The time has never been more right, said composer Philip Glass on the phone from Montreal last week. So he's embarked on a four-week tour of "Koyaanisqatsi Live!," which makes its Washington debut at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow and Friday nights as part of District Curators' Multi Kulti series.
The screening of Godfrey Reggio's nonverbal film "Koyaanisqatsi" (a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance") in conjunction with a live soundtrack performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble premiered in front of capacity audiences at New York's Avery Fisher Hall in 1985, two years after the movie was released. In 1987, the Glass ensemble toured extensively with the film, which by then was well on its way to becoming an art house, video and PBS staple. Still, Reggio's 88-minute cautionary essay on the maddening and often destructive pace of modern society and its impact on environmental harmony -- an experimental, sometimes kaleidoscopic assault on the eyes, sans dialogue or narrative -- wasn't always so well received, according to Glass.
"What some people initially thought about the film was that Godfrey was some kind of aging hippie and that he was really out there in the zone," Glass recalled. "But after seven or eight years of discussions about environmental issues, the ozone, the ecosystem and all of that, people are much more ready to see the film as being highly relevant. When I look back on the film now, I see how Godfrey was very much ahead of his audience. ... Some straight film critics saw it as this trippy little movie -- they didn't see the content at all. It's taken much more seriously now."
From the outset, Glass explained, he took the project very seriously. He considers his score, which won the 1983 Los Angeles Film Critics Award, one of his major works, on the same level as his myriad opera and orchestral pieces. In fact, he recalled being so excited about the film when he first began to collaborate on it in 1980, five years after Reggio began work on it, that he told Reggio he'd like to see the work evolve into a trilogy, which is just what happened.
"He didn't have that idea," Glass said of his partner, a former Christian Brother, youth counselor and media consultant. "When I first met him, he used to say, 'This is my one and only film. I just want to make this movie because I have something to say and that will be that.' Now we've made a second movie" -- "Powaqqatsi," or "life in transition," which explores the effects of modern technology on emerging societies -- and we're beginning to work on a third" -- "Naqoyqatsi," an examination of "life in war" around the globe. "I think he still finds it hard to believe that he's thought of as a truly innovative filmmaker."
Reggio has described Glass's contribution to "Koyaanisqatsi" as equal to his own, providing the musical equivalent of dialogue. But Glass sees it differently -- for him, the work brought to mind silent films.
"I don't think we invented a new genre so much as rediscovered an old one," observed Glass, who plays one of the synthesizers on the tour. "Before the '30s, it was common to have large symphonic accompaniments to film, so I look at it as a kind of a return to a historic time when images and music reigned supreme."
Presenting images, especially racing time-lapse images, with live music, poses certain challenges, however. Not the least of them is keeping everything in sync, a feat that once prompted Glass to label "Koyaanisqatsi Live!" a "high-skill performance art."
"Michael Riesman, who conducts the ensemble and was also the musical director for the film, is astonishing," Glass volunteered. "His timing is remarkable. We don't use a click track" -- the electronic equivalent of a metronome -- "because we thought that it would deprive us of the excitement of a live performance. Michael watches the film instead and synchronizes the music as we go along. ... There's a certain scene that happens after a lot of speeded-up motion that ends with an overview of Manhattan shot from a helicopter -- a kind of very lazy montage of the city. Last night Michael hit that cut perfectly and you could hear the people in the audience gasp. It was very exciting."
Another challenge was rearranging the score for a small ensemble -- a synthesizer band with three wind players and a singer. However, Glass said that by using digital sampling technology he's been able to create "a highly successful match with the soundtrack. And the score is so varied," he added, "that there's nothing tedious about the event. In fact, audiences really seem to love it on tour. We get a standing ovation at the end nearly everywhere we go."
In connection with the film's environmental theme, benefit tickets are available for tomorrow night's show, which includes a reception at the Hard Rock Cafe. Proceeds will benefit Greenpeace, Green Cross, the Washington Review and District Curators. For information, call District Curators at 202-783-0360.
Richard Harrington's On the Beat column will return.