It would be easy for modern audiences to dismiss Koyaanisqatsi. When this feature film, a seven-year collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, was first released in 1982, it was considered daring, radical, one-of-a-kind. But its artistic influence has been so profound and wide-reaching in subsequent years that the original article is in danger of appearing derivative.
Yet this sell-out concert screening – programmed as part of the Barbican’s Philip Glass at 75 celebrations – confirmed the film’s enduring appeal.
Inspired by a Hopi word meaning “crazy life”, “life in turmoil” or “life out of balance”, Koyaanisqatsi explores the relationship between man and his environment through 86 minutes of segueing visuals and an accompanying score. Starting with sweeping desert views, the film moves on to explore the ill effects of industry and commerce, using time-lapse imagery to chart traffic jams, commuter patterns and junk food production lines.
Each viewing reveals something different and something more, and this live orchestral version – a style of performance Glass has in the past described as his “preferred mode of presentation” – was no exception.
For a start it emphasised the frantic pace of the film; the first real pause in the music, which accompanies a scene of clouds scudding over the Manhattan skyline, the quiet roar of the city the only sound, felt like a desperate gasp for breath. It also allowed a deeper appreciation of the demanding nature of Glass’s composition – performed here by the Philip Glass Ensemble (the composer himself on the keyboard), the Britten Sinfonia and the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, conducted by Michael Riesman. And the slight imperfections on the night helped to humanise the music’s syncopated rhythms and knotted arpeggios.
But there were downsides too. The screen was too small and it was suspended behind the orchestra towards the back of the stage. We need to feel dwarfed by the scale of what we see – the blossoming of a nuclear mushroom cloud; the sequence of crumbling skyscrapers – and instead the visuals seemed incidental to the music.
This problem helped to highlight a wider point. Twenty-first-century audiences are well used to multimedia performance, and video art is now an important aspect of many contemporary music events, but true collaborations are rare: where is the Koyaanisqatsi de nos jours?