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‘Koyaanisqatsi,’ film and soundtrack, back at Kennedy Center

The Philip Glass Ensemble gave a live performance of Glass’s soundtrack for the 1983 film “Koyaanisqatsi” on March 16. (James Ewing)

The Kennedy Center’s inaugural Direct Current festival is a celebration of contemporary music and art. Composer Philip Glass, after taking part in a performance of his piano études last week, returned to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday night with the Philip Glass Ensemble. As part of a screening of Godfrey Reggio’s experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi,” the group gave a live performance of Glass’s iconic soundtrack.

Glass and Reggio closely coordinated music and images in the film, with shifts between musical sections happening in conjunction with shot changes. This pacing proved difficult to reverse-engineer, with the ensemble not always at one with Michael Riesman, who led from the central keyboard.

The vocal sections were the best, in a crisply defined performance from members of the Washington Chorus, with their new music director, Christopher Bell, serving as conductor when Riesman’s hands were otherwise occupied. Bass Gregory Lowery had the low D for the ultralow “Koyaanisqatsi” ostinato motif, but it never quite resonated fully.

Score and film have weathered the decades quite well since 1983. Reggio showed the “life out of balance” of the Hopi title as a mixture of environmental and nuclear worries, which touched a nerve in the country after the chemical spills at Love Canal and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor. The issues seem tailor-made for our time once again, as the Environmental Protection Agency, created by President Nixon in 1970, is again under attack.

Likewise, the images from the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, a notorious symbol of racial segregation, were a reminder that those issues have not improved much in St. Louis either. Sequences of tall buildings collapsing from detonations now have uncomfortable resonance with memories of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on 9/11.

Unfortunately, the volume level of the amplification was often set far too high, making the loudest notes of the electronic keyboards and woodwinds unbearable to the ears. The music is meant to sound menacing and active, of course, but for the listener who wants to avoid hearing loss as long as possible, it was just too loud.