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Volume 19 Issue 5 - February 2014

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Music and the

Music and the MoviesVisitors: A CollaboratBY PAUL ENNISPHOTOS BY ALEX ULLERI“You are the subject of thisfilm.” – Godfrey ReggioFirst came Koyaanisqatsi, on which filmmakerGodfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass beganworking in the late 1970s. (It was released in 1983; its“life out of balance” theme resonated with an audienceeager for anything not Reagan or Thatcher).Glass’ idiosyncratic variegated arpeggios andrhythmic repetitions riveted a public for whom themusician was mostly unknown.Two more qatsi films followed over the next twodecades, neither reaching the popular heights ofthe first. Reggio stuck to his unique vision and Glassextended his reach beyond the opera house and theconcert hall into the mainstream by scoring commercialsand Hollywood movies.A new film by these two longtime collaborators iscause for celebration under normal circumstancesbut the world premiere of Visitors at the TorontoInternational Film Festival, September 8, 2013 at asold-out Elgin Theatre, was anything but normal,since the film’s soundtrack was performed live by 64members of the TSO, supplying an additional layerof energy to the event. Led by longtime Glass associateMichael Riesman, the musicians respondedprodigiously, playing continuously for more than 87minutes as they underpinned the enhanced imagesthat filled the large venue. The TIFF screening alsoafforded a rare insight into the creative process sinceit was followed by a discussion, led by the notablefilm director Steven Soderbergh, that includedReggio, Glass and Visitors’ associate director/editorand technical co-ordinator Jon Kane.Soderbergh asked Glass how it all started, givingthe audience an inkling of their collaboration. “Ithink he [Reggio] showed me the first reel playedwith some of my music and then with an electronicscore,” Glass replied. “Yours works better he said.”Asked about the function of the music, Glasscontinued: “The music gathers the spectators’ attentionto watch the film and vice versa.” And theprocess? “There is a back and forth the whole timebetween film and music. The real word [for it] iscollaborative effort.”Reggio interjected that he “feels like a deaf personworking through the ears of Philip.”In answer to Soderbergh’s question of howdaunting it is to do something different, Glasspointed out that the score for Visitors was writtendirectly for the orchestra – a first – a decision whichhe himself made, noting that it took 35 years forReggio to have a premiere with a live orchestra. “It’svery different than a sync soundtrack,” he went on.“You can feel it. We have taken the film world andput it into the world of live performance, which is ahuge transformation in how we experience it.” It allgoes back to the live score to Abel Gance’s silent filmNapoleon which was revived at Radio City MusicHall in January of 1981, screenings which bothGlass and Reggio had attended. (I was fortunateto have been in the audience then and personallyexperienced first hand the revelation of viewing afilm in such transformative circumstances.)Glass aptly described the flow of the music inthese special circumstances as “an organic flowright from the orchestra pit [that] seals the attentionof the viewer.”This latest collaboration,Visitors, is a sensoryrich, meditative experience, self-reflexive andmysterious. Filmed in an intense, rich black andwhite, much of it shot in infrared, and processeddigitally at the maximum pixel density of 4K,Visitors consists of just 74 images (73 cuts). Amongthem: a beguiling if inscrutable female lowlandgorilla, the cold beauty of the Atchafalaya Basin,a New Orleans retirement home and many of itsresidents who are among the 80 people lookingout at the audience face to face in what Reggiodubs “the reciprocal gaze.” The director calls hisfilms “a visceral form of cinema,” comparingthem to poetry: “Once you write it, it has a voiceof its own.”I thought the score started very romanticallybecoming elegiac towards the end yet grounded ina calm centre reflective of everyday life.The day after the premiere I had a few momentswith Glass, Kane and Reggio.My mention of hearing a Mahler horn early onand later a Brahmsian string and brass passageprompted Glass to bring up Wagner which hehears reflected in the tremolo and the arpeggios atthe beginning of the score. He was excited aboutwhat he heard and curious about what conductorDennis Russell Davies’ reaction to it would be whenthe soundtrack was recorded in Austria with theBruckner Orchestra Linz.“I was laughing to myself,” Glass recalled.“What did you think of the Wagner? He said,‘What Wagner?’” Glass smiled: “My best plansare unnoticed.” When associate director/editorKane asked why he was trying to tip the hat toWagner, Glass simply replied: “Oh, I don’t know.I just was looking for something, looking at themoon, looking at the gorilla, the atmosphere ofepic space.”The harp and the tremolo were key to Glassfeeling comfortable with his writing: “Before thebass, a little snare drum and the harp comingthrough that – once I had that opening sound Iknew I was home. When I got the right one, youknow right away.”Kane went on to explain that he and Reggioalways saw the film as being in three movements.Over an 18-month period (during which Glasswas working on at least two other major works,8 | February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014

ive Effortincluding The Perfect American, his opera on the last days of WaltDisney), the composer would work from montages of the movementsthat were not finely edited but enough to convey the sense of the filmmaker’svision.(As our brief encounter came to an end moments later, Glass tappedme on the knee and said: “Don’t forget, listen for that tremolo.”)On the Soderbergh panel the previous day, Kane had set it up: “Weshot first in New Orleans, trying to get a shared lexicon of what’s goodand what’s bad, working on ways of making a new kind of cinema,before [adding] music. It would morph and Philip would come outand watch images.” They called it “marinating Philip.”Glass had picked up the narrative. “I think the morph processdescription is good but it’s the element of trust that keeps youworking together. Then all the other stuff can happen. Trust andrespect are very much connected.”“Deep admiration is at the heart of myrelationship with Godfrey Reggio.”-- Philip February 1, 2014 - March 7, 2014 | 9

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