Composer Philip Glass on Godfrey Reggio's 'Visitors' and Why Audiences Won't Walk Out


Let’s start with a joke: A man tells his friend, “There’s one Philip Glass song I like”. His friend asks which one, and the man replies, “Any one”. Naturally, there are a lot more where that came from: the official Philip Glass fan site even hosts a list of them, though they all seem to conclude with the same punchline — inevitably something about repetition and his music always sounding the same. If the gag sounds like criticism, that’s because it often is; as Alex Ross put it so scathingly in 2005, these days Glass “writes ‘Philip Glass music’ in place of music that happens to be by Philip Glass.” But for me the predictability of his music is central to its appeal: I very often find myself in the mood to listen to nothing more than ‘Philip Glass music’, with the reliable grandeur of its arpeggios, and I’m pleased that he has so much that snugly fits the bill. Jokes about Philip Glass are a little simplistic, of course, but it’s telling that they’re so easy to make: his style is that well-defined, that instantly recognizable, that it now seems more or less reducible to a brand.

Philip Glass is 76-years-old; he’s still making Philip Glass music. You hear it most often as the soundtrack to films by guys like Errol Morris and James Marsh, but those scores have often been assembled and reworked from old material — sometimes for the third or fourth time. But there’s one director for whom the old stuff simply doesn’t cut it: Godfrey Reggio, the director of the famously Glass-scored “Koyaanisqatsi”, with whom Glass recently reunited for a kind of spiritual successor. The film is called “Visitors”, and it had its premiere — alongside a live performance conducted by Glass in person — at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Sitting down for the live dress rehearsal, I was immediately sucked in: here was a wealth of new material, familiar but exciting. It was more Philip Glass music. And I loved every second.

I was honored to sit down with Mr. Glass for a one on one conversation the morning after his film’s premiere, where the show had gone off without a hitch. I quickly found that, not unlike his music, the man practically emanates intelligence and warmth — I’d hardly finished shaking his hand before he began inquiring about my name’s Gaelic origin, asking me about my family history and where I was born. And I was pleased to find that he shared something else in common with his work: he knew how to take a joke.

FILM.COM: “Visitors” strikes me as in some ways a response to the death of film. And yet you have been making music digitally since the early 1980s. Tell me about that transition for you.

PHILIP GLASS: It wasn’t an easy transition for us. Yamaha came out with the first digital recording equipment, I believe, and at the time we were working on a record called “Glassworks”, in 1981, for Sony. We recorded the album with both the traditional equipment and the new digital machines. We then spent the next several weeks listening to both recordings, trying to figure out which one we liked — and it wasn’t at all clear which one was going to win out. In the end we decided to go digital. We could have gone the other way — we spent literally two weeks listening and couldn’t decide decisively. You have to remember, this was the first time that we knew of anybody doing this. During that time, you might remember, there were recordings that were made partly analog and partly digital — or you could find an analog mix and a digital mix. You would look at the CD and see whether it was a hybrid or not a hybrid. In the end, the industry went digital, and I think that was ultimately the right way to go.

Have we lost anything in the transition?

In the pictorial part of the industry as well as in the audio part of the industry, the process is the same: first we discover the technology and then we spend all of our time trying to put back into it what we lost. So yes, we lost something, perhaps, but we’re getting there. I think that’s normal. In 1981, when we were listening to those first digital recordings — and it was largely just piano, a simple thing — it sounded very cold to us. But now if you recorded something digitally that wouldn’t really be a problem.

And how does digital technology relate to “Visitors” in particular? 

Godfrey was eager to enhance the film through technology — very eager to do it. Godfrey knew precisely what he wanted, even if he didn’t know how to do it. People think he is against technology in some way, because he films seem to suggest it, and yet he could never make a movie like this without it. It isn’t technology he’s against so much as the corruption of technology. He and I have embraced technology in our own ways. We aren’t being dragged into that world — we wanted it. I have always seen that the future of music is going to be through the refinement and extrapolation of technology to enter the human world. In that way, someone like Godfrey strikes me as much on the edge of progress as anybody I know. He comes from a sort of contemplative background — you would say that his upbringing would keep him away from these modern things, but it’s quite the opposite.

