A Second Look at Philip Glass's Monumental 'Naqoyqatsi'

Q2 Music Album of the Week for March 11, 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

Given that Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass's first collaboration with film director Godfrey Reggio, stands alongside Einstein on the Beach as one of those rare instances where experimental culture crosses over into popular consciousness without compromise, it's almost unfair to compare the film to its second "sequel," Naqoyqatsi.

Almost any feature is bound to pale at least a little by comparison. But in fact, Reggio's digitally warped visuals for Naqoyqatsi are sophisticated and disturbing, and Glass's orchestral score offers moments of outstanding lyricism from soloist Yo-Yo Ma.

But how does the score hold up without the film? Glass's Cello Concerto No. 2, a new release on the composer's Orange Mountain Music label, offers a chance to consider the material on its own merits.

Adapted from the Naqoyqatsi score and recorded here by contemporary music specialist Matt Haimovitz on cello, with faithful Philip Glass champion Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Cincinnati Symphony, Glass's Second gives us the chance to test the durability of the original material – which proves surprisingly durable.

Or perhaps not so surprisingly. After all, Glass's Second Violin Concerto, cloyingly nicknamed "The American Four Seasons," is another of his most delightful recent works. The fact is that concerto form agrees with Philip Glass's late style, which makes room for solo virtuosity and some exquisitely lyrical melodic writing. It also distracts from Glass's limited palette as an orchestrator, by giving him the chance to counterpose his monolithic ensemble writing against the high-flying solo part.

Whatever the reason, this dark score gives us Glass's late style at its best. Weird melodic modes kink around sharp harmonic corners; the solo cello gets moments of unsettling loveliness and spectacular virtuosity. In contrast to the statelier treatment on the original film soundtrack, this second look at Naqoyqatsi gives Haimovitz and Davies the chance to sand some varnish off of the piece with shrieks from the cello and full-throated blasts from the orchestra.

It's a second look most classic film scores don't get, but one which the piece richly deserves.

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Comments [4]

What I find most interesting about this music is its refinement: it is easy to hear, due to the distinct melodic phrases, and familiar orchestal instruments. It's tonal and rhythmic - both elements that have universal appeal. There is phrase repetition, which allows one to hear during the repetition what was missed on the first pass. The solo instrument is the much loved cello, whose range is so close to that of the human voice. This is aurally accessible music.

But now comes the part the gets me the most: because of its distinct and refined style, it makes me think about how I'm responding to. It's as if I'm presented with familiar images, but the colors have been altered so I'm made to see them anew. This is exciting, engaging, and ultimately satisfying.

It is this combination of the accessible with the surprising that, I find again and again, makes great art - and that what I find myself thinking this is, immediately upon the first listen.

Glass is an original, and his value will endure, I'll predict. I'm so pleased to have access to this fine musical creation! I'm already anticipating hearing this again, very soon.

Mar. 15 2013 05:36 PM
NZ from DC

I agree that the music of philip Glass should be aired on regular WQXR more often.

Mar. 13 2013 02:58 PM
Mark from Gem City, OH

Excited about this, especially as I was there at the recording of this piece

Mar. 11 2013 12:32 PM
AF from Nassau County, Long Island

The music of Philip G;ass should be played on regular WQXR; he is major mainstream classical composer of the 20th century.

Mar. 11 2013 04:13 AM

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About Q2 Music Album of the Week

Q2 Music's Album of the Week is our weekly review of the newest and most dynamic contemporary classical releases. It focuses on musical discovery, world premiere recordings and fresh perspectives on today's classical landscape. Read our review and stream the album on-demand for one week only at www.wqxr.org/q2music/


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