Philip Glass – ‘Koyaanisqatsi’  A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Philip Glass – ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

September 29, in DVD Audio

There aren’t many movies that one could say have influenced a generation and yet are largely unknown, but 1983’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ falls squarely into that sparsely-populated category. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ didn’t pick up any Oscars® or break any box office records, but many ardent moviegoers will argue that it is one of the finest films ever made.

Godfrey Reggio’s first film, ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is an audio/video masterpiece, but one without obvious direction or narrative (other than that conjured up in your own head). Using either peripatetic slow-motion or increased-speed time lapse photography, Reggio examines American culture; inner-city high-rise buildings juxtaposed against wild desert landscapes and majestic mountain scenery in order to illustrate the desperation of man and his impact on the world around us. The title, pronounced Ko-YAWN-is-SCOTS-ee, is Hopi Indian for “crazy life”, “life in turmoil”, “life disintegrating” or “life out of balance”, which perfectly sums up the sprit of the piece.

The visual grandeur of Reggio’s tour de force has been widely copied and the work’s influence can be seen throughout contemporary media, especially when one examines popular music videos or grandiose advertising campaigns. But the impact of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ can only be attributed in part to its groundbreaking cinematic imagery; equally important is the original score penned by Philip Glass. If Reggio is to be considered unique, then the same must be said of Glass, whose works have led to him being hailed by some as the greatest living American composer.

Born in Baltimore in 1937, Glass obtained a grounding in composition at New York’s Julliard school before in 1960, he moved to Paris to further his studies under Nadia Boulanger. Greatly influenced by Indian and African cultures, Glass’ eclectic musical background was bound to become manifest as a highly original work, as was the case when in 1976 his “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was first staged.

Which brings us to the subject of this review, the release on DVD-Audio of the ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ score. This is not the original recording since it was reduced from almost eighty minutes to less than fifty due to the constraints of the vinyl playback medium of the day – but the 1998 re-recording. It is presented with 96kHz 24-bit resolution in both two-channel and 3/2.1 guises, the surround mix being created in mid 1999 by Michael Riesman and Kurt Munkacsi at the Looking Glass Studios in New York where this version was also originally recorded.

Philip Glass Koyaanisqatsi menu

Members of the Philip Glass Ensemble feature heavily alongside accomplished exponents of cello, double bass, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, viola, and of course Albert de Ruiter, whose haunting bass baritone rendition of the title opens and closes the piece.

Categorising the musical style of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is fraught with danger, but it is perhaps best surmised as a “minimalist” contemporary orchestral work, albeit punctuated by synthesised keyboards and stylised vocal performances. In parts, ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is similar to Klaus Doldinger’s ‘Das Boot’ soundtrack, in others Michael Nyman’s score from ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’, both of which it pre-dates.

Without the accompaniment of Reggio’s imagery however, I found the Glass score to be a decidedly hit and miss affair. The piece begins in a thoroughly impressive way; Glass conveys a sense of darkness and oppression, punctuated by the occasional glimmer of sonic and emotional brightness. The surround mix heightens the tension as dark, sweeping chords pan from front to rear towards the end of ‘Resource’, but it is downhill from there onwards as the film’s subjects become urban decay, over-population and pollution.

The music to accompany these passages, many of which consist of punctuated high-speed time-lapse photography is monotonous and excruciatingly repetitive. As part of the audio/visual whole, this part of the score serves a purpose and heightens the experience, but in isolation it is tedious in the extreme. The entire twenty-one minutes (and some) of ‘The Grid’ consists largely of the same two or three musical phrases and keyboard arpeggio repeated ad nauseam, to the point where those twenty-one minutes feels a whole lot like twenty-one hours.

In terms of fidelity however, the MLP DVD-Audio track is outstanding, especially in the area of bass reproduction. ‘Pruit Igoe’ features a bass-line that is powerful and deep, but it is not until midway through ‘The Grid’ that one fully appreciates the tactile quality of the low frequencies on offer, an experience that almost makes suffering through the entire track worthwhile.

Aside from a few deliberately steered surround events, both the 448kb/s Dolby Digital and MLP mixes could be considered conservative; instruments are spread around to the sides of the room but not in a distracting way, especially as when placed, they remain anchored in their original positions. In strict terms ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is a 3/2.1 mix, but as is so often the case, the centre channel is hardly used, other than to provide a moderate ‘fill’ between the front left and right channels. One could be forgiven for thinking that we were back in the days of Quad.

In terms of extras, the disc is fairly sparse. Included are a handful of still frames from the movie, a duplicate copy of the disc’s liner booklet notes, a list of musicians and a complete Glass discography.

Perhaps of most interest however, is the original movie trailer, which although short, gives one a taste of why the Glass music and Reggio imagery should be seen/heard as a whole, rather than experienced as two separate entities.

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  1. Brandon Lauer May 18, at 3:28 pm

    Though it was nice to find a review online for the ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ DVD-A, it would perhaps be better served if the reviewer actually had an appreciation for the music of Philip Glass.

    Certainly it is repetitive; but anyone who has listened to his music (or that of most any minimalist composer) and realises the concepts of minimalism understands that it is this repetition that makes the music. The situation seems similar to giving a country-western listener a work of Karlheinz Stockhausen to review.

    Again, thanks for the review, but perhaps be more choosey with the reviewer.

    • HighFidelityReview May 19, at 3:29 pm


      Thanks for your note.

      I’m actually quite familiar with the works of Philip Glass, ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in particular. However, as was mentioned in the DVD-Audio review, this piece was not intended to be experienced in isolation without Reggio’s imagery, and as such I felt Glass’ repetitive musical phrasing crossed that fine line between engrossing and downright annoying, something that cannot be said about many of his stand-alone compositions.

      The DVD-Audio review was not a commentary on the entire body of Glass’ works, although I felt readers should be made aware of the musical style, but upon the problems associated with separating an unusual soundtrack from the cinematic scenes it was intended to accompany.


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