Saturday, 15 December 2012


Barbican, 14 December 2012

An excerpt from the film, depicting urban industrial life.

A peculiar birthday celebration for a great composer, showing a film that beautifies even industrialisation.

This review falls naturally into two parts, first on the form of this event and then on its content.

This was a concert performance of Philip Glass' music for the film Koyaanisqatsi. The film was shown on a screen behind a fairly large orchestra and choir.

The effect, then, was quite different from watching the film in a cinema. The screen was further and smaller, the sound more immediate. Whereas the stream of images comprising the visual aspect of the film would take precedence in a cinema, here it was the music that had the greater sensory impact.

We're familiar with this idea in relation to rescoring of silent films from 80 or so years ago, but this was the first time I'd experienced a film with its original soundtrack presented in this way.

The experiment was unwise. Scoring that may have been justified for the film in cinemas seemed extravagant for a concert hall. What were all those string players doing? And the brass? For most of the time they seemed silent, needed only for the crescendos of the insistent 'tracks'.

The concert was staged as part of the Barbican's birthday celebrations for the composer's seventieth, but I felt it didn't display his music at its best. I hadn't heard it previously; perhaps in its original cinema context it comes across as less second-rate Glass.

The images might also have been more impressive if they dominated my field of vision, as they would likely do in a cinema. Especially the first part, astonishing footage of various natural wonders and landscapes.

I suspect director Godfrey Reggio intended to have a very different impact than the one I experienced. Apparently the title translates from the Hopi as 'a life out of balance'. The first part of the film depicts 'unspoiled' majestic nature and the second part shows us our urban experience, or parts of it, normally sped up.

Presumably I was supposed to feel our lives are out of balance, something I would normally be receptive to. Instead, the images of urban life formed as beautiful a pattern as the previous images of rural solitude, and I experienced man's supposedly despoiling effect on the environment as something wholly natural and even beautiful.

It is strange to witness the grinding monotony of industrial life and feel nothing, except perhaps that it is possible to find transcendent beauty even there. A disturbing consequence is the viewer's collusion in dehumanising workers, but if the images are beatiful and the music is beautiful, I don't see how the effect could be otherwise.

Art lies, but I doubt this was supposed to be the response I left with.

I want to end the review on a positive note. The concert reminded me that Glass is a major composer, prolifically creating music that is popular, individual and influential. His willingness to collaborate with others is commendable, personified here in his willingness to become just another player in the orchestra, conducted by Michael Riesman.

The audience gave him a standing ovation, and this seemed fully deserved, in his roles as both composer and interpreter of his music.

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