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

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

GoGo Penguin
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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