Smooth as (Philip) Glass
The famed composer brings a smaller (but faithful) festival back to the Monterey Peninsula.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
The innovative 1982 feature film Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the “Qatsi trilogy,” uses the popular medium of movies for a work of meditative, spiritual, environmental and apocalyptic art. Some may admit, without regret, that they don’t like it or get it. And that’s OK – it’s different from the movies we watch on TV or at the multiplex. But those who make it past the wordless film’s somber opening sequence – a dozen minutes of lovingly captured landscape shots scored by a rumbling-low Hopi chant of the title, which translates to “life out of balance” – won’t forget the rest of what they see. Or hear.
At about the 12-minute mark, composer Philip Glass gets going, breaking open the trance with bright clarion calls of trumpet and coronet, propelled by a cascade of insistent 1/16 notes on brass (or is it synthesizer?). It wakes up the senses after the preceding dreamy stuff has cleansed the mind. The images, alternating in time-lapse slow motion and then sped up, remain on the land, sea and sky, now actively moving and swirling. Then the timbre of the music changes again, turns ominous as the camera shows us shots of oil wells and smokestacks, clogged highways and industrial factories, war machinery, cities on the move and at rest. Something’s happening, the film suggests, to the Earth.
Glass’ score has the construction and dynamics of a symphony. It crescendos once in the harrowing “Pruitt Iago,” named after the shameful St. Louis projects destroyed in the 1970s, then again in the film’s climax, starting with a sleepy prelude before launching into the 20-minute synthesizer opus “The Grid.”
There is no story, no characters, no plot and no narration. There are just the unforgettable music and images of nature and human beings in an uneasy relationship. There are shots of people, but none of them talk. They walk by in slow motion or zip by like processed products on an assembly line or stand looking at the camera that director Godfrey Reggio (and cinematographer Christine Pihl-Gibson, who lives in Carmel Valley) points at them. They don’t seem to be aware of what kind of film they’re being immortalized in.
How could they? There hadn’t been a film like it before. Pure images and pure music dancing in perfect unison. How to understand it? You don’t need to, really. It lets you create your own narration in your head.
If you watch it free online (on Hulu, for instance), the commercials that dissect its spell – for light beer or fast food or psoriasis pharmaceuticals – seem like ridiculous and lame distractions, an ironic reminder of the consumption the film critiques. If you get to see it, though, in high-definition among the redwoods of the Henry Miller Library this Friday, with composer Philip Glass and director Godfrey Reggio there, the experience may be transcendent.
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This weekend marks the truncated return of Glass and his Days and Nights Festival, which began last year at Carmel Valley’s Hidden Valley Music Seminars and Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library. It’s smaller because this year, Glass’ 75th birthday year, has triggered an international resurgence of part of his massive body of work, which includes compositions for opera, chamber groups, concertos, solos, ensembles, small groups, film scores, theater scores, dances, art music and symphonies. (He’s completed 10 symphonies, one more than Mahler, Beethoven and Schubert, with whom Glass shares a birthdate, Jan. 31.) So he’s been busy, what with all the commemorations, which he’s taking in with typical humility.
“It’s unavoidable,” Glass says, on break at his home retreat in Nova Scotia. “I’ve gone along with it. There’s no point being grumpy.”
He comes for only two days this time, but, like last year’s performances and screenings, he’s bringing his friends with him – Reggio for the Koyaanisqatsi screening and world-renowned Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso for a performance at Sunset Center. The most famous living classical music composer on the planet retains respect and generosity for his friends.
“I’m really pleased [Reggio] is coming to do the Q&A,” Glass says. “There’s no one more articulate about his work. I’ve always thought he can spend more time talking about [Koyaanisqatsi]. He doesn’t talk very much. He’s extraordinary.”
Glass continues: “The striking thing is how contemporary the film looks. Godfrey’s interested in certain things that transcend decades and generations. A year doesn’t go by that we don’t perform it live.”
