Qatsi trilogy with Philip Glass live score highlight of Edinburgh International Festival
EIF 2011 screening of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi
This article is from 2011.
The EIF’s screening of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy will be accompanied live by the composer Philip Glass. Neil Cooper looks at the journey of their remarkable collaboration
One of the earliest Edinburgh screenings of Koyaanisqatsi, the first of Godfrey Reggio’s remarkable trilogy of films scored by minimalist composer Philip Glass, was in an old porn cinema opposite what is now the Festival Theatre, then a bingo hall. Shown in tandem with Luc Besson’s suitably subterranean The Last Battle, Koyaanisqatsi’s dizzying panorama of awe-inspiring landscapes was lent an extra frisson by the venue’s seedy gloom, and by the late-night weekend melée occuring just outside the venue doors. The phrase ‘Life out of balance’, which the Hopi Indian word ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ translates as, seemed highly appropriate.
Now, almost three decades since Koyaanisqatsi’s release, both it and its two sequels, 1988’s Powaqqatsi (Life in transition) and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi (Life as war), are being screened at the Edinburgh International Festival on consecutive nights. To show how far the trilogy’s standing has come since the porn cinema days, all three films will be accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble playing the soundtrack, with Glass himself at the keyboard in, remarkably, the New York-based composer’s EIF debut.
The appearance of both Glass and the Qatsi trilogy mark Festival director Jonathan Mills’ ongoing introduction of more left-field contemporary musical forms. Though laudable, there is room to wonder whether the transition of such an obliquely counter-cultural body of work from low-level cult status to the establishment acceptance of Edinburgh Playhouse might cause something to be lost in translation. Speak to the trilogy’s director, however, and Reggio makes clear that his films aren’t as underground as they’re presumed to be.
‘To a person,’ Reggio recalls, ‘everyone on the crew felt the film wouldn’t be seen, and that it would be viewed as an oddity. Then to mine and everybody else’s surprise we were invited to screen it at the New York Film Festival at the Radio City Music Hall, which holds 5000 people. On opening night at 7.20pm the only person there was the mother of one of the crew, then at 7.45pm the hall was packed, and it played to full houses for the next three weeks.’
In the intervening years, Reggio’s mesmeric visual meditation, which took seven years to complete, has ducked in and out of view, appearing on DVD in 2002 after a decade out of print before being selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress on the ground of its cultural significance. Koyaanisqatsi’s two sequels are similarly breathtaking in their scope and ambition, and, particularly in the case of Naqoyqatsi, a sense of historical happenstance. During filming, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre had a profound influence on the film.
The roots of such a remarkable body of work – wordless, panoramic, and with footage slowed down or speeded up to indicate the contradictory rhythms of urban and pastoral environments – date back to the time Reggio spent as a monk with the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers and later as an activist concerned with the use of technology to control behaviour.
‘I had never made a film before,’ Reggio says. ‘I had never been to film school, but the world we lived in was upside down, and with Koyaanisqatsi we wanted to try and give people watching it a feeling for that rather than feed them information. So the film is a baby of naïveté, where we were doing things with the film that we might not have done if we had been to film school. These films get called documentaries, but they’re not really documentaries. They’re not about meaning. They’re a visceral experience in the way that art films are.’
While the visual poetry of the trilogy is itself a stunning feat, Glass’ score is essential to the overall sensory experience. The composer’s presence, both on the soundtrack and at live events such as the EIF screenings and performances, also undoubtedly helps to boost the box office. If some people had had their way, however, Glass might never have been involved with the project.
‘Nearly everyone to a man was against my choice of Philip Glass,’ says Reggio. ‘He’s an extraordinary composer, and I knew I wanted him from the start, but the crew felt he was a member of the broken needle. They wanted Bach or Beethoven or one of the other old masters. Anything that wasn’t new. But I knew the soundtrack had to be new, so I contacted Glass and I knocked on his door, and he said that he didn’t do film work. Eventually he agreed to come to a screening of the film, I think just to get me off his back, and he watched the film, and straight afterwards he said, “When do we start?” In the films one medium illustrates the other. It’s a hand-in-glove operation, so the music and the film become at one with each other, and I’m delighted to say that our collaboration is now going into its 34th year.’
Making feature-length art films with the breadth of the Qatsi trilogy, though, even with Glass on board, is something probably even harder sell to Hollywood now than when Reggio set out on his fantastic voyage.
‘These films are an anomaly,’ he admits. ‘No one watched anything from these films until they were finished, because they’re very difficult to explain in advance of making them. You can’t say what a meal’s going to taste like until it’s cooked, and equally you can’t explain what such a collaborative process as making these films is going to result in. So it’s been a very big journey, and I’m very proud of my children. They make me very happy.’
And so the Qatsi journey goes on, with screenings accompanied live by Glass already seen and heard across the globe, and dates with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and at New York’s Lincoln Centre taking place later this year.
‘These are real events,’ Reggio observes, ‘that are about more than just the films. You don’t just hear the music at these events. You feel it in your solar plexus so you can’t move from it.’
Press reactions, good and bad, to Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy
Life out of Balance (1982)
‘Koyaanisqatsi, void of performers, dialogue and overt story line, delivers satisfaction on so many levels that it could very well excite mass audiences if promoted properly … The film’s score by Philip Glass is an outstanding achievement in itself. Striking and intense, it has been so well executed that it melds with the visuals perfectly, always enhancing, never detracting or overpowering …’
The Hollywood Reporter
Life in Transformation (1998)
‘A lot of this footage is impressive, as much for Mr Reggio’s enterprising way of finding unusual faces, places and artifacts as his gift for framing these glimpses in interesting ways. But these virtues have as much to do with coffee-table art as with cinema.’
The New York Times
Life as War (2002)
‘At times painful to watch, at times as gentle as an Eskimo kiss, the film slowly softens your resistance to its lack of narrative by means of a non-stop barrage of often surreal imagery accompanied only by composer Philip Glass’s chanting, swirling, droning, pounding score. What it wants to do is not so much make a point, but to leave you drooling into your popcorn from the corner of your mouth.’
The Washington Post
All performances at Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, Koyaanisqatsi: 13 Aug; Powaqqatsi: 14 Aug; Naqoyqatsi: 15 Aug, 8.30pm, £12–£35.