Cinema Sounds: Koyaanisqatsi

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    It’s almost tough to call Koyaanisqatsi a soundtrack. Heck, it can be tough to call Koyaanisqatsi a movie. Instead, the piece should be seen as a transcendent piece of art that fuses stunning images and powerful music into an amazing experience.

    Many people have called this collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass a tone poem, which does fit quite well. This isn’t a film with characters, dialogue or a concrete narrative structure; rather, the music, with its delineated sections and repeated motifs is given a deeper meaning. The music gives a richer emotional impression to the images, and the images reinforce the structure of the music.

    The film (which is available in its entirety on YouTube (legally at that)) opens with the stark imagery of Native American wall paintings, from Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon, paired with deep, bassy, chanted vocals. The primitive art combined with the minimalist accompaniment establishes a base from which the rest of the soundtrack will jump. Slowly, the frame pulls out and an arpeggiated organ is added into the mix.


    The tinny organ motif is given a second layer, higher on the keyboard, as the imagery is switched to a close-up of a rocket being launched. The contrast startles, to say the least. After the simple, understandable humanity of the wall paintings, the surreal, destructive and inhuman fire of the rocket is a complete shock to the system.

    But this image soon fades, in a flash of white light, into a desolate desert scape, and then a series of organic images, as Glass’ “Organic” begins. This first transition foreshadows the theme of the piece: that man’s intentions may not matter, the end result may be destructive and return us to the primacy of nature. In fact, Koyaanisqatsi translates from Hopi to Life out of Balance, Life Disintegrating, or something along those lines.

    As Ron Fricke’s amazing cinematography unfolds the stunning images of desert landscapes, Glass’ music invites an air of anxiety and tension. As is Glass’ style, the music is largely composed of layered repetitions. Swooning organ churns as clarinet arpeggios sit in the forefront, sounding much like a slowed, weeping alarm of some kind. As the desert scenes exit and water imagery take over, the strings chug and crash like waves, the alarm arpeggio quicker, more aggressive. Horns repeat a theme similar to the opening, warbling and stabbing over the waves.


    But, once again, man’s destructive force is seen interrupting the majestic natural beauty. As “Resource” begins, a mining truck rolls into sight, smoke funneling through the screen. The orchestra’s punctuated, chugging sounds that were meant to imitate the water remain, but without the smooth background, leaving a sound much like that of an engine stuttering. Power lines, dams and even an atomic explosion scar the natural imagery as epic minor key arpeggios struggle for dominance.

    A droning lilt of two-note female vocals enters the score, a haunting, yet slick wail. A quick cut shows a mother and child lounging on a scraggly beach, as a dune buggy rolls along behind. The camera pans up to show a power plant of some kind. This shows the precarious nature of man; even in nature, man is never too far away from destruction and cold, technological chaos. One could only imagine what Reggio and Fricke could put together with the even more technological world we inhabit today. Other shots of the modern society include Soviet tanks, an airplane taking off and an overhead of sailors on a ship spelling out e=mc2.

    “Cloudscape” quickly follows, again juxtaposing the simplicity of nature with the surreal chaos of humanity. Time-lapse photography of the New York City skyline, complete with scuttling traffic, is shadowed and covered by passing clouds. “Pruit-Igoe” shows a series of images of housing projects, most of them in rubble, some with people still attempting to live through the destruction, as the staccato thunder of horns and winds accentuate the tragic nature of the film.


    “The Grid” shows a series of sped-up slices of life, monitoring the hectic pace of modernity. The moon crosses behind a skyscraper; the sun rises as ant-like people scatter around the city. Glass’ composition crescendos and rushes, synth, saxophone and vocals flopping and (once again, in extreme Glass style) repeating arpeggios. People shop at a mall, watch a movie, eat, sleep and live their lives in extremely high speed. Eventually, the film switches to a television, the channels and images flipping manically, between dramatic car crashes, commercials, newscasts and more. But rather than coming to a head, the music and the imagery merely fades away.

    “Microchips” follows, contrasting imagery of microchips with satellite photos of cities. After a few minutes of near silence, high octave organ returns with the arpeggiated theme, as shots of people working, this time slowed to a normal pace, returns. This change, after the long series of high speed shots, is jarring. The slowed pace seems depressed, and the shimmering organ doesn’t do much to change that tone. An old man waits for someone to take a brochure as hundreds of people pass. Another man is lifted onto a stretcher. A woman sits in a car, waiting for something that isn’t coming.

    “Ending” comes soon after. The shots of the rocket launching returns, yet this time it isn’t quite clear whether it’s just another image of human destruction, or being offered as an alternative, an idealized escape from the ridiculous reality of modern life. The slowed video is accented by the organ arpeggio, but this time with the deep, bassy vocals of the opening return. The possibility of the escape is soon gone, though, as footage of a rocket falling back to earth in flames appears, as the tragic, hollow vocals continue their rumble. And, in the end, the Native American wall paintings remain.


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