Godfrey Reggio’s QATSI trilogy: Showing “life out of balance” to Philip Glass’s majesterial theme music

By on October 14, 2015

In the 1980s, Godfrey Reggio’s incredible and powerful QATSI trilogy — Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Noqoyqatsi — presented the idea that humans are out of balance with nature. In fact, the first film in the series, Koyaanisqatsi, took its name from the Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance,” or “life of moral corruption and turmoil”. The prefix koyaanis– means “corrupted” or “chaotic”, and the word qatsi means “life” or “existence”, so the literal translation is probably closer to describing a “chaotic life,” which certainly what was captured by the film’s visual and spiritual tone and theme.

Night Flight’s creator Stuart S. Shapiro has said this: “That ‘Night Flight’ was able to premiere ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ on national television when no other television network was interested reinforced our fate in cable heaven. Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio are two of the great geniuses of our time and their collaborative work will be immortal.”

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Reggio’s QATSI trilogy is meant to be a visually-engaging look at how urban life and technology effect the environment on planet Earth, pointing the viewer to the things found in nature and having them measure, compare/contrast and then assess the value of what humans have created — and at what cost to our continuing life on this planet — against images naturally found in nature. There are no actors, there is no plot and there is no script.

Reggio has previously stated that the QATSI films are intended to simply create an experience and that “it is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means.”

He also said that “these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”

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The first film, shot between 1975 and 1982, was intended to present moving images that effected the viewer in an individual way, depending on what life experience they brought with them to the theater, and what they took away from the film.

To describe Koyaanisqatsi, then, is to imprint your own point-of-view on a film that some might see in a completely different light, which is why Reggio tended to shy away from describing his film, which has no voiceover narration.

Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”

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As we told you earlier this year in this post, Reggio — born in New Orleans, and raised in southwest Louisiana — ended up in northern New Mexico at the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic pontifical order, at age 14. He spent fourteen more years in silence and prayer while studying to be a monk.

teaching grade school, secondary school and college, and in 1963, he co-founded a community organization project that aided juvenile street gangs, Young Citizens for Action, before co-founded La Clinica de la Gente, a medical care facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico. La Clinica provided assistance to the region’s barrio neighborhoods, and also provided medical care to 12,000 community members in Santa Fe.

In 1972, Reggio co-founded the Institute for Regional Education in Santa Fe, a non-profit foundation focused on media development, the arts, community organization and research, and with backing initially from the ACLU, he began making PSA commercials that were intended to show how technology was being used to control behavior and invade privacy. He described his background here as coming out of a “a religious community, a Catholic monk, working with street gangs…”

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Reggio’s new PSA campaign featured the extreme close-up of a human eye, an image that was splashed across billboards in the Northern New Mexico area. Reggio then began working with cinematographer Ron Fricke to create visually-stimulating TV ads that would then be aired during prime time programming. These TV commercials were so popular that people would call up the local TV stations to ask when they were airing again.

Reggio realized that the images he was creating for these TV ads could be expanded to a feature-length documentary, but after the successful TV campaign ended, the ACLU withdrew their funding. There wasn’t much left in the institute’s budget — just $40,000 — for making a feature film, so Reggio and the institute first tried to raise the money by holding a fundraiser in Washington D.C. They were unsuccessful at reaching their goal, but, undeterred, Reggio and Fricke continued to work on their film, at first using 16mm film due to budget constraints.

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The director knew early on that the film would derive out of the images, and the he would shape the film into what the images told him it needed to be, basing it more on texture, rather than on basing it on words, or literature or some form of writing. Reggio then decided he’d work directly with a composer from the very beginning, thinking he’d rather work in tandem with someone creating music directly for what he was filming, rather than hand over a completed film later for the composer to compose music to, after the fact.

Since Reggio continued to live and work in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he had hired an assistant in New York (where he traveled frequently) who would help him find composers for the soundtrack, and of the living composers he liked the work of both Glass and composer Terry Riley, but once he heard Glass’s “North Star,” a composition he’d written for a documentary on sculptor Mark di Suvero, he knew he’s found the right composer for his film, based simply on how Glass structured his compositions.

