Field Notes: GoGo Penguin’s “Koyaanisqatsi” in Brooklyn

U.K. piano trio performs its original score for an experimental film masterpiece

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GoGo Penguin performs its original score for "Koyaanisqatsi" at the 2017 BRIC JazzFest (photo by David Andrako)

To compose a new score to Koyaanisqatsi, the breathtaking 1982 experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio, is in many ways to remake the Mona Lisa. The first and best-known installment in Reggio’s dialogue-less Qatsi trilogy, it offers an interdependence of images, by cinematographer Ron Fricke, and music, by Philip Glass, that deserves comparison to milestones by Kubrick and Coppola. To see its glacial impressions of ancient rock, or its manic time-lapse footage of modern American cities, alongside Glass’ Möbius strips of melody is to witness techniques and sensibilities in filmmaking that were once revelatory but have long been subsumed into the general culture. Advertising surely looks and sounds different in a post-Koyaanisqatsi world, as do nature films and documentaries, and probably narrative movies as well. It is, in a word, a landmark.

Or is it? Prior to a recent performance of GoGo Penguin’s original score, at the BRIC JazzFest marathon in Brooklyn, I tried to talk about the film with several culturally adept friends under the age of 40, but none of them had seen it. Surely there are bright young people who’ve sought it out, and you certainly can’t blame Reggio or Glass for not promoting its legacy, given the considerable number of screenings and live performances that have transpired over the years. But somewhere along the way its cult has become largely confined to the generations that experienced its psychedelic allure the first time out. What a pity.

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GoGo Penguin performs its original score for “Koyaanisqatsi” at the 2017 BRIC JazzFest (photo by David Andrako)

The film has aged in fascinating and surprising ways. It is named for a Hopi word that translates as, per the film: 1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life disintegrating. 4. life out of balance. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living. To Reggio, that means juxtaposing the Zen of roiling oceans and Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon with the gaping wounds thrust onto the natural world by uncaring, hubristic man: traffic; oil fields; atomic bombs; a nuclear generator; a ragged housing project, before and during its demolition; commuting New Yorkers either slowed down or speeded up, to make their density and determination appear all the more absurd; hot dogs, Twinkies, clothing and cars being manufactured; a consumer browsing televisions with her children. In 2017, Koyaanisqatsi can appear less like a warning for civilization and more like a nostalgic reminder of the simplicity of a not-so-distant past. Traffic has gotten worse. Those manufacturing jobs have probably been moved to a place where workers are more easily exploited. Those commuters now have one eye fixed forever on a smartphone. The Cold War-era paranoia about nuclear war … well, some things remain.

GoGo Penguin’s original score, premiered in 2015, suggests the band took philosophical cues from Glass without aping his sound (and without worrying about his score’s sung bookends). To start, both artists’ respective aesthetic trademarks are retained. Glass and Reggio’s working relationship was far more egalitarian than the average director-composer hookup, and so his signature brand of Minimalism galvanizes the action onscreen or reacts to those visuals intimately, scene by scene, with cathartic shifts in tone and attack. Or his soundtrack can be divorced from the film entirely and enjoyed as another Glass LP, with its dramatic, accessible orchestral repetitions. GoGo Penguin also seemed to have made only small adjustments to its signatures, which are also based in repetition and darkly emotive, but rooted in indie-rock and dance music and their overlap.

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GoGo Penguin’s Chris Illingworth at the BRIC JazzFest (photo by David Andrako)

Signed to Blue Note and consisting of pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner, GoGo Penguin is a postmodern piano trio that exists, with regard to mainstream jazz tradition, about as far from the Bad Plus as that band is from, say, Bill Charlap. Its tradition is ambient music, or the heavily stylized jazz-ish music of its native U.K., or that amorphous genre of serious-minded instrumental pop called post-rock, which might also be called score-rock. (Within the diverse contemporary offerings of the BRIC JazzFest—everything from Betty Carter heiress Jazzmeia Horn to Vijay Iyer’s cerebrally grooving sextet to Maceo Parker—the trio’s presence made absolute sense.) Stark minor-key piano voicings and bittersweet tunes combined with a rhythm section whose center of gravity was drum-and-bass and whose dynamic control was fearsome, and suggestive of orchestral experience. Soaring above Lake Powell, Blacka and Turner simmered; later, playing knotty prog-like passages to mechanization and frenzied city lights, they exploded. Doleful tinkles of melody followed the debris of an exploding rocket into nothingness. There were some marvelous moments.

Read the JT review of GoGo Penguin’s Blue Note release Man Made Object.