The film’s endurance – as well as Reggio’s similarly styled Powaqqatsi and Anima Mundi, both also scored by Glass – has made its director a revered name among filmmakers and in-the-know audiences. If Glass suggests that Reggio, who was raised in New Orleans, is reluctant to get out in front of the spotlight, it makes sense: Starting at age 14, Reggio spent 14 years in training as a Christian Brothers monk, an order of Catholics he says “made the Marine Corps look like Boy Scouts,” where the daily rituals included fasting, prayer and vows of silence.
“I got to live in the Middle Ages when I was 14 in Louisiana,” Reggio says.
It’s no coincidence that now, at age 73, Reggio is talking film. He’s making another Qatsi film with Glass.
“I’m in a post production studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on a pier, another planet from Manhattan,” he says. “I’m in a very tranquil place. I’m in an intense project with Philip, The Holy See, about a gorilla, a human and a cyborg… not as sci-fi, but as the fiction of science. Not unlike Blade Runner.”
He says The Holy See, a “tone poem” of a film shot on a super high-resolution digital camera called a Red Camera, like the Qatsi trilogy, will be a non-speaking work, and that it stands on the shoulders of the phenomenon of Koyaanisqatsi.
“I’m thankful [for Koyaanisqatsi’s] success,” Reggio says. “No one thought the film would see the light of day. I thought it would. It’s like having a kid. You don’t want to be living with the kid for the rest of its life, but are happy it has a life of its own. The child is doing better than I am.”
He speaks in oblique yet grounded metaphors, like a monk – he likens explaining The Holy See as “describing a persimmon’s taste” and “using art like an autopsy” – so his and Glass’s talk at Friday’s screening may be like two sages commiserating on their respective arts.
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The next night Glass meets with another longtime occasional collaborator, Foday Musa Suso, descended from a centuries-long line of Gambian griots – storyteller, historian and musician all in one – at Sunset Center, where they’ll perform a fusion of their music.
“We met in the 1980s. We went to West Africa, Mali, Senegal, Ghana,” Glass says. That was in preparation for scoring Powaqqatsi, which Suso contributed to. “We’re taking [his] tradition and combining it with my experience playing outside of Western European art music. With Suso I can play in several keys. There may be a disjunction of two notes, but the notes that bring us together – that’s what we do.”
Glass has been collaborating with world musicians for a long time, starting with Ravi Shankar when he was 26. “I fumbled around when I was younger but now I know about tuning,” Glass says.
Glass and Suso collaborated in 1992 on the score for the film adaptation of the Jean Genet’s radical play The Screens, and connected again and again over the years. The two played together on the Sunset Center stage in 2001 – Glass on keyboard, Suso on the kora, a 21-string harp/guitar native to Mandinka people made of a calabash gourd body, cow-skin resonator and wood neck.
“We play every few years together and we find ourselves in a different place,” Glass says. “We’re about to begin a new cycle of performance, in Carmel, then Seattle, then Mexico City.”
Suso, who lives in Seattle, came to the States in 1977 – it’s tradition for African griots to travel and disseminate the stories of their families and villages – and has played and recorded with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon. But when he first encountered Glass’s music, he didn’t discern the nuances of its repetitive minimalist modes.
“When we met, we exchanged our music,” Suso says. “I was listening to his music in the airplane. Everything he played sound the same to me. I didn’t know much about this music. But this guy can play. We get along well because [on the] kora you play the same patterns, and add some other sounds. That man [does] the same thing.”
While Glass writes his compositions down, Suso memorizes them, in keeping with his griot and kora training, which started at age 10. Their Saturday concert duet will be instrumental, a mix of old and new songs – maybe something from the world music piece “Orion” – but Suso says they will do “Ice Dance,” about revolution in Algeria, in which he sings.
“We have a special energy,” he says. “It always works when we play together. Another musician may not understand, but we know what it is.”
It may start with their friendship.
“Philip is a very good human being,” Suso says. “Very straightforward. When we came back [from Africa], Philip said, ‘Suso, you are my friend. Here is the key to my house. You’ll never stay in a hotel in New York.’ From that time to now I stay there maybe 100 times. Always he’s the same. He never change. We can sit down and talk, talk, talk. I’ll just go to New York and open the door. If he’s there, fine, if he’s not there, fine.”
