The Complexities of Simple Music

Philip Glass has been a major composer on the American music scene for quite a while now. He’s written in a number of different genres from symphonies to operas to film scores. The work I’d like to explore in this post is from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 collaboration with cinematographer Ron Fricke that juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse videography of the natural world and civilization. The particular section in the work that I’d like to look at is entitled “The Grid,” and in the film, it plays over time-lapse footage of cities at night.
Glass’s music is perfect for discussing timbre because changes in timbre provide much of the the interest in his music. In fact, I find it easier to isolate particular sounds in minimalist music because my ear doesn’t have to worry about tracking the melody. This may also be why people find minimalist music repetitive and boring. It is repetitive, but the repetition in melodic and rhythmic material means we should be directing our attention elsewhere.

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 9.19.29 PM
Here’s my breakdown of the first couple minutes:
The first two seconds of this work are purely white-noise. The white noise continues through the rest of the piece, but this initial isolation forces us to focus on it. Because of the accompanying visual to this work, I find myself interpreting the white noise as traffic or the wind whistling in the city.
The next 43 seconds are dominated by horn-noises (I’m going to call them horns, though they could be electronically manipulated) playing F, then C, then D and G together. This use of perfect 4ths is very archetypal and evokes a somewhat primal feeling. At 0:45, we start to hear a horn faintly playing above other horn. This then becomes even stronger at 1:00, and at 1:28, the lower horn starts to repeat the interval of a major second, “embellishing” it’s “melody.”
At 1:57, trumpets come in with an iterative pattern that is quite jarring. Due to the traffic theme, I hear them as horns honking or car alarms sounding, and they bring an urgency to the work. The next minute continues with much the same sounds, and its specific combination of timbres and sonorities sounds rather jazzy.
At 2:56, the trumpets really step up their game and give us much more dissonance and brightness (we can see this on the spectrograph, which unfortunately only goes up to 3:24).
Throughout this entire section, the horns are still playing their two-note repeating ostinato. If you ever find yourself getting bored in this work (or others like it), I suggest tuning in to the number of instruments and varying sounds that you can hear. Were you still paying attention to the backdrop of white noise by the 30-second mark?
At 3:24, we start to get a bright, frantic triplet pattern. This corresponds perfectly to the visual of time-lapse traffic. In fact in many sections, the videography and music each amplify the other’s effect. For example, listen and watch from 4:03 to the end of the YouTube clip. Do the cars appear to be moving at different speeds based on the meter of the music? I have watched this section with and without sound and the difference is striking in what the music causes me to see!
In general, I hear this work as a commentary on modern existence. Glass captures the repetitiveness of daily life, particularly travel, and the futility of going and going and going but never really getting anywhere.
I tried not to look up very much information about this work prior to analyzing it because I wanted this post to be about what I was hearing, not what someone else thought I should be hearing. And there are a lot of aspects I didn’t touch on. So if you hear other things, awesome! Let me know what they are!
Also, if you’re enjoying this music, or you want to see really cool costuming and sets, Indiana University is putting on Glass’s opera, Akhnaten this weekend. It will be an incredible production and though I am not in it, a lot of my friends are. If you’re interested, you can live-stream the opera here Friday and Saturday (Feb 22, 23) at 8pm ET: http://www.music.indiana.edu/iumusiclive/streaming/

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