Facebook Twitter

‘Koyaanisqati’ renews emotion in minimalist film

SHARE ‘Koyaanisqati’ renews emotion in minimalist film

NEW YORK -- When "Koyaanisqatsi" had its first showings in 1983, the term post-minimalism had not yet been coined. But this ecological meditation by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass proclaimed the limitations of minimalism as a description for a movement in the arts that stripped away certain traditional elements of structure and focused on others.

There was, after all, a degree to which contributions by Reggio and Glass to the project fit that original definition: The film has neither dialogue nor voiceovers, just Reggio's images and a score rich in the repetitive figuration that had become emblematic of minimalist music.But Reggio's vistas are varied and complex. Hopi rock paintings are contrasted with nuclear blasts and rocket launches; the unharnessed forces of wind and water with the mechanistic densities of modern urban life. Within these images, though, contradictions abound. Unblemished nature is shown to be beautiful, yet the rock formations and vast desertscapes also register as harsh and lethally inhospitable.

Modernity is mostly shown unflatteringly through glimpses of rusted metal, ruined buildings and machinery spewing pollution; yet Reggio's aerial film of highways, sped up so that the traffic melts into shimmering streams of red and white light, is spectacular.

These pictures are framed and manipulated in a painterly way, and they convey far more information -- and provocation to thought -- than dialogue could have done. Glass' score, despite its repetitions and motoric rhythms, abandons the abstraction of early minimalism in favor of an undeniable emotional current that reinforces

and interacts with the visual imagery. It is not just that the music colors our perception of the images; it works the other way around as well.

For a revival of the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the soundtrack was replaced by a live performance of the score by the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Stretches of the score use soft timbres, slow tempos and minor-key chord progressions that sound melancholy on their own, but suggest other things -- from grandeur to horrid fascination -- depending on what Reggio has on the screen. The more frenetic, brashly aggressive sections of the score are perfect accompaniments for Reggio's high-speed images of traffic patterns and electronic arcade games.

There are reasons to prefer the film in its pure form, with its original soundtrack, not least because the recorded sound -- a combination of electronic and orchestral instruments and the Western Wind vocal ensemble -- has a flexibility and breadth of timbres that cannot be equaled by Glass' ensemble of keyboards, winds and voices.

What the live performance had, though, is a visceral impact that the film score, even when played loud, does not equal. Perhaps because of differences in instrumentation, there were some appealing harmonic touches in the live version that are less apparent in the original.

Glass was among the keyboardists in his group, but as always, he left the conducting to Michael Riesman, who kept the rhythms of the score and the film closely matched.