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Philip Glass Ensemble - Barbican
Repetitive hypnotic beats and mind blowing visuals... no, not an evening with Underworld or Orbital but the Philip Glass ensemble accompanying the film Powaqqatsi .
Repetitive hypnotic beats and mind blowing visuals... no, not an evening with Underworld or Orbital but the Philip Glass ensemble accompanying the film Powaqqatsi - the second in director Godfrey Reggio and composer/musician Philip Glass' "Quatsi" trilogy.

Born in Baltimore on January 31st 1937 Philip Glass' music spans the worlds of grand opera, chamber music, dance and hybrid works that seem to fit into no particular category at all.

This concert is a screening of the movie with Glass' 12-piece ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman (who also plays keyboard.) The fact that the music is live adds a tremendous edge to the emotional content of the film. The dynamics and overall sound quality are vastly superior to even the best conventional movie sound track.

Powaqqatsi was made between 1985 and 1987 its overall focus is on natives of the Third World - the emerging, land-based cultures of Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East and South America - and how they express themselves through work and traditions. There are some truly memorable images - A horse and it's owner plunging through deep surf, tribal dances, crop gathering, housing that seems to seamlessly blend with the environment and long languid shots of people’s faces. In contrast to these idyllic (perhaps idealised) images there are shots of the downsides of progress. Pollution, overcrowded housing and general urban squalor.

Powaqqatsi is about contrasting ways of life, and in part how the lure of Mechanization, technology and the growth of cities are having a negative effect on small-scale cultures.

The title Powaqqatsi is in fact a Hopi Indian conjunctive - the word Powaqa, refers to a negative sorcerer who lives at the expense of others. The word Qatsi means life. The message that hits you hard in the film seems to be the way that the industrial world is literally sucking the life out of the non industrial cultures Several of Powaqqatsi's images point to a certain lethargy affecting its city dwellers. They could be the same faces we see in the smaller villages but they seem numbed; their eyes reflecting caution and uncertainty.

Koyaanisqatsi (the first of the trilogy) dealt with the imbalance between nature and modern society. Powaqqatsi is a record of diversity and transformation, of cultures dying and prospering, of industry for its own sake and the fruits of individual labour. Philip Glass' score provides the counterpart, performed with the sounds of native, classical and electronic instruments.

Philip Glass' music suits this kind of film so well. The repetitive keyboard motifs set a hypnotic mood conducive to settling back in your seat and letting the images flow. The sound quality was phenomenal (Dan Dryden the sound mixer has been with Glass since 1983): a superb mix, just the right overall volume and lots of subtle detail in the reverbs and delays. The original score was entirely acoustic with a huge range of classical and "ethnic" instrumentation. Translating this kind of palate into the world of synthesisers and samplers is quite a challenge. The ensemble for this performance comprises of six keyboard players, four wind/horn players and two percussionists. Overall the electronic percussion, tuned percussion and "ethnic" instruments fared best. Really convincing with very authentic timbres and dynamics. String passages held up well too. In fact it was really only the synth brass sounds that let the side down. Even when doubled by the real horns they still sounded as ‘cheesy as a lump of ripe gorgonzola’.

‘Minor’ quibbles aside it was a fine and memorable evening. The emotional impact of the film is certainly heightened by the accompaniment of live music. If (heaven forbid) your attention wanders from the film you can marvel at the super tight ensemble playing on stage. If the opportunity arises I'd recommend anyone with an interest in contemporary instrumental music to check out any of Philip Glass' film concerts.

Reviewed by composer/producer and musician Garry Hughes
written by on 1/12/2003 12:00:00 AM

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