Conversation: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio

From Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1988).Photo: Godfrey Reggio

When Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass released their 1982 silent film about technology and the changing landscape, they hardly knew that Koyaanisqatsi—and its two sequels, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi—would become a cultural touchstone. The trilogy, remembered for Reggio’s swoopy, sped-up visuals that perfectly match Glass’s hyperrhythmic music, was a genuine hit with the Film Forum set (not to mention stoners everywhere), and will be featured this week in Lincoln Center’s “Sound Projections” series of silent-film compositions. Glass and Reggio spoke about its lasting impact as well as their next project—oddly enough, a comedy.

How did you two meet?
Glass: Godfrey told me he was making a film and he wanted to talk to me. And I remember saying to him, “I don’t write film music.” Reggio: Of course, I had never made a film. The first time I heard Philip’s music, it was a piece called Music With Changing Parts. I had never heard music like that, and I said, Eureka! This is for me. Now—and Philip knows this—this was extraordinarily unpopular with my colleagues. They said, “He’s the master of the broken needle. There’s Beethoven, Mozart—why go to some guy in New York whose music we don’t like?
” I liked very much that it didn’t tell you what to feel.
Glass: We arranged a meeting [to screen] the first two reels of what would become Koyaanisqatsi. And Godfrey played a trick on me. He played a reel with some electronic music—I didn’t know who it was. And then he played the same reel with my music. [Reggio chuckles.] Then he said to me, “As you can see, your music works much better.” So, of course, I was forced to agree.
Reggio: It opened it up. It allowed the image to breathe.
Glass: But I wasn’t sure it would ever really happen—it was very idealistic and very beautiful, but it was hard to imagine anyone paying for it. A good friend of ours, Tom Luddy, interested Francis Ford Coppola. We had a screening for him. And I fully expected after x number of minutes to hear very heavy footsteps heading toward the door. I never heard that. And—do you remember this?—he shook both our hands and said, “Congratulations,” and he left. And Godfrey and I looked at each other, and said, What does that mean?
Reggio: What it meant was that Francis wanted to release it. That didn’t happen, because he was bankrupt at that time—so in a very generous way, he said, “Let me offer you my name. I’ll present the film.” So it was in the New York Film Festival.
Glass: Five thousand people showed up.

Did it surprise you that it became a cult hit?
Glass: I was astonished. I was surprised that we even finished the film, let alone that anyone watched it. I have to say, I think this is a film work that is more famous than its authors. One of the funniest things that’s happened—Koyaanisqatsi has become a descriptive. When something is out of balance, people say, Oh, we’ve had a Koyaanisqatsi moment.

And I hear you’re working on another collaboration.
Reggio: What Philip and I are going to do, remarkably, is a comedy. We’re going to have actors. We’re going to have narration. We’re going to do it in terms of music housing the entire film as well. This film is about the two most virulent ideologies in the world: consumerism and fundamentalism. We’re dealing with subjects like dazzling fear, consuming desire, holy terror, engineered consent. Primates play a big part in this film. Cybernetic organisms play a big part. Salvation armies, a canticle of zealots, cities of God, Wal-Mart-ism. The narration of the film will be principally body language. The actors will be in dialogue with the audience, engaging the audience through body narration. We have two working titles, Holy Smoke and Savage Eden. We have everything in place, but we don’t have financing. To the industry, it’s like asking General Motors to let you make a handmade car. It’s an indulgence.
Glass: It’s a box-office-oriented industry. And we have no box office. We have no stars.

Have you considered arranging another screening for Coppola?
Glass: No. Francis helped with the first one, George Lucas helped with the second one, Steven Soderbergh helped with the third one. People do it once.
Reggio: We do have someone within the industry who’s become a new partner. George Meyer—he is implicated in the heart and soul of The Simpsons.

So he’s going to be one of the writers?
Glass: No, he isn’t. That’s the point.

Conversation: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio