Philip Glass - Naqoyqatsi

Philip Glass - Naqoyqatsi soundtrack CD cover The gap of 5 years between the first 2 films, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, does not seem too unusual but it was to be a further 14 years before the "Qatsi" trilogy was completed with the film "Naqoyqatsi". This word can be translated as "Life as War" or "War as a Way of Life" though the focus of the film is not solely upon war as such. Rather Naqoyqatsi looks at the impact of technology in different aspects of modern life including war. The style of the film is different from its prequels due to the almost constant use of visual effects. The capabilities of those effects have progressed significantly during the 14-year gap, and they act as a new dimension of commentary on the underlying images and are sometimes used to generate digital images directly. The irony of using technology to comment on man's use of technology is not lost on filmmaker Godfrey Reggio. However composer Philip Glass felt that the powerful nature of these effects and the resulting alienation of the viewer from the events depicted, required some degree of balancing to humanise the film. He therefore decided to avoid digital music and to use a "voice" to act as the emotional counterpart to the film, and after a chance meeting with cellist Yo-Yo Ma agreed that this voice should be that resonant voice of the cello.

Everyone seems to have their own favourite among Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, but Naqoyqatsi has many attractive qualities to it. In addition to the sonorous qualities of the cello and its solo passages, the music is frequently both dynamic and dramatic and underpinned with percussion elements. The casual listener might on a first hearing conclude that the film music of Glass tends to evolve slowly and therefore acts as musical wallpaper to a movie. However closer inspection shows that Glass carefully crafts the music to the film's narrative or flow, and includes "hit points" of perfect synchronisation. (See "The Hours" for excellent examples of this technique.) On the Qatsi films, Glass was helped in this respect by Reggio who was willing to cut film sequences to the music to achieve this alignment. The musical connection to the previous soundtracks begins after a dark fanfare with the customary chanting of the title word Naqoyqatsi, whereupon a heartbeat and cello arpeggios introduce a chord sequence accompanying images of a now derelict but formerly majestic station. Images and music (including tubular bells) seem to evolve in different directions and this unsettling prelude is brought to a close when a repeat of the chanting and heartbeat sound heralds a rapid sequence of drums and brass chords bringing up the film's title, seemingly digitally encoded in red. In complete contrast to this dark mood, Primacy of Number shows the allure of the digital world when a Jew's Harp introduces an up-tempo beat accompanying a rapid stream of images showing many different aspects of modern technology from a potentially infinite zoom on the Mandlebrot Set to the first stock images of war. The music turns more concerned at the way events turn out and without losing pace a snare drum and brass build to a cresendo (still with occasional Jew's Harp) which settles on a cadence whose finishing C major chord still offers a degree of hope.

Against a high twinkling sound the pace then slackens with Massman, which in the film shows how technology is used on the human race, both medically to cure and prevent but also more ominously in terms of tinkering with its own development through genetic engineering. In one of those dramatic hit points the music bursts into a powerful middle section where sports-people demonstrate their technology-enhanced prowess. The final section returns to the original mood with the cello adding its concerned voice. New World is a well-deserved rest from this onslaught, an interlude where the cello takes the foreground (unaccompanied apart from soft cymbal hits) and seems to ask "where next?". The Religion sequence in the film is about money and the world's economy, and the constant jangling of the music seems to echo the jingle of cash registers. In Media Weather the cello begins a slow lament at the turmoil and contradiction of modern communications, later emphasised by drums, horns and tam-tam. This is followed by Old World, another interlude for a contemplative ethereal cello to minimal accompaniment. Intensive Time literally "whips" the listener out of this reverie and a lone female voice adds its plaintive cry to the cello's as the relentless barrage of images range from slow motion crash test dummies to digitally rendered corporate logos and stock images of atomic explosions. Point Blank follows without a break and, with little respite, maintains and if anything increases the intensity. Drum rolls bring military precision to firing rockets and the slow motion photgraphy of a girl biting into a burger somehow seems to be the most disturbing image of all as the music descends into a whirlwind of percussion which leaves behind only the faint dust of dijerido, cello, strings and subdued voices. Ma's cello recitative in The Vivid Unknown seeks answers to it all and, though joined in its search by other members of the orchestra, finds none. The final track Definition brings up a dictionary meaning for the word "Naqoyqatsi" which brings the music full circle to the opening chants plus the brass and drum sequence from the opening. The following links will help you explore this film and its music - please remember to check versions, regions and special offers on CDs and DVDs:

Naqoyqatsi by Philip Glass - Track Listing (2002 film soundtrack)

    Philip Glass - Naqoyqatsi soundtrack CD cover
  • Naqoyqatsi
  • Primacy of Number
  • Massman
  • New World
  • Religion
  • Media Weather
  • Old World
  • Intensive Time
  • Point Blank
  • The Vivid Unknown
  • Definition