Indeed a lot of people have seen it that way, but to watch the film with live music is really something special. It’s a concert and a film at the same time. There’s no question that a live performance brings to the image a power and impact that you don’t get with recorded music. That’s why we still go to live performances. Even if you know your favorite singer’s every note, you might spend hundreds to see them perform live. Because the live performance delivers a power and an urgency that recorded music simply doesn’t. I have done this hundreds of times with Koyaanisqatsi, it’s not become out of date or less popular. Some older ensemble members have retired, passed away, younger people have joined, but many of them are playing with us for 20 years. The conductor, Michael Riesman, has been with us since the very start.
If the movie has images from Africa and India, then I will use melodies and instruments from those places.
Can you imagine people watching Koyaanisqatsi in virtual reality?
I think it’s coming. When the images become 3D and start moving off the screen and into the space, then they will be catching up with the way music is used in the space. You’re going to hear the music a little bit differently, but the music will have already been there in that way.
If you were to create a new Koyaanisqatsi today, what would you be inspired by?
Godfrey Reggio has made 6 films over the last 30 years and I have done a score for every single one. He’s planning a new movie right now, I haven’t seen it yet, but I know that I’ll be writing music for it in the next 2 years. So that question is a very real one. He expects me to make each score different and if you listen them all, you’ll hear it. Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t sound like Powaqqatsi, nor does it sound like Visitors. I often change the instrumentation. If the movie has images from Africa and India, then I will use melodies and instruments from those places.
Have you worked much with the medium of the music video?
That’s a much shorter form of music than I don’t tend to usually work in. I have worked with people like a Aphex Twin, played arrangements for punk bands like The Babys in the ‘70s, and performed with David Bowie and Tony Visconti. So when I’m in that world, I play that music and I like doing it. You know, it’s all music to me, there is no high art and low art. For me music is music. There’s good music and not good music, but it can show up anywhere – at a dance concert, in a club, in a concert hall, the category doesn’t determine the quality.
There are qualities of being and feeling as a human being that don’t change very much.
What is your attitude toward nostalgia?
For me, nostalgia is the music I wrote in 1969. I performed an entire evening of music that I wrote in the 1970s in Houston. You know what? I had a young audience and they loved it! Just like we loved the music back then. When we talk about nostalgia it depends what we mean by it. I’m going to be 80 soon, so it’s very easy for me to be very nostalgic by just remembering and playing music that I wrote when I was 20. One of the things I do that some people don’t like doing, is playing the hits, like ‘Music in Similar Motion’. My friend Paul Simon does that too, even though he just released a new record. In a funny way, nostalgia doesn’t necessarily mean sentimental, it means listening to music from another time, but what’s interesting is that the music can speak to our time as well. There are qualities of being and feeling as a human being that don’t change very much.
Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble will perform the original soundtrack of Koyaanisqatsi at Heineken Music Hall on Friday, 19 August. The performance will be accompanied by a screening of the film.