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Reggio had Glass come to a screening at Jonas Meekas’s Anthology Film Archives, on Wooster Street, and he screened some of the early footage while playing Glass’s “North Star,” and the composer saw how the images and sounds worked together and agreed to work with Reggio on the film, even though this article from three years ago says that Reggio “bothered the hell out of” Glass to drag him, kicking and screaming, into scoring his first film in the late 1970s (though Glass had previously composed music for a couple of TV projects like “Sesame Street”).”

Those aforementioned budget issues forced the filmmakers to work around issues that arose during filming, blowing up 16mm to 35mm; meanwhile, the IRE worked hard to get financing to keep the project going, and the new financing allowed them to work all over the country. The were able to hire a helicopter to fly over a large urban housing project Pruitt–Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri, which was being demolished (this was filmed in 1975).

Film was also shot in New York City, in both Harlem and the South Bronx, in 1977, during the blackout (which we mentioned in this post), as well as other major urban centers across the U.S., including Chicago and Washington.

In addition to footage shot by Fricke, some of the footage of people and traffic in New York City was shot by cinematographer Hilary Harris, whose 1975 film Organism — which featured time-lapse footage of New York City streets — had impressed Reggio, who hired him to work on his film. Footage filmed by cinematographer Louis Schwartzbergwas added into the cloud sequence, and additional licensed stock footage was spliced into the film as well.

In addition to footage shot in urban areas, Reggio and Fricke captured some incredible footage of ancient sandstone murals above the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, as well as monumental rock formations partly drowned by the artificial Lake Powell, a man-made a reservoir on the Colorado River, straddling the border between Utah and Arizona. There are amazing shots of desolate desert landscapes, clouds and waves, all of them shown eventually compromised by man’s destruction of the environment, which is the focus of the film, really.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of the images is jarring: a large mining truck causing billows of black dust and images of mining operations, oil fields, the Navajo Generating Station and Glen Canyon Dam, pock-marked atomic detonations in an otherwise pristine desert with snaking powerlines, sunbathers on a Southern California beach with the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station in the background, etc.

Mostly the film itself shows how people — visibly moving at different speeds in sped-up footage, slo-mo and time-lapsed footage — live in great American cities and near many natural landscapes across the United States, and how they leave a huge carbon footprint. Reggio was talking about this before the topic had become a regular conversation.

Reggio and Fricke worked on their film continuously, creating all kinds of inventive ways to capture images that they knew were ground-breaking as much as they were breathtaking. A special chemical was used in the processing of the film which allowed for the enhancement of shadows and details, as all footage was shot with only existing lighting.

It was during post-production at Samuel Goldwyn Studio in 1981, and working with technicians at film labs, that Reggio and Fricke really stepped up their film, which ultimately caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who felt the film Reggio was making was important for people to see, so he lent his name to the credits to help Reggio in the presentation and distribution of the film.

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All total, Koyaanisqatsi took six years to make, including three years of constant shooting. Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio then spent three years composing the musical score and editing the film to fit Glass’s score, which included the title of the film — the film’s epilogue explained the translation of the titular Hopi word in the title — was chanted in an “otherworldly” Albert de Ruiter basso profundo solo vocal, over a solemn, four-bar organ-passacaglia bassline at both the the beginning and end of the film.

Additionally, three Hopi prophecies — which also appeared onscreen at the end of the film — were sung by a choral ensemble during the latter part of the “Prophecies” movement, and they are translated just prior to the end credits:

“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”

“Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.”

“A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”

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During the end titles, the film also gives Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, David Monongye, Guy Debord, and Leopold Kohr credit for Koyanniqatsi‘s inspiration.

Of these, Reggio was particularly inspired by this quote of Ellul’s:

“The crisis that we are approaching today is of yet another order. For it entails the transition, not from one form of society and power to another, but to a new environment…The present crisis…is a total crisis triggered by transition to a new and previously unknown environment, the technological environment…. The present change of environment is much more fundamental than anything that the race has experienced for the last five thousand years.”

Koyaanisqatsi was premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival on April 28, 1982, and again in August, at the Telluride Film Festival, and at the New York Film Festival in September. Over the next year it would be distributed by Island Alive, a relatively small company newly formed that same year, 1983, by Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Koyaanisqatsi was the company’s first distributed film, in fact.

Screenings of the film came with a pamphlet for audience members that defined the title and the Hopi prophecies sung in the film, as well as a copy of the soundtrack from Island Records. The film’s initial limited release began on the west coast (in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, and a month later, in Los Angeles, where it grossed $300,000 at two theaters within 15 weeks. Koyaanisqatsi was then rolled out across the country to somewhere between 40-50 theaters in select cities.

