Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Cultural Studies

August 31, 2011

A still from Powaqqatsi by Godfrey Reggio

On Tuesday night, composer Philip Glass made an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert performance of his score to accompany a screening of the 1988 film Powaqqatsi. This is the second of the three scores Glass wrote to accompany the documentary films of Godfrey Reggio in the 1980s all titled with Hopi language words and meant to reflect on the state of the world with nothing more than Glass’ music and video images of humans and the world they have created around them. Last summer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the first film in the series Koyaanisqatsi with the assistance of the Philip Glass Ensemble to much fanfare and an excited audience. So this return engagement, complete with a new revision of the score by Glass with a commission by the L.A. Philharmonic, was set up to build on that momentum.

Unfortunately, Powaqqatsi, which roughly translates as “life in transformation,” is not as strong a film or soundtrack as its predecessor. By 1988, Glass’ style had begun to change and the repetitive segments of his music were taking a backseat to other elements creating something that was less harsh and softer-edged. Powaqqatsi is rife with more accessible melodies and a substantial vocal part for both children’s chorus and a handful of soloists. Electronic instruments play a bigger role as well with keyboards and whatnot percolating along, resulting in moments that sound like they might have come from any motion picture soundtrack of the period. For this performance the original conductor for the film’s soundtrack, Michael Riesman who is also the Philip Glass Ensemble’s Music Director, reprised his leadership and he gave a best-case scenario for the piece with Glass playing keyboards himself. The Los Angeles Children’s Choir sounded spectacular and gave a wonderful performance without the help of scores for their extended parts in the show. Anne Tomlinson has led the group to a number of substantial performances with the L.A. Phil in the past, but this one stood out as one of the best performances the ensemble has given.

But, despite some fine performances from the Philip Glass Ensemble as well as members of the L.A. Philharmonic, you could easily close your eyes and think of the name Vangelis instead of Philip Glass. Of course, there are no pre-WWII British athletes in Powaqqatsi, but instead images of third-world venues including Peru, Egypt, Nepal, and Kenya with Brazil and Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. The concept is generally to contrast native local cultures with the face of modern industrialization. So you have lots of quaint shots of people in colorful costumes dancing around scenic mountaintops contrasted with geometric aerial shots of villages and trucks kicking up clouds of billowing smoke. Reggio’s film is pretty, but the kind of ethnographic tourism that makes up the bulk of the film looks dated and somewhat problematic. Powaqqatsi delivers all the gritty realism of a dancing, singing, Bollywood film. While not all the images are pleasant ones, they are all played up for their aesthetic qualities in a way that belittles some of the grueling poverty on display. Glass' comfortable ,ethnically hued score wraps all of it up in a peculiarly non-jarring context. And while that might seem like profound commentary for someone whose ideas about politics and culture have evolved little since the 1960s, today it reads as forced and glosses over the very problems it is striving to point out.


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