Classical Music Review: New Releases

Naqoyqatsi / Life As War - A Film by Godfrey Reggio; Music by Philip Glass.

One night when I was walking home from work I noticed a stalled bus on Van Ness, and a group of young people talking on the corner. An electrical fire had just been put out on the top of the nearly completed condo complex Pacific Place. And since there were reporters there and it was obviously going to be on the news, one in the group said he'd have to catch what happened when he got home. Here was something real, but he couldn't validate its existence without seeing it captured and fitted into the confines of his TV screen. Has "civilization" reduced us to this? Do we disbelieve everything until it's shown after the fact? Must all our of experiences be mediated and deflected?

These are some of the questions which Godfrey Reggio's strange and unsettling new film NAQOYQATSI / LIFE AS WAR asks.  The third installment in the director's QATSI trilogy it's also a significant departure from the first two. Where the 1982 KOYAANISQATSI / LIFE OUT OF BALANCE provoked, and the 1988 POWAQQATSI affirmed (MGM has just released them on DVD), this one broods big time. And what it broods on is how technology and the images it has produced have invaded our lives. Or as Reggio has remarked --" image has become pure illusion" -- and his film, which like the first two is pictures only with original music by Philip Glass, is a perfectly logical extension of POWAQQATSI's view of the first world preying on the third. Here technology preys on itself, and by extension, us. The picture's title also bears out the director's belief that "the new divine, the computer" is the most significant development in 5000 years. War has in effect been declared on the natural world, and therefore on our human way of living.

Reggio visualizes this brave new world by having his principal cameramen Russell Lee Fine, Timothy Housel, John Bailey (he shot Mishima, which Glass also scored), and a large tech team make much of what we see look fake. Most of the images -- 80% being stock footage -- are digitally altered -- colorized, de-colorized, stretched, slowed, speeded up, re-patterned, re-textured, and "re-animated". And since our god is now the computer, and your pc's icon something to click on rather than an object for contemplation, this was obviously the only way to go.

There are many arresting sequences here. One of the most amazing is one where we seem to be traveling inside a circuit which ends up looking like Lego building blocks.  There's lots of apocalyptic imagery too -- heaving oceans, mountains appearing in a digital desert, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder's intricate and realer than real 1563 painting "The Tower of Babel" which opens the film, as Reggio's camera zooms in slowly in perfect sync with Glass' gravely beautiful music played first by lower brass, lower strings, with Al De Ruiter's bass voice intoning "Naqoyqatsi", followed by a real human heartbeat, and star cellist Yo-Yo Ma's controlled yet highly emotive playing, and later the entire orchestra. And then we're inside a real location -- the abandoned Michigan Central Railway Depot in Detroit -- which perfectly matches the facades in Brueghel's picture. Reggio's use of the Tower of Babel is hardly accidental, and the images in this prologue are the germs or seeds from which the whole film grows. The story in Genesis, after all, begins -- "Now the whole world had one language and few words" -- and the director has chosen to tell his story in pictures with no words, which is how the world speaks now. And the fact that the Tower of Babel, which means Gate of God in ancient Akkadian, really did exist in Babylon,  which stretched from there to the Persian Gulf as Iraq does now, couldn't be more timely, or more frightening. The point of the biblical myth is that Yahweh had to punish human pride  -- " This is only the start of their undertakings! Now nothing they plan will be beyond them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so they cannot understand one another," and humankind still doesn't seem to have gotten the point. The end of this opening sequence is chilling -- crowds of people moving in dreamlike slow motion, their faces eyeless, blanched, as if they're the nuked yet still walking dead, frozen, at the very last moment, as a bar code bleeds in on the right of the screen, and they've become what we all seem to be becoming, and certainly in this society -- commodities.

Reggio devotes much of the rest of his picture to showing a "world where unity is held in the vice of technological homogenization", and this has a peculiar, but powerful effect -- everything, whether slow pans over Madame Tussaud's wax dummies of Dubya, Arafat, and other world leaders, angry protesters being beaten helpless by police, a beautiful woman eating a hamburger with obvious relish -- begins to look and feel neutral, each image of equal weight. But that, I think, is Reggio's point. And counterpoised against that are chastely erotic pictures of men and women smiling, touching, kissing, deflected and mediated by their appearance on a screen, but seeming nevertheless like something we've lost.

Reggio's plans for making NAQOYQATSI with Glass go back about 15 years.  Though the composer has been involved every step of the way with this project, he wrote the music only last year, from winter to summer, and it was recorded at the end of the year, with Ma's solos done separately this January. The score, superbly conducted by the composer's music director Michael Riesman, moves in perfect concert with the images, and augmenting, and sometimes  counterpointing them. The soundtrack on Sony Classical also stands completely on its own two feet -- pulsing, majestic, deep. If Glass doesn't get nominated for his work in this picture there's definitely something rotten in Denmark, er Hollywood. I should also mention a remarkable series of archival and rare recordings of earlier Glass stuff being undertaken by Kurt Munkacsi and Don Christensen on Orange Mountain Music. Three are available so far -- The Music of Candyman, Early Voice, and Descent Into The Maelström, and they're stunners. Check their site, or Amazon. You can even pick up the phone.

Michael McDonagh