Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word for 'life in chaos, life needing to change, crazy life', a perfect description of the current state of affairs when it comes to climate change, environmental degradation and the cancer that is neo-liberal capitalism. But those words sound almost dead; they have little impact. Presented by Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Godfrey Reggio and filmed Ron Fricke, the then experimental 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi is an exercise in, amongst other things, showing how dreadful things are, how badly mankind has messed up the planet, and to express the anguish of this fact using only image and this one word, although the film makers themselves have often said 'make of the film what you will'.
The images: scenes of the synthetic and natural world, seas and deserts, of rockets, building and destruction, of city skyscrapers and humanity rampant in this ‘silent’ film, created over five years, are still powerful in their own right. But now, naturally, much of the film seems quaint, with the old cars, dated signage, 70s fashion, even earth moving equipment develops a retro charm – if you wait long enough almost everything becomes cute. The poignancy of environmental degradation having since deteriorated to crisis point forms part of the experience of seeing the film again after so long. The reason Hamer Hall was packed last Friday night was, of course, that the Phillip Glass Ensemble was playing the score live. This performance was directed by Michael Riesman who has helmed the Phillip Glass Ensemble for many years. The music is as powerful and interesting and moving as ever; Glass being one of the world’s most monumentally influential composers who has collaborated with numerous great musicians over the years and with many famous film scores, operas symphonies and concertos to his name. That name is synonymous with the term 'musical minimalism', employing distinctive tide-like ebbs and flows, repetitions, subtle changes of tonal range and shifting, layered harmonies and rhythms. The music to Koyaanisqatsi is heavily dependent on keyboards; there were five on stage including a Hammond organ. The score includes prophecies sung by a choir in Hopi to the effect that digging precious things from the land inviting disaster, that near the day of purification cobwebs will be spun back and forth in the sky and that a container of ashes may one day be thrown from the sky which could burn the land and boil the oceans. Otherwise the only vocals comprise the word Koyaanisqatsi chanted repeatedly to eerie effect at the beginning and at the end by Albert de Ruiter in a solemn basso profundo voice. The music is ageless, affectingly meditative and hypnotic.
My concert companion shared an anecdote about a friend of his who knew Glass (now aged 80) in New York in the 70s when the composer was working as a taxi driver – apparently Glass would play tapes of his music to his passengers and would present them with a tape if they liked what they heard. Audience members stood in ovation while the ensemble took its bows.
Arts Centre Melbourne and Arts Projects Australia present
Philip Glass Ensemble
Venue: Hamer Hall Arts Centre Melbourne Melbourne, VIC
Date: 10 Mar 2017