Q&A: Koyaanisqatsi Director Godfrey Reggio On Dragging Philip Glass Into Film Scoring


Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story “Philip Glass, An East Village Voice,” Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

Today we are publishing the first of several interviews with Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. 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). Thirty-five years later, the two are still collaborating together, now on their fourth film the holy see, which is in post-production.

In this installment, we talk to Reggio about how he initially chose Glass as his composer, and how his team started making a film without dialogue, spoken narration, or a traditional screenplay.

I’m sure you’ve told this story a number of times, and I’ve heard variations of it, but can you tell me about how you first met Mr. Glass?

Well, I first met him through his “Village voice,” as it were—his music. I was a neophyte. I didn’t know anything about who was doing. I was coming out of a religious community, a Catholic monk, working with street gangs, and what did I know.

Were you living in New York City at the time?

No, I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And [a friend], a… composer said that she would be my assistant in finding out what was happening with new composers. For about six months, she played music for me. But I must say, the first time I heard Philip’s music, the first piece of music I heard of his was a piece called “North Star.”

Which was done years and years ago for a documentary on [sculptor] Mark di Suvero, and so the piece of music moved me. I had listened to all kinds of music from all over the world. The two people that I ended up liking the most were Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and after sitting about it and thinking about it, as much as I like Riley’s music because I found it quintessentially spiritual—if I can use that word—that it opened up many doors, at the end of the day, I felt that Philip Glass’s music was more structured, and had more form, and that that would be very important to the film.

Now, what was I looking for? I was looking for music that didn’t illustrate what I was showing on the screen. I was looking for music that itself had a voice that could perceive—in tandem with the image but not in place of the image. It could be, in Philip’s terms, a “lawn chair” in which the viewer would see the film. And that chair would be the music, and the music was quintessentially important. I had decided that it was going to be a speechless narration, and that the music would take the place of that. What I liked especially about music as a form was that unlike language, music portends a direct link to the listener. It doesn’t go through metaphor. [It’s] direct, unfiltered communication.

And of course that’s different for each person. And I felt that his music has a presence that was ever offending and never arriving. It —was music as a journey that was beyond what 12 scale Western offered, at least for this film. I’m not comparing or saying one is better than the other, but for this film, Western music is very emotionally dramatic to the point of brining such emphasis that it tells you what to look and what to feel, and I didn’t find that in Philip Glass’s music.

So he was my overwhelming first choice. I also liked [some deceased composers], but it seemed like a form I couldn’t continue to work with, whereas Philip Glass was an original composer. I must also say that no one in my crew approved of my decision to use Philip Glass. [Laughs]

I’ll have to use some derogatory language here, but they said, “He’s the master of the broken needle. Why would you choose someone like this when you could choose Beethoven or Mozart? Vivaldi? And have the great music of the world?” Well I didn’t buy that at all, because I didn’t know those people, and it wasn’t written for this, and that music is beautiful as it is. But music that is beautiful as it is wasn’t what I was looking for. So I found the quintessential sound in the compositions of Philip Glass.

Where were you at this point in making the film?

I was in my head. It was all in my head. I had never done anything like this before.

You were not yet shooting the film?

Oh, no. I was not shooting yet. I was in the process of getting ready to do all of that. But I knew I wanted to hear what the music would be, what would be a final companion to the image.

How did you go about connecting with Mr. Glass?

Well that was an awesome thing. I had been going to New York over the years, of course, trying to raise money always. I had a couple of very good friends there…both of them knew Philip Glass very well. It was through them basically that I finally got to meet Philip. I think they told him, “Please, this guy is going to drive you crazy if you don’t even see him! At least see him!” [Laughs]

So Philip said, the first time I met him, “I don’t do film music. Thank you, but no thank you,” he was very busy. So I didn’t know what to expect. So I just bothered the hell out of him, basically, in as appropriate of a way as I could. Finally, I had him come to a screening at Jonas Meekas’s Anthology Film Archives, when it was on Wooster Street.

I knew the projectionist there, and Jonas was very nice to let me use the facility. So what I did was—this was way after I chose him in my head, I already had footage by this point—I brought it to the screening room, and I put up music from two people—[first from one composer] and then I put up the same [footage] with Philip Glass’s “North Star.”

And the difference was palpable and immediate, and I think he came there just to satisfy his friends and get me off his back, and when we finished he said, “Well, when do we start? It looks like a great idea.”

I think it moved him to see what the relationship was between his sound and those images could be. I think it was enough to turn the table to get us started. Having said that, I think he felt at the time that this wouldn’t see the light of day, and this would be an “art” project, if I can use that term, and that there would only be the love of the project—that would be the reason to work on the film itself.

I was just re-watching the Noqoyqatsi DVD—I watched the film, and I watched the panel discussion in the extras that you did at NYU.

Oh, OK.

I was very interested to hear you talk about the technical differences in the films. You expressed a technical awareness of your own limitations, what you can do and what you’re interested in doing, mostly in the context of cinematography and editing. But I was curious, are you musically trained? And how did you bring your technical knowledge of music to working with Philip?

I am not formally trained. By being a young monk, you sing every day. I was in a chorus, because I went in when I was 14, all through high school. In college, I was in the choir, so formal training is just singing. But now, I had no formal training for cinematography, for editing, for any of that, certainly not for music. I just felt, right or wrong, but my gut told me that I had to act as if I knew what I was doing. [Laughs]

I know that sounds ridiculous. But I trusted myself, because I feel fortunate that I’ve been grabbed by a muse. And I was the vehicle of that muse. While all the people I worked with were highly capable, let’s say exceptionally, vivacious, it was a pleasure to work with them, to do so in a way in terms of, what I want to do, what I want to see, but I am, like I said in that discussion, like a blind man seeing through the eyes of another person, a deaf person hearing through the ears of another. But I have a feeling for what it is that I want; so in that sense, I have to be everything from a mother to an assassin as it relates to the film. [Laughs]

And I say, we don’t make the film by committee. We make it through collaboration. I was say the most difficult of art forms, because you are dealing with people, including myself, who have egos the size of buildings. But if that’s all they have, even if they’re highly, highly talented, if they have vanity of ego then there’s no possibility of working together. And certainly that’s not the case with the great talent that I’ve worked with, who were all able to work line in a very critical form, that life is precious. That alone allows collaboration to happen, and of course we all had something to do. So of course, in our own way, it’s like the many and the one. We were many people working on one film rather than many films being done by many people.

You see when that happens, the editing and the shooting is palpable to have the material to see. All these words mean nothing; film is all about image. So anything I might write as text disappears to the voracity of the image (or to its lack of voracity if it’s not good).

What I did with Philip is write a dramaturgical shaping of the film, which I called a “talking paper.” I’m not basing this film on literature or text, but more on texture, the visceral form. But I have to start off somewhere, and I always start off with my feeling that I give word to. And those words become like trigger lines for discussion. And, so, it’s all listed without form. I use always the form of three. So there’s always three.

Koyaanisqatsi, Powasqqatsi, Noqoyqatsi…it’s always three. Why, I have no idea. You’d have to ask this shadowy muse that follows me around. [Laughs]

The moderator of that panel asked about the threes of the trilogy and [suggested it was related to] your time as a monk.


In our next installments, we’ll talk about how Glass and Reggio’s working methods have evolved over the years, and take a look at their next film the holy see.

Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass’s at 75:
Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Glassbreaks Auteur dj BC On Mashing Up Philip Glass With The Beastie Boys, Kanye And The Fugees
Q&A: Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington On Collaborating With Philip Glass
Live: The Premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall
Happy (Happy Happy) 75th Birthday, Philip Glass, From South Park