Sunday, April 19, 2009

Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Cinematography has proven itself as an art form time and time again. I'm not going to make a fool of myself and say it's superior to, say, literature, given the fact that you really can't compare them, but I will say that, with the possible exception of theatre, nothing can be as challenging to the senses as the synesthesia a great movie provides. Synesthesia achieved thanks to, in no small part, that atmospheric device so brutally ignored by most of today's filmmakers: the soundtrack.

Flash back to 1960. Bernard Hermann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", particularly during the shower scene, became an auditory icon of terror. 8 years later, Stanley Kubrick used Richard Strauss' "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" to make one of the most instantly recognizable openings in cinema history. Go to 1972. Andrei Tarkovsky's highway scene is a hallucinating journey through technological anxiety, that gives me the chills every time.

Cue in Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio's cult visual poetry about the condition of modern man. Now, I haven't seen the film yet, even though it's on my desk, staring me in the face every day. I will get to that, eventually, but for now, let's focus on the sonic part of it - the brilliant soundtrack scored by contemporary classical composer Philip Glass. First released in 1983, after the movie, it was only 46 minutes long, even though the movie was, like, 87 minutes long. In 1998 it was re-recorded and released as a 73 minutes long album (note: the link here is for the '98 release). I'd like to say that I've been a huge fan of this guy for quite a while now, but, in all honesty, I first heard his music while watching the "Watchmen" movie (Who watches the Watchmen? I am!). It contained two tracks off this album, namely Pruit Igoe and Prophecies. Yet I was not aware of that. They popped in during Dr. Manhattan's story about his past, when arriving on Mars. I heard a cello-based melody so awesome, that I didn't believe it was composed for the film. It had a baroque styling that reminded me of Vivaldi, yet had balls in a Beethoven-esque 9th Symphony (Ist Part) sort of way. I was puzzled. What the fuck could it have been? Surely the creator of such a piece is long gone, and probably has a statue in the park of some European capital. The second song there, "Prophecies", made me think of Bach, with it's mournful atmosphere and key progressions. Seriously, if there was one part of that movie that I couldn't have imagined doing better, it was that. Good job, Zack.

So, I've headed home and searched for the movie soundtrack, only to find that 2 of the songs were composed by Philip Glass. I saw no Bach, no Beethoven, no Vivaldi or anything like that on the track listing. The name rang a bell and I was like, "What the fuck, Quatsi?"; having not seen Koyaanisqatsi, I thought that the much-fabled soundtrack would be some sort of avant-garde starving artist pseudo-intellectual new-yorker with a keyboard type of thing. "Fine, fuck it", so I searched Pruit Igoe on YouTube and came across this. Goddamn, that's the song. That magnificent cello. That grandiose atmosphere. Philip Glass, you're the man. I downloaded the album right away.

Well, it's not classical through and through, as it sort-of uses samples and keyboards and other electronica shit I'm not quite able to name, but don't worry, they're used in traditional symphonic ways, so you won't find dance music or techno here. The entire thing flows great, and Mr. Glass seems to have a boner for droning, repetitive sections, so drone fans might like this. Also, there are vocal harmonies to be found. The ritualistic chant in the first track is great, but sometimes, they're a bit too much, as in the 21 minute epic "The Grid". However, the flow of the album may also be it's weakness. While great in theory, some sections do seem to wander off or linger for too long, making the album a bit tiresome after a few listens. However, I guess they need the visual support of the movie to overcome that, given their symbiosis.Philip Glass' work here is not flawless, but it is indeed a mindfucking experience that's sure to leave you in awe. Get at all costs.

The last movie with a good score was There Will Be Blood, but still, the world needs another musically-inclined director like Kubrick or Reggio, should cinema climb out of the gutter it sank into for the last decade or so. I'm gonna go watch Koyaanisqatsi later, hopefully, and I suggest you do the same. Sit back, relax, and enjoy pure cinema at it's best.




  1. "Now, I haven't seen the film yet, even though it's on my desk, staring me in the face every day."

    fuck man, you really should watch it like... right now! great movie.

  2. Definitely. It requires a capable attention-span, but it's definitely rewarding if you put forth the effort to watch it. I first saw it when I was 14, and it continues to amaze me. Much respect for posting this, and writing such a well thought-out review. Philip Glass is indeed the man!

  3. havent seen this film, but im definitely gunna check it out =]

    just wanted to say that this is one of the best blogs ive ever seen, great stuff on here =]
    i used to run but it all got erased or w/e. but good stuff on here man =] Philip Glass is sick, thanks for showin him to me