So we ought to embrace advancement? 

You need to come up with a reconciliation between being a techno-geek and having a human heart. That accommodation has to be made, or at least you have a piece that isn’t going to communicate. I consider this is a process of a continuing reinvestment in our own education. We’re right on the edge of what can happen — and maybe even a little bit more.

You’ve worked closely with director Godfrey Reggio many times — most notably on the film “Koyaanisqatsi”, for which you composed the score. Tell me about the collaborative process.

When Godfrey conceives of a project, you know that there is a vision there. Now, how you get that vision into a movie, that’s another question. And that’s where the hordes come in: the creators, the collaborators, like myself. But without the vision there is nothing. The unique thing about Godfrey, which we all see, is his strength and his stamina, how intensely he can hold on to an idea — and the purity of the idea. He stays away from me, leaving me to create the music. Godfrey doesn’t do anything that isn’t surface art: he is 100% focused on the film, on the images. I see the images he creates, and then I like to walk away and misremember them. I write the music to the misremembered images. Now, Calum, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but this is the opposite of the way the rest of the filmmaking industry works. This is not Hollywood methodology. Nobody makes films this way. The symbiosis of the image — the way the music and the image fit together — is the result of this process. It’s a lot of hard work.

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How do you ensure that the music and the images synchronize properly?

We created a map: we had a record of the images and shot lengths. There was only one problem, which was that sometimes the map would change. Godfrey may decide to change the film in some minor way, and meanwhile I’m five miles away in Manhattan putting the music together to the map I have in hand — and if the map changes at all, it no longer fits. Now, there have to be organic changes. But sometimes we’d look at what we had and say: “Wait a second! There’s ten seconds missing here!” We had to do some trimming. The music, thankfully, does not get recorded until the end. We were working from demo tapes. The nice thing about music is that it is very inexpensive to change.

Having now seen the film, not only in its finished form, but actually projected and performed before an audience, how do you feel it came off? 

One thing I felt last night, at the world premiere, was a certain unease. It was a real nail-biter, wasn’t it? Because, you know, everybody is watching this thing, and it’s such an intense work, and yet it isn’t remotely alienating. That can happen. That would have been the last thing I would have wanted: a film that is so refined, technologically, that it alienated the audience as a result. You want to use technology to get into the heart of the audience. It’s really a radical approach — I don’t know anybody who really makes movies that way. I mean, you see movies that are made now, robot movies and stuff, that go over very well with children but not so much with adults. Kids love that stuff, but they grow out of it because it’s too thin — emotionally it’s too thin. I am a kind of techno-geek, I suppose, but my objective is to reveal the space of the human heart. Godfrey is our leader on that front. He cannot make the movies without us, but on the other hand we could never make the movies without him.

How do you feel an audience will respond to this work?

We haven’t even talked about this yet, but I like to think about attention. One thing you may have noticed last night is that the audience was so very attentive to the film — they were able to simply sit down and watch the whole thing. Sometimes there is very little happening. In fact it’s amazing how little is going on in the film, overall, and how engrossed people become by it anyway. It’s a conductive experience. I think the music is central to this experience. It’s much the same way that, if I were to write an opera, there are all kinds of things that can be going on in and around the music.

In this universe of discourse that Godfrey has set up — that we have worked together to set up, of course — the function of attention becomes almost the most critical. In a way, the thing that was most impressive about the film, is that nobody was leaving. I think I saw one person leave and I assume they had some kind of bathroom emergency, because otherwise nobody was walking out. And what are they looking at? Faces? Garbage? What are we looking at here? It’s amazing that people can be so absorbed by this. We’re working with monumental subtlety here. It’s an important contradiction. I don’t want to pat myself on the back here, but I think this is a textbook case of coming up with a different way of looking at the world.

Cinedigm will release "Visitors" on January 24th, 2014. Philip Glass' score for the film is now available.