No matter how many times a piece has been played, it always changes a little : and sometimes a lot : when rendered by a different set of musicians. Philip Glass, who has performed the music he composed for the fi lm Koyaanisqatsi roughly 150 times around the world, knows the New York Philharmonic's style well: he's been coming to hear the Orchestra since he was a Juilliard student in the late 1950s.
So what will happen when he and the Philip Glass Ensemble perform it with the Philharmonic this month? The composer-performer sees the Orchestra as marked, more than anything, by continuity. "It's got a high level of professionalism, but there's an edge to most of what they play," he says. "The brass is very strong; the woodwinds are great. There's a toughness to this orchestra : and it's an orchestra that loves music."
In the late 1970s, when Philip Glass began to work on the music that would become Koy (as he calls it), he already had a track record. The Baltimore native had enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory at the age of eight, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and worked as assistant to both sculptor Richard Serra and sitar player Ravi Shankar. He'd helped pioneer minimalist music while playing in venues such as lower Manhattan art galleries, and, with director Robert Wilson, he composed the landmark avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach. But one thing he had not done was work on a feature-length film.
Nor, in fact, had Godfrey Reggio, and when the aspiring director with a philosophical bent first contacted Mr. Glass, the composer wasn't interested. He remembers: "I said, 'You know, I don't do film scores,' but a mutual friend called me and said, 'Look, this guy is going to stay in New York until you see this film. He lives in Santa Fe; just let him go home!'" When Mr. Reggio showed a demo reel of his film to Mr. Glass, cut with some of the latter's music, the composer was taken by the match, and admired the filmmaker's seriousness.
Work on the film : which later acquired the subtitle "Life Out of Balance" : was accomplished in pieces, taking two or three years, with Mr. Glass flying every few weeks to Mr. Reggio's studio in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. "No one knew what we were doing," Mr. Glass recalls. "We were two, basically, amateur filmmakers. It was the blind leading the blind."
One of the keys to making this idea-driven film coherent was the way the narrative, such as it was, moved. "The sequence came later," the composer says. "From those images of the West, to the city, to a very dense city, to a burned-out part of Harlem ... it looks like a post-apocalyptic image, but actually that summer there was a brownout and we went up and filmed it."
Koyaanisqatsi played film festivals in 1982, got a limited national release the next year, and did not exactly stand up at the box office alongside movies such as The Big Chill and The Return of the Jedi. This is an unconventional film, especially so at the time of its release: much of Koy plays with time, using time-lapse or slow or sped-up motion as it captures sweeping landscapes and intense urban images as Philip Glass's score waxes and wanes, at times blithely, alongside it. "When this first came out, it was a 'head' movie: you were supposed to get high, look at the lights," the composer observes. "But Godfrey is a very serious guy; he has ideas about the impact of technology on traditional life. He was trying to articulate something about critical social issues to the broadest audience he could find."
Then, as now, Mr. Glass's strategy was to not crowd the viewer with the emotional statements : foreboding, fear, joy : that Bernard Hermann or Nino Rota would imprint on a film. Instead, he kept, and continues to keep, his distance, and tries to make the music not merely decorative, but integral to the movie's structure. That approach has earned him three Academy Award nominations, for Kundun, The Hours, and Notes on a Scandal, and has inspired collaborations with everyone from David Byrne and Leonard Cohen to Aphex Twin. He has written scores for films by major figures including Paul Schrader, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese. He's composed string quartets, operas, symphonies, and everything in between, and is currently anticipating the world premiere of his Ninth Symphony in Austria, followed by its U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall on his 75th birthday, January 31. Still, Koyaanisqatsi : his first work in film : stands out as one of his life's great adventures. "With Godfrey," the composer reflects, "it was a collaborative process, since the music and images were made at the same time. The cinematographer would be listening to the music while he was filming. I got kind of spoiled. What really happens [with most films] is that the very last thing that goes into the film is the music."
The 1982 film's warning about the ravages of technology is even more urgent today than when it was created, and Philip Glass has performed it as often as any of his compositions. "With Dracula or La Belle et la B_te," he says, referring to scores he wrote for films by Tod Browning and Jean Cocteau, "you're aware of the passage of time. With Koy, you can get lost in the images and forget that it was 30 years ago. It's an evergreen. It's always the right time."
Scott Timberg writes about music and the arts from Los Angeles for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He runs the West Coast Culture blog TheMisreadCity.com.