The title of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi translates from the Hopi language as ‘life out of balance’, a concept that underpins the whole of the immersive epic.
Now, a reimagined fresh score has been entirely composed and performed by Blue Note-signed electronic jazz group GoGo Penguin. The tour of Koyaanisqatsi complete with its new 21st century score will leave spectators with a sense of déjà vu – that we’re still just as unbalanced in our modern world as we were 35 years ago.
Koyaanisqatsi surveys the unsteady relationship between the natural and modern world. There are no words or narration to the film. Instead, it’s the interplay between cinematography and music that drives Koyaanisqatsi forward, with the comprehensive use of slow motion and time lapse footage of seas and forests, cities and rockets, subways and highways, humans and autonomy.
Previously the cinematography was balanced by iconic minimalist composer Philip Glass. So GoGo Penguin have big boots to follow in creating a new score for Koyaanisqatsi, a film that Chris Illingworth of the band describes as an “incredible film” to which they’re “hooked”. It was a new challenge for a band normally adjusted to having plenty of freedom to improvise and create their jazz-meets-electronic style, now faced with “a structure and form to work within”.
The 1940-capacity Barbican Centre is fully packed for GoGo Penguin’s solid 90 minute accompaniment to the film. Unlike the ordinary sanitary conditions of film viewing, complete with perfectly arranged scores, the live experience of improvisation and vibrating sub-bass means we’re not just spectators but participants.
Each second of Koyaanisqatsi‘s new score has been considered in harmony with its visual impact. Shimmering cymbols to the rustling of paper notes on screen; a walking bass as commuters pass by; cartwheels of feathery piano jazz lines as we’re behind the wheel of a car on a highway, sped up several hundred times. Even footage of gambling machines and computer games is accompanied by glitch genre techniques, the staccato piano chords and stabbing drums bringing it as close to synthesized 8-bit music as possible.
The effect is not just inspirational, but physiological. The dizzying effect of toppling backwards and forwards over aerial cityscapes coupled by incomprehensible improvised piano lines that spiral upwards. The nauseous sub-bass growls in our stomachs as we enter the subways. Staggered and stabbing syncopation coupled with shots of people consuming, machines spitting out processed food, makes us uncomfortable members of this untidy human mess of consumption. The double bass changes to electronic bass in order to lead us down into the subway, subtle chromatics inducing claustrophobia, a feeling that this is too much to bear.
Electronica explosions aside, GoGo Penguin master the slower moments too; soft touches of piano join the intimacy of a woman who, walking by, smiles suddenly with embarrassment at the camera; the relief of musical euphony underlying the visual interchange of motherboard circuits with night cityscapes, a metaphor of the slow circuitry of every day life; the fragility and separation of the aftermath of fires, devastation, and sickness, with pondering bowed bass.
Look away for one moment and you’d struggle to believe there’s only a pianist, bassist and drummer on stage; the motifs are stabbed, yearned, beat and growled out, speaking an orchestra of language. It’s an endeavour that’s not only a feather in the cap for these former Mercury Prize contenders, but also contributes notably to a new chapter in how cinema and film can be presented in exciting and innovative ways.
The Barbican Centre performance may have been sold out, but you can still catch GoGo Penguin performing Koyaanisqatsi on Sunday 15 October at Brighton Dome, or on the 18 and 19 October at The Sugar Club in Dublin, Ireland.