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January 25, 2000

Modern ComposersKoyaanisqatsi. Music composed by Philip Glass. Performed by The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, conductor. (Nonesuch, CD # 79506-2) 1998.

American composer Philip Glass has become virtually a cultural icon. Not only were several pieces of his music used in the movie The Truman Show, Glass himself appeared briefly at the keyboard. Chuck Close's large portrait of Glass is one of the best known of Close's works. Glass even appeared in cartoon form in an episode of the television show South Park, as the personification of New York cultural sophistication. At least part of Glass's status is due to the phenomenal impact of his score for Godfrey Reggio's 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi.

The visual images of Reggio's film and Glass's musical images seem perfect complements of each other, and ideally constitute one unified experience for the viewer/listener. Even for listeners who know nothing of the film, however, the music of Koyaanisqatsi can be a powerful experience in itself. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of recording for the LP format, the version of the score that was released in 1983 was drastically abridged from the full score for the 87-minute movie. This new recording of the score includes about a half hour of material from the score that was not included on the first recording, omitting only a "few connective passages" of the music in the film score.

Surprisingly, another reason that Glass wanted a new recording of this music is the "infinitely greater surety and dexterity with which the Philip Glass Ensemble now plays the composer's music." With hindsight, Glass himself has said that "in the 1970s and early 1980s the ensemble was in the process of creating a musical language, [but] now we know the language, and we're fluent in it."

Though Philip Glass was thoroughly trained in the western mainstream of composition, he claims not to have been particularly influenced by European or American composers. One of the ways he characterizes the music is as "ahistorical," by which he means that "might conceivably have been written at any period in history....The harmonies are spare and consonant, the arrangement is starkly simple, and yet it's new."

After deleting the connecting passages referred to above, the score is presented on this recording in eight sections, with a total length of over 73 minutes. The longest section, titled The Grid, was cut almost in half for the 1983 LP, resulting in a severe diminution of its cumulative power, restored in this full-length version. The section begins simply, with "the brass puttering along with near-Elgarian pomp." This tone is short-lived, however, soon giving way to "one of Glass's trademark bright, rapid arpeggiated passages for keyboard and woodwinds" that continue "furiously and exhaustively, through hundreds of reiterations" toward an abrupt end. This new recording is as close as you can come to experiencing the near-hallucinatory mood of Reggio's film while driving down the road.

You can hear portions of Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, January 27 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

The Harbinger