The success of the independent film — the United States Library of Congress later deemed Koyaanisqatsi as “culturally significant,” and it is now also preserved in the National Film Registry — allowed Reggio to continue on with the new two films in his trilogy, enabling him to continue to chronicle the destructive impact of the modern world on the environment.

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Powaqqatsi focuses on the modern way of life and the concept of the Global Village, entwining the distinctive textures of ancient and Third World cultures. To capture the images seen in the film, which was similar in style to Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio traveled to twelve different countries to shoot some of the very remote locations available on planet Earth. His overall focus was on finding places in the emerging, land-based cultures of Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East and South America, and showing how, in Reggio’s own words, “they express themselves through work and traditions.”

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Reggio says that the second film (finished in 1988) “is a celebration of the human-scale endeavor the craftsmanship, spiritual worship, labor and creativity that defines a particular culture. It’s also a celebration of rareness — the delicate beauty in the eyes of an Indian child, the richness of a tapestry woven in Kathmandu — and yet an observation of how these societies move to a universal drumbeat. Powaqqatsi is also about contrasting ways of life, and in part how the lure of mechanization and technology and the growth of mega-cities are having a negative effect on small-scale cultures.”

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The title comes from the Hopi Indian conjunctive — the word Powaqa, which refers to a negative sorcerer who lives at the expense of others, and Qatsi –i.e., life.

Philip Glass once again provides the score music which combined native instruments from each country, with classical and electronic instruments, created, in Reggio’s words, “a majesterial theme.”

For Naqoyqatsi, the third and final film in the trilogy, Reggio blends the images (edited by Jon Kane) from existing technologically-enriched stock footage to fit the music Glass had composed.

The tagline for the film tells the story: “First, there was life out of balance. Then, there was life in transformation. Now, there’s life as war.”

Reggio, writing about Naqoyqatsi, claimed that his film had no specific or intrinsic meaning or value, saying “This is its power, its mystery, and hence, its attraction. Art is free. It stimulates the viewer to insert their own meaning, their own value.”

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Naqoyqatsi is a film which could be described as an experimental documentary, although not a straightforward documentation of reality, or an art film. Reggio decided that for the final film he would focus on the transition of our planet from its natural state to the current state which was enhanced, perhaps, by technological changes, creating a new environment from what had existed before.

Reggio has said that “human beings do not use technology as a tool (the popular point-of-view), but rather we live technology as a way of life. Technology is the big force and like oxygen it is always there, a necessity that we cannot live without. Because its appetite is seemly infinite, it is consuming the finite world of nature.”

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Writing in his essay “The Qatsi Trilogy: Geologic Scale and Human Scale,” for the Criterion collection of all three films, bestselling author, environmental activist and president and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben says:

“Talk about prescient. Majestic dreamscapes early in Koyaanisqatsi, the first film in Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, focus on clouds—scudding, drifting, melting, and materializing again, the constant and eternal background of life on this watery planet. Then, with equal majesty, the scene shifts—now it’s the massive, slow-motion explosions of our great coal mines, whole mountainsides disappearing in a second’s desire for more power.

When the film came out in 1983, no one outside of a few scientists had heard of global warming, but in fact those shots provide a primer on the topic: they show, with emotional and indeed scientific precision, exactly how out of balance our life on this earth has become. When you burn coal, you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the CO2 traps more of the sun’s heat in that narrow envelope of atmosphere, and as it warms, it can hold more water vapor.

The atmosphere is substantially wetter now than when those images were shot—those clouds, symbols of the primal, don’t work like that any longer. Because it’s hotter, more water on the earth evaporates, and arid places parch; once it’s in the atmosphere, that water will come down, and so we see ever more deluge and flood. Everything is amped up, everything.

As NASA scientist James Hansen wrote in 2008, at current levels of carbon dioxide, we can’t have a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.’ It doesn’t get much starker than that—life out of balance, indeed.”

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You can read much more about all three QATSI films online, of course, and be sure to check out this Night Flight piece by our very own M.P. Snell, which we posted earlier this year, about Philip Glass’s musical score for The American Rimpoche, a riveting documentary directed by Nikki Appino.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.