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Last year, in Monterey County, Glass christened the first music and arts festival attached to his name. The Days and Nights Festival was a two-week wonderland of rigorously achieved music, theater, dance, film and poetry by Glass and friends. It was to be an annual event; with this weekend’s events – including a last-minute addition of a 2pm Saturday screening of Deborah Dickson’s The Lost Bird Project, about sculptor Todd McGrain’s “mission to honor North American birds that have been driven to extinction” – it can be.
Just a day into last year’s inaugural festival, Glass made a portentous announcement: He intends to build a permanent performing arts center at Big Sur’s Brazil Ranch, above Bixby Bridge (which is the logo for Days and Nights).
Jim Woodard, the festival’s managing director, says they’ve officially submitted applications to the U.S. Forest Service to manage 35 acres of the ranch’s 1,600 acres, upon which the Philip Glass Center for the Arts, Science and the Environment will be built.
“It will be very phased and controlled,” Woodard says. Part of that includes forming a California branch of Glass’s nonprofit Aurora Music Foundation, based in New York, through which they can run the festival and raise money for the center. When Glass gets to town, they will have their first official board meeting.
Both the festival and the plans for the center serve as legacies, and both were launched on the eve of Glass’ 75th year.
“[It’s about] perpetuating traditional music and bringing it along,” Glass says.
His music’s long been performed in all the great concert halls of the world, but he’s also a favorite among young audiences, who revere him as a sage and as an innovator.
He, in turn, is a big supporter, patron and collaborator of young artists and musicians across genres. In September he’s playing at All Tomorrow’s Parties on a pier in New York, along with Frank Ocean, The Afghan Whigs, The Roots and Hot Snakes. And some of his music is slated to be remixed by Beck, Tyondai Braxton, Dan Deacon and other atypical hotshots.
Glass is not just adding more music to his vast repertoire, he’s adding to his vast audience, which many organizations in the classical arts are trying to replicate.
“My audience should be people in their 60s and 70s. But [they are] in their 20s and 30s,” he says. “Even the Rolling Stones’ audience is closer in age to them than people doing pop music today.”
The composer studied the early music and classical masters relentlessly, and keeps fidelity to them.
“There’s a great literature of European concert music – Bach, Wagner, Prokofiev, Bartok, Shostakovich,” he says. “People can fall in love with it. The idea of global music has spilled over. Young players are interested in this kind of music. My suggestion is you put it right next to the Beethoven and Dvorak. The music of today is enriching the repertoire of the future.”
The former cab driver and plumber can’t seem to shake the work ethic that buoyed him through obscure early years in 1960s New York.
“Artists in America [are] not supported by the state,” he says. “I had day jobs in my 40s. It’s not a terrible thing. It’s kind of a radical statement, but limited support allows the arts to be independent of government. It makes the generation coming up more vibrant. It’s not all bad. The only bad thing about it is not everybody has the stamina. We’ve lost a number of brilliant people who just didn’t have it.”
His own stamina is apparent. Though he’s on break in Nova Scotia from the worldwide birthday celebrations, his calendar is perpetually packed. His innovative operas Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, about the formative years of Ghandi’s awakening activism, are touring the world (the former comes to UC Berkeley Oct. 26-28), and next month alone there are performances of his work in Brooklyn, Monaco, Holland, Paris, Germany, Calgary and Dallas.
So there’s more that can be talked about, but he’s got that other thing, too.
“I’m working on Godfrey’s new movie,” he says. “I’m going to hang up on you and start working on that.”
PHILIP GLASS DAYS AND NIGHTS FESTIVAL screens Koyaanisqatsi with Glass and Godfrey Reggio 7:30pm Friday at Henry Miller Memorial Library, 1/4 mile south of Nepenthe, Highway 1, Big Sur, for $30, 667-2574, www.koyaanisqatsi.eventbrite.com; screens The Lost Bird Project 2pm Saturday at Studio 105, Sunset Center, Carmel, for free; and presents a Glass and Foday Musa Suso performance 7pm Saturday, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel, for $50-$75, 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org, www.DaysAndNightsFestival.com