Pictures with rhythm

In the years since its release in 1982, Koyaanisqatsi’s strange allure has been sustained by ritual screenings in two distinct settings: student digs (viewed, conventionally, through a thick herbal haze) and arts festivals.

This landmark film, fruit of a seven-year collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, takes its name from a Hopi word that can be roughly translated as “crazy life”, “life in turmoil” or “life out of balance”.

The film runs for 86 minutes, entirely without dialogue, plot or protagonists, just a long series of seguing visuals and a score that matches their pace. And while there’s no political or environmental agenda as such, a critical assessment of man and machine is implicit in the telling.

It opens with aerial desert scenes then descends to chart the ill-effects of industry and commerce: traffic-choked highways, minced meat production lines, junk-food junkies and brain-dead commuters, and – one of the most uncomfortable shots – a silent line-up of Las Vegas waitresses wearing uniform Lycra and Mona Lisa smiles.

Powaqqatsi (“life in transformation”) and Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”) followed in 1988 and 2002 to complete a trilogy, but they did not – could not – have the same impact as the first film. It was the novelty of Koyaanisqatsi, coupled with the film’s scarcity before a long-awaited DVD release in 2003, that earned it that dubious honour, “cult status”. Fans of the film salute its strange beauty, its spiritualism, even, while others dismiss it as hippy nonsense – but no one can deny its significance, or the fame and kudos it brought to Glass.

“I remember when Koyaanisqatsi premiered in ’82, it was at the Radio City Music Hall, as part of the New York Film Festival, and that was 5,000 people already,” Glass says. “Some months later Godfrey rang me up and said, ‘Oh, our film’s going to be on PBS on Saturday night’. So I said, ‘Well what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘That means 6m people are going to see it.’

“I almost fainted. It never occurred to me that in my lifetime altogether 6m people would hear my music and, for the first time really, I understood the range of audience that film had available to itself.”

Composers such as Erich Korngold had lost favour with the critics for their involvement with film during the 1930s and 1940s. Even Aaron Copland’s score for a 1939 documentary, The City (a telling precursor to Koyaanisqatsi, as the music critic Alex Ross has noted), was largely overlooked. But Koyaanisqatsi not only established Glass as a popular film composer (soundtracks for Kundun, The Hours and Notes on a Scandal, among others, followed) but also secured him wide critical acclaim.

The Qatsi trilogy is now so central to Glass’s output that it will mark his debut appearance next month at the Edinburgh International Festival. All three films will be screened with a live concert at the Edinburgh Playhouse; Michael Riesman will conduct the Philip Glass Ensemble with the composer himself on keyboards.

As Jonathan Mills, director of EIF, explains, the Qatsi trilogy stands as a cultural monument in its own right, but relates closely to the founding principles of the festival. “Sir John Falconer, Lord Provost in 1947, suggested that [Edinburgh] should be a festival to embrace the world, and the world is a very strange place,” he says. “I think Godfrey Reggio’s films and Philip Glass’s music provide a very contemporary understanding of the immensity and the intimacy of that world, and the challenges we face. They have an incredible capacity to open our minds and reduce the space between us.”

It is astonishing that Glass has never yet appeared at the EIF. “In the past there was a policy that if you’d played any place in the UK you couldn’t play the same season at the Edinburgh Festival. I played in the UK the whole time. I had a different policy, I accepted work wherever I got it,” Glass explains. “I think I’ve been invited a number of times but we’ve never gotten our policies straightened out until now.”

There is a growing trend for concert film screenings. Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtrack was performed live at London’s Science Museum in 2009 and at the Brighton Festival last year. The Philharmonia Orchestra has presented Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey twice in the last couple of years, and this September the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Here again, Koyaanisqatsi enjoys its own tradition; one of the earliest concert screenings was given in 1985 at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, and Glass himself has performed the piece almost every year since then. What these performances guarantee is a one-off interpretation, an idea that plays to the film’s deliberate ambiguity, and Glass describes them as “the ­preferred mode of presentation”.

To call the score a “soundtrack” doesn’t really do it justice: the music is so tightly choreographed with the visuals that it’s perhaps more useful to see the whole work as belonging to a tradition of tone poems. On-screen dynamics are reflected in the score with low, menacing chants, the odd moment of silence and bold, brassy crescendos. But Glass’s trademark motifs – chugging arpeggios and interlocking rhythms – are evident throughout.

The influence of Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels has been huge, almost to the point of cliché. One trick shot, time-lapse footage of fast-scudding clouds, smoke-puffing factories and swarming crowds, has since cropped up in numerous TV ads, nature shows, shock docs and feature films. This kind of descriptive shorthand seems to have been one of Reggio’s ambitions for the film.

“I felt that the film medium has an implicit magic,” he said when interviewed in 1984. “I felt that we could actually develop a vocabulary of image that could be more articulate than the spoken word.”

In spite of all the rip-offs and imitations, Koyaanisqatsi still has the capacity to shock; some scenes – a sequence of crumbling skyscrapers, for example, eerily evocative of 9/11 – have even acquired new potency. And yet it’s easy to get distracted by quaint details: the pallid film quality, the snapshots of long-defunct technology, the sheer scale of someone’s perm.

I remark to Mills that Koyaanisqatsi is timeless in many respects but at the same time glaringly outdated. “Yes, like all great pieces of art,” he counters. “Its metaphors remain resonant and powerful, and yet its mode of delivery is of its time.”

Philip Glass Ensemble at the Edinburgh International Festival, August 13-15,

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