REVIEW: GoGo Penguin: Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican

The demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, St. Louis, MO,
an early scene to be filmed for Koyaanisqatsi
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Housing/ Public Domain

GoGo Penguin: Koyaanisqatsi 
(Barbican. 11 October 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

Ko-yaa-nis-qatsi (from the Hopi language), n. 1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life out of balance. 4. life disintegrating. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.

The cult 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi is a reflection on technologically overdriven capitalism and its effect on nature and people. It uses only images and music, with no spoken dialogue, storyline or actors. Its acclaimed synergy of image and music was achieved through an intense and protracted collaboration. Producer and director Godfrey Reggio, and director of photography Ron Fricke spent years shooting and collecting footage and assembling the material into thematic groups. Philip Glass’s score was made into a work tape to which the film was cut. Over three years Glass visited them in California, and both music and film were revised countless times, sometimes new footage being shot to go with the written music.

GoGoPenguin first debuted their new score live in 2015. It is a vital new gloss on the film’s commentary on the contemporary. The acoustic trio of Chris Illingworth on piano, Nick Blacka on bass and Rob Turner on drums have made a name for themselves for their discreet fusion of jazz and neoclassical vocabulary with the rhythms and techniques of dance music. Their live score is of a piece with their normal work, sharing its seamless blend of intensive scored material and discrete improvisation, an inspirational fit for their sympathetic interest in “robots, transhumanism and human augmentation”, and non-Western philosophical ideas.

Glass’s original score is typically monolithic and abounds in his characteristic hypnotic arpeggiation with doomy choral elements. GoGo Penguin’s acoustic re-scoring feels more dynamic and in tune with the overlooked personal human dimensions of the film. I tend to prefer the new score. Key moments have more impact. You forget they’re playing live, and it seems more integral to the screen. GoGo Penguin cleave to their characteristic blend of melody and groove, and, like the film, they never devolve to abstraction, which alleviates for better or worse some of the film’s piousness.

A film with truly epic scope, it opens with cave paintings in Utah. Glass’s score has a portentous baroque-feel organ progression and a choir of low-throated chappies chanting “Koyaanisqatsi”. GoGo Penguin drop the vocals. Their close attention to the image is announced early with a stunning cadenza over the film’s whiteout as rockets leave the earth and it cuts to a memorable canyon flyover. The new score is often more sensitive to the image than Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios. The texture of clouds, then ocean waves crashing, are visually incredible. The live cymbal splashes have a mimetic effect that improves on the original scoring.

The first of the Hopi prophecies originally sung in the film, “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster”, sets the scene with open cast mining, the elemental, unseen fact of how we get the material for our existence on an industrial scale. The film has an audacious jump-cut as striking as the legendary cut of a bone falling as a space ship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A nuclear testing action segues into a mother and her children asleep on sand. The camera pans back to reveal not a beachfront vista but the brutalist anti-architecture of heavy industry.

Another killer montage series takes us from tanks to fighter craft to an image of the bomb that fell on Nagasaki to an e=mc2 arranged on an aircraft carrier. The camera lingers on that bomb. Glass’s score ploughs on, but in GoGo Penguin’s conception they let the image speak with an ever more chilling contemporaneity. The film moves perfectly from day to night. The second and third Hopi prophecies that structure the film make clear what is at stake: “Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky” and “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans”.

The key central sequence of the film “The Grid” has a different impact without Glass’s blistering synthesizer bass-line ostinatos, but in a nod to this Blancka moves from acoustic to electric bass, retaining the intensity. The band has previously spoken about this: “There’s a massive section in the middle that’s totally nuts and really complicated so we worked outwards from there.” Their approach is typically organic but considered: “Some of it is heavily composed and are other bits are more of a vibe. Depending on where you cut the sections up, it totally changes the meaning of the film.”

During this pivotal section GoGo Penguin step up to the challenge with the inspired employment of one of their signature set-piece techniques, their mimicking of glitch, where grooves st-st-stutter and break back and forward in juddering triplets. What can be a sonic gimmick perfectly enacts an interaction with the exhausting pace and stress of the film’s depiction of capitalist consumption. Factory production lines chop out sausages and jeans from sewing machines. We see the women who produce our things, the sausage machine, robotic factory production lines, sausages, jeans, sewing machines, interspersed with relentless consumption in crowd-drenched malls. The camera makes dizzying time-lapse trolley-dashes through supermarkets. We jump cut into computer games, enhanced by GoGo Penguin’s glitch and stop, adding a contemporary sense more evident in the black mirror of 2017 than in 1982 that we ourselves are inside a computer game.

The kind of Fordist production depicted in Koyaanisqatsi seems oddly period. We in the West tend not to associate physical means of production as an image or imago of our current form of society, even though we’re dependent on it more than ever. It’s been outsourced to China. The early computer games and some of the fashions also date the film, but mostly it’s as if nothing at all has changed. Everything is hyperfamiliar, but its like you’ve never seen the world before. Seeing this classic film with a new soundtrack makes it doubly strange.

The film’s understandably negative attitude to modernity is singled and symbolised in its pious title, “Life out balance”. The film looks at our species from a high level, but its judgmental view is relieved by tiny moments of intimacy: hands held across the bar of a hospital bed, couples sitting still together while the world weaves around them, men haplessly filling up a lift.

The slower pace after the busy central section is met by the pretty piano melodism that is GoGo Penguin’s secret weapon, sweetly complementing these quotidian scenes of human interaction. A man with a bloodied pate looking into his hand with despair in his eyes, a dandy charismatically holding forth while comically holding onto a bright pink ice cream, the many portraits in which ordinary people stare out of the film. These are tenderly brought home by the more organic acoustic approach of the live score. It’s all so human. The film can seem pious and portentous but it is its revealing poetic visual details, rather than the broad sweeps of cities and canyons, where GoGo Penguin’s acoustic approach can be more responsive than Glass’s austere score.

The music dries on a double exposure image. The people look like ghosts. We are ghosts. The Saturn V (Apollo 11) rocket takes off toward our final frontier, our great achievement in the stars. Complaisant to the film’s crucial irony, GoGo Penguin drag lugubrious Rachmaninovian chords. The film cuts to the May 1962 Atlas-Centaur rocket exploding, our grand follies and dreams crashing back to earth with an Eno-esque simplicity in chiming chords. As we fall burning back to earth, twirling, burning, falling in the blue sea of the air, the piano slows, to nothing… Is this the film’s bleak and futile message? Or is this immortal 35-year-old film saying that, rather than building towers of Babel, we should think about improving the bloody mess we have achieved on earth?

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. I like to think the film is saying that the cave paintings at the beginning demonstrate Startling New Evidence that the Hopi were in fact an advanced civilisation with nuclear, aerospatial etc technology who went through this entire destructive industrialising cycle, hence the images of the weird tower things in the paintings, and the paintings are a warning not to do it again or everything will be destroyed and reduced to nothing. This is completely not the correct interpretation though, this is just me being silly.

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