The Qatsi Trilogy: Counterpoint and Harmony

Philip Glass is, or was, or never was, a minimalist. Like most artists—like most people—he dislikes being lumped into a category. He has long disavowed the minimalist label, especially for his music after the mid-1970s. Koyaanisqatsi, the first film in Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, was released in 1983.

Still, the term applies to the scores for the three Qatsi films, especially Koyaanisqatsi, whose roots lie in the late seventies. The Qatsi music evolved over the two decades it took to get the movies made, mirroring the evolution of Glass’s overall style as well as that of the films themselves, and of what quickly became a uniquely symbiotic collaboration between Glass and Reggio, a composer and a director seemingly destined to work together.

At this late date, with Glass having attained the patriarchal age of seventy-five, some of the polemics about minimalism have abated. He’s still in some ways boyish, but he is also a father figure for generations of younger composers, some of whose music sounds in no way like his own. Yet his detractors persist in perceiving his music as minimalist, not to say simplistic, and the term minimalism is still meaningful in discussions of his work, then to now.

But “then to now” embraces several distinct phases, even if the phases overlap and examples of an earlier style, or underlying constants, crop up in Glass’s later works. Those phases consist of his early music for the Philip Glass Ensemble (which coalesced from a circle of friends in 1967–68), his opening out to operas and symphonic works for conventional classical forces, his fascination with third-world instruments and instrumentalists and styles, and his more recent interest in small-scale pieces, often but by no means only for solo piano or cello.

Despite the idiosyncratically configured Ensemble (keyboard synthesizers, winds, and a wordless soprano soloist), with its high amplification and predilection for playing in rock-club-like venues (or actual rock clubs), Glass has never been a pop music composer, never been driven by the crude commercial calculations sometimes attributed to him. Like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, his two fellow pioneering “motoric minimalists,” as I once called them, Glass had third-world formative influences, primarily Indian ones. An often-told story has Glass being hired in Paris in the midsixties to transcribe some of Ravi Shankar’s sitar improvisations into Western notation. He has said that he misunderstood some of their structural underpinnings and, through this misunderstanding, invented his new, “minimalist” style.

That style was already far removed from the purest forms of minimalism of the late fifties and early sixties—drones, or repeating note patterns or chords, or even conceptual scores with no sounds at all. Glass’s music from the midsixties consisted of discrete blocks of music (or “cells,” as the critic Royal Brown has called them), built up with a few diatonic scale notes strung together in simple patterns. The cells would repeat in rapid-fire sequences, subtly varied from repetition to repetition (too subtly for his detractors to hear), forming a skein of dancing patterns that made for larger, longer, hypnotic arcs.

This was Glass’s fast mode; his slow mode stretched out the cellular patterns, offering a mournfully contemplative underpinning to long, sometimes improvised lyrical lines from the wind soloists. Harmonic movement from cell to cell or section to section was nonexistent or rare; when a key did change, it did so suddenly, without the transitional smoothing that defines post-Bach practice. Sections or movements began abruptly and ended abruptly; there was no building to climaxes.

By the midseventies, however, Glass had begun to introduce more harmonic change and chromatic lines into his music. This process started with the later stages of Music in Twelve Parts (1971–74), continued with Another Look at Harmony (1975–76), and culminated in Einstein on the Beach (1976, which incorporated some of Another Look at Harmony).

Theater director Robert Wilson and Glass called Einstein an opera, but in any conventional sense it wasn’t: no sung text (except for numbers and solfège syllables), no trained operatic voices, no orchestra. Yet its success awakened European opera impresarios to Glass’s potential as an opera composer, and his first “real” operas (still generally considered his greatest) came soon after: Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983). A veritable onslaught of operas and orchestral works has followed.

Glass’s early operas were hardly his first forays into collaborative dramatic music, however. He had provided instrumental accompaniment for productions of the experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines since the midsixties. He credits that work with developing his interest in both collaboration and allying his seemingly abstract musical style with dramatic needs, in whatever genre (opera, theater, dance, film).

He had never scored a feature-length film before Godfrey Reggio approached him in the late seventies (post-Einstein, pre-Satyagraha) to work with him on Koyaanisqatsi. Glass was dubious about film, especially the corporate Hollywood variety, considering it to be a director’s or, worse, producer’s medium, with the composer very much the tail wagging weakly at the back of the dog.

But Glass perked up when he saw some of the unedited footage Reggio had shot, and when they began to talk about how their collaboration might proceed. It was to be—and turned out to be—a true partnership, with basic decisions about the dramatic arc and the editing made jointly. Since then, of course, in addition to Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), Glass has scored many movies, including Hollywood ones, but only with directors and producers whom he respects and who will allow him a roughly similar level of collaborative input. And following the Reggio-Glass short documentary Anima Mundi, from 1992, the pair now have a fourth feature in the works, Visitors, which will enlist a large orchestra. Reggio has joined the likes of Wilson and conductor Dennis Russell Davies in the inner circle of lifelong Glass artistic partners.

The instrumentation of Koyaanisqatsi has undergone several metamorphoses since the film’s release. But in whatever configuration, the music remains based on Glass’s late Ensemble style. For the soundtrack, all the string, brass, and woodwind parts (the winds drawn primarily from Ensemble members) were played on those actual instruments. There were also the Ensemble keyboards and soprano soloist, an actual pipe organ (reinforced by a synthesizer), a bass singer intoning a low D and overdubbed into a unison chorus, plus an actual chorus. For the original ten-member touring ensemble, when Glass and Reggio began their highly successful practice of showing the film with live musical accompaniment, some of the orchestral parts were transferred to sampling and keyboard synthesizers. Since then, there have been live screenings with a full orchestra and the Ensemble, with symphonic orchestration to suit the circumstances.

Although happy to admit an initial lack of knowledge of film and film-music theory, Glass evolved his own language to describe the relation of his music to Reggio’s images. Visually, Koyaanisqatsi is built up in sections analogous to Glass’s chains of blocks or cells. There are clouds, rushing water, bobbing heads in crowds, a NASA rocket launch, desert aerial shots, and much more. Glass worked with Reggio on the flow of those images, drawing on his own experience in theater. They were particularly successful in shaping the narrative or dramatic arc of the film, moving from the mythic emptiness of Monument Valley to restless nature to the encroachments of civilization to the climactic rocket launch, explosion, and falling, flaming shards.

Glass has said he thinks of his music for The Qatsi Trilogy as alternately “under the image,” “on top of the image,” and “next to the image.” He has added that his under/on top of/next to formulation could work for music either in the foreground or background. I would suggest that he is alluding to the degree of closeness with which his music is tied to the images (individually or in sequences). Sometimes Glass would compose the music and Reggio would edit to it; sometimes the two worked more closely together. But rarely does the music attempt, in any literal sense, to echo the images. Glass’s choices as to what should accompany a sequence are, of course, subjective; another composer might choose entirely different music. For instance, sped-up cloud movements, for Glass, called for brasses; a miragelike vision of a 747 at the Los Angeles airport, shimmering in heat waves, meant for him a chorus, to evoke the floating freedom of this massive machine.

For me, the most striking pairing of image and music comes in Koyaanisqatsi’s climactic sequence of the ascending, exploding, and falling, ever-slowing rocket. Glass reduces the music to a drone and solo synthesizer/organ. The effect is like a dirge, despairing and consoling. The scene mirrors the spiritual center of Einstein on the Beach, in which a fluorescent-lit bed rises slowly to the vertical and then up into the flies, accompanied first by similarly stark and mournful music, then by solo soprano.

Glass has spoken of “the dance Godfrey has been having with technology that began with Koyaanisqatsi”—a dance that’s taken him from sped-up and slowed-down sequences of nature and technology to more extreme instances of such manipulations in Powaqqatsi and the radical animation and colorizations of Naqoyqatsi. (To judge from raw footage of Visitors, that process continues there, into infrared photography in particular.)

For his symphonies and operas since the mideighties, Glass has largely settled into a basic alternation of slow and fast sections, the elements of the blocks usually less varied and more stolid than the quicksilver Ensemble style (reflecting in part the difficulty of getting overworked and impatient professional musicians to master the subtleties of his music). But he attempts to compensate for the dangers of predictability by varying the surface of the music with a dazzling array of instrumental color and clever collaborative interactions.

The music for the second and third Qatsi films shows that evolution, though not always to a degree comparable to the increase in Reggio’s technological manipulation. Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi lack the kind of dramatic line found in Koyaanisqatsi; they present a steadier series of images showing, in the case of Powaqqatsi, the varieties of life and the inroads of Northern “civilization” in the Southern Hemisphere, and the distortions of technology and the horrors of war
in Naqoyqatsi.

For Powaqqatsi, Glass has overlaid his basic fast and slow modes with all manner of gorgeous third-world instrumentation, above all the extraordinary soulfulness and virtuosity on the kora, balaphon, and other instruments of Foday Musa Suso, the Gambian griot and musician, with whom Glass has frequently collaborated. Variation on the Glassian fundamentals comes largely through the wonderfully flamboyant musical colorations of these exotic instruments (along with the blends of the Ensemble and electronics with live classical instruments).

For Naqoyqatsi, Glass unabashedly turns to a full symphonic ensemble, with often fleet or intensely lyrical writing for the strings. The string playing is led by the solo cello of Yo-Yo Ma, who was a fairly late addition to the piece; Glass had already written, or conceived of, a considerable number of lead solo lines, reflecting his latter-day fascination with solo instrumental writing. But he easily adapted those lines for the cello and for Ma, who soon became the musical soul of the film. Glass’s intention, he has written, was to balance the tortured distortions and “civilized violence” of Reggio’s images with “natural,” humanistic music. When Ma came on board, “the solo cello quickly emerged as the ‘voice’ of the music, lending the score an overall human dimension.”

The three Qatsi films, then, represent milestones in the respective filmic and musical evolutions of their creators. All three collaborations work so effectively, however, because each man sought the freedom to work on his own, even while an instinctive sympathy with and respect for the other assured a contrapuntal but harmonious whole. Glass wanted to help shape the overall project yet also to be able to compose music that reflected his musical concerns of the moment—minimalist or long since postminimalist. Reggio wanted, as he once put it, music “in tandem with the image but not in place of the image,” not crudely illustrative but working together with the visuals to create something greater than image or sound alone. He felt from the first that Glass’s music had a presence that was “ever ascending and never arriving . . . music as a journey.” Each man got exactly what he wanted.

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