Q&A: Koyaanisqatsi Director Godfrey Reggio On Dragging Philip Glass Into Film Scoring

Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story "Philip Glass, An East Village Voice," Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

Today we are publishing the first of several interviews with Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi (the entire film is embedded above, courtesy of Hulu) and its sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Reggio "bothered the hell out of" Glass to drag him, kicking and screaming, into scoring his first film in the late 1970s (though Glass had previously composed music for a couple of TV projects like Sesame Street). Thirty-five years later, the two are still collaborating together, now on their fourth film the holy see, which is in post-production.

In this installment, we talk to Reggio about how he initially chose Glass as his composer, and how his team started making a film without dialogue, spoken narration, or a traditional screenplay.

I'm sure you've told this story a number of times, and I've heard variations of it, but can you tell me about how you first met Mr. Glass?

Well, I first met him through his "Village voice," as it were—his music. I was a neophyte. I didn't know anything about who was doing. I was coming out of a religious community, a Catholic monk, working with street gangs, and what did I know.

Were you living in New York City at the time?

No, I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And [a friend], a... composer said that she would be my assistant in finding out what was happening with new composers. For about six months, she played music for me. But I must say, the first time I heard Philip's music, the first piece of music I heard of his was a piece called "North Star."

Which was done years and years ago for a documentary on [sculptor] Mark di Suvero, and so the piece of music moved me. I had listened to all kinds of music from all over the world. The two people that I ended up liking the most were Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and after sitting about it and thinking about it, as much as I like Riley's music because I found it quintessentially spiritual—if I can use that word—that it opened up many doors, at the end of the day, I felt that Philip Glass's music was more structured, and had more form, and that that would be very important to the film.

Now, what was I looking for? I was looking for music that didn't illustrate what I was showing on the screen. I was looking for music that itself had a voice that could perceive—in tandem with the image but not in place of the image. It could be, in Philip's terms, a "lawn chair" in which the viewer would see the film. And that chair would be the music, and the music was quintessentially important. I had decided that it was going to be a speechless narration, and that the music would take the place of that. What I liked especially about music as a form was that unlike language, music portends a direct link to the listener. It doesn't go through metaphor. [It's] direct, unfiltered communication.

And of course that's different for each person. And I felt that his music has a presence that was ever offending and never arriving. It —was music as a journey that was beyond what 12 scale Western offered, at least for this film. I'm not comparing or saying one is better than the other, but for this film, Western music is very emotionally dramatic to the point of brining such emphasis that it tells you what to look and what to feel, and I didn't find that in Philip Glass's music.

So he was my overwhelming first choice. I also liked [some deceased composers], but it seemed like a form I couldn't continue to work with, whereas Philip Glass was an original composer. I must also say that no one in my crew approved of my decision to use Philip Glass. [Laughs]

I'll have to use some derogatory language here, but they said, "He's the master of the broken needle. Why would you choose someone like this when you could choose Beethoven or Mozart? Vivaldi? And have the great music of the world?" Well I didn't buy that at all, because I didn't know those people, and it wasn't written for this, and that music is beautiful as it is. But music that is beautiful as it is wasn't what I was looking for. So I found the quintessential sound in the compositions of Philip Glass.

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