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Philip Glass and the Rise of the Machines

It was billed as “Philip Glass — In Conversation with Robert Osserman,” but as they say in the late-night TV commercials, “Wait, that’s not all!”

Glass was in San Francisco this past weekend with his ensemble for live performances on three consecutive nights of what’s come to be known as the “Qatsi Trilogy”: the three movies directed by Godfrey Reggio, each more a visual poem than a narrative, for which Glass composed the music: Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1983), Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation (1988) and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War (2002). It’s arguable that films, in particular Koyaanisqatsi and The Piano (the latter with music by Michael Nyman), are what brought minimalism into the mainstream. A sold-out audience for a lecture on a beautiful Saturday afternoon spoke to Koyaanisqatsi‘s staying power.

Osserman, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at nearby Stanford, and today a director at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, was to interview Glass, or to have a discussion with him, regarding the patterns in Glass’ music at the Herbst Theatre Saturday, February 18. But also on hand, as it turned out, was the films’ director himself, a hulking New Orleans native who’s a head and a half taller than Glass.

Despite the dialogue-free nature of those three films, Reggio is anything but reticent to speak; when he opens his mouth, not paragraphs but entire chapters issue forth, fully formed, complete with footnotes, laced with Latin phrases and philosophical allusions. Reggio didn’t take over the conversation, but he relished the opportunity to address an audience, dissertating on the role of technology in our lives, on the computer as a kind of sacrament and on his own unusual upbringing. At age 13, Reggio entered a Roman Catholic religious order, where he remained for a decade and a half. He refers to the experience by saying that he was raised in the Middle Ages.

Osserman opened the discussion by referring to the three films as “visions of technological romance,” though by the end of the talk, which lasted an hour, it was clear that any romance in regard to technology was deep in decline, at least for Reggio. They projected a brief sequence of fractals from Naqoygatsi that seemed like the old Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of 10, raised to the nth degree. Glass’ score for this sequence was a bluesy passage, which brought to mind the fast that Elmer Bernstein had scored Powers of 10, and when the infinite scoping into Mandelbrot sets crossfaded to an image of a wormhole, Osserman lowered the sound and asked Glass to talk about his training in science at the University of Chicago.

Glass corrected the record, and the afternoon’s program, by explaining that he hadn’t majored in mathematics, or in philosophy, because during his college career at Chicago, there were no majors at all. Math and philosophy were simply the classes to which he showed up, though he eventually chose music over science, a decision he described as the “path of least resistance.” He listed the scientists who have been central to his work, mentioning the opera with which he first gained fame, Einstein on the Beach, and the score he wrote for another documentary, Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time, an adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s famously under-read book. He mentioned a recent commission for an opera about Galileo contemporary Johannes Kepler. Then he joked that if he wrote an opera about Newton, he’d have a complete set.

Despite the promise of a discussion about the role of math and systems in his music, Glass was pretty self-deprecating, and he deflected the subject almost entirely: “There’s no mathematics to my music, just arithmetic.” When he did speak in practical terms about his compositions, he provided a concise summary of some themes in his autobiography, Music by Philip Glass, especially when he emphasized his effort to integrate rhythm and harmony. Listening to his music as chords set in motion is to listen to it with John Coltrane in the back of your mind. (Speaking of Music by Philip Glass, next year is the book’s 20th anniversary — perhaps a second volume is due?)

Glass probably would have seemed loquacious, had Reggio not been present. Among the many things Reggio discussed: it was Glass’ recording North Star that convinced him this was the composer to work with; he considers the Glass scores not only the “Qatsi” movies’ “emotive armchair,” but also the equivalent of their dialogue; and the trilogy’s foundation was a conscious effort to remove the standard “foreground” of films, and to make the background, or “second unit,” their true subject.

It was the definition of technology that illuminated Glass’ and Reggio’s differences. Glass, who has perhaps done more to introduce the synthesizer to the orchestra than any other living composer, spoke neutrally about technology, saying that to him the human hand is itself a kind of technology. He noted how the grand piano, a device few today would immediately characterize as “technology,” took some 500 years to be developed.

Reggio, to the contrary, sees technology specifically as an outgrowth of scientific inquiry, and in case anyone didn’t quite grasp his dark vision of the rise of the machines and the centrality of the computer in warping our view of reality (“technology is the pervasive way” we experience the world, he said), he paraphrased Wittgenstein to the effect than when humans have solved all scientific problems, we will no longer know how to experience life. (Reggio should be invited back to debate the future with Ray Kurzweil, who on the same stage last year, with magnetic salesmanship befitting a CEO, discoursed on the promise of the coming singularity, a projected moment when technology will enable man to proceed to a post-biological existence.)

And then quite suddenly, right on the hour, it was over. No time for questions, just a stream of audience members heading out to catch an early dinner before the night’s presentation of Naqoyqatsi. One serious question lingered: whether or not Reggio’s doom rap had spoiled anyone’s appetite.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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