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Cinema freaks and us more ordinary humans will have the chance Friday, Nov. 3, to experience an epic event.

Acclaimed by the NY Timesas “one of the most startling and original soundtracks ever written,” Glass’ score will be performed live by 10 musicians to a screening of the film.

Glass is one of the nation’s leading and influential composers with five decades of work to stand behind, including 11 symphonies, eight string quartets, concertos, more than a dozen operas and music composed for theater, dance and film (three Oscar nominations).

While his training includes a solid classical background as a graduate student of Juilliard and two years study with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, Glass also credits the influence of Chicago jazz artists he encountered when he left Baltimore halfway through high school in 1952 to enroll in the University of Chicago at the age of 15. Be bop was in ascendance then, and he encountered Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and others in the clubs.

“What I learned from that music became part of my own language,” he writes in his memoir, Words Without Music, “I’ve become very comfortable combining melodic material with harmonic material that does not at first seem to be supported. The melodies may not be part of the harmony, but the ear accepts them as alternate notes.”

While studying in Paris, Glass picked up a job writing out notation for the great sitarist Ravi Shankar as Shankar improvised a score to a film; this introduced Glass to a totally different way to understand rhythm.

Glass is often grouped with a set of composers as “minimalists” (these include his Juilliard classmate Steven Reich, as well as Terry Riley and Ithaca’s own David Borden) while Glass prefers to describe his work as “music with repetitive structures.” (Another trait these composers share is amplification.)

Fundamental to Glass’ work has been intensive collaboration. In his life, he had the luck to fall in with artists such as Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra; radical theatre artists such as Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach), JoAnne Akalaitis (his first wife) and Lee Breuer, choreographers like Lucinda Childs and poets like Allen Ginsberg.

Glass’ music has also from the beginning had a big impact on popular music, including David Bowie and Brian Eno (Glass returned the favor by using Low and Heroes as the inspiration for his first symphonies), and technomusic like Tangerine Dream.

But as much as Glass was fascinated by the interrelations of music, text, movement and image, he had no interest in film scoring until Godfrey Reggio came knocking with 40 minutes of footage of wilderness, planes, cities, canyons and more in 1978.

The Film and Filmmaker

A child of New Orleans,
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Reggio spent his years from age 14 28 in silence and prayers studying to be a Catholic monk with the Congregation of Christian Brothers. In the ’60s he moved into community organizing in New Mexico. An interest in multimedia education led to his first film, Koyaanisqatsi. “The title,” its website describes, “is a Hopi Indian word meaning ‘life out of balance.’ Created between 1975 and 1982, the film is an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds urban life and technology versus the environment.”

Reggio convinced Glass to produce the score by playing a reel for him twice, once with a Japanese electronic score, then with music by Glass. “Yours goes better with the film” was Reggio’s comment.

So began a three year collaboration on the film, by two artists with a deep interest in religion and meditation. For an opening sequence of a NASA launch, Glass used an organ passacaglia, reasoning that film came from theatre and theater buildings from the great cathedrals. For a sequence of planes flying, he wanted a sense of lightness, and he used voices.

“When I work with Godfrey,” Glass writes, “I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the image I depend on the inaccuracy of my memory to create the appropriate distance between the music and the image. I knew right away that the image and the music could not be on top of each other, because there would be no room for the spectators to invent a space for themselves.”

Reggio’s non verbal films reach back to such silent experiments as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera, as well as photography’s fascination with documenting other cultures especial through Geographic Societies. But Glass did almost immediately in 1968. The first players included Steve Reich, who left to create his own performance ensemble. Within the year, a sound mixer was included. In 1974 Michael Riesman joined, becoming music director in 1976.

All the current group are composers in their own rights and world class musicians. Riesman has a wide ranging career as a pianist and a conductor as well, and has been Grammy nominated. Joining him on keyboards will be Nelson Padgett (a soloist with the National and Houston Symphonies); Mick Rossi (also a member of the Paul Simon band on keyboards and percussion, and a noted jazz player); Eleonor Sandresky (whose recent compositional work specializes in choreographing movement for musicians); and Lisa Bielawa, also on vocals (Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and a 2009 Rome Prize winner.)

On woodwinds are Jon Gilbert (an original member of PGE and a collaborator with Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, JoAnne Akalitis, Steve Reich and others); Peter Hess (who has recorded with David Sandborn, David Byrne, TV on Radio, and Wu Tang Clan among others); and Andrew Sterman (who started as a jazz saxophonist with Buddy Rich and Gil Evans, and has been a soloist with Bang on the Can and the Eos Orchestra.) The onstage audio engineer is Ryan Kelly (Nico Mhly, Valgeir Sigurson and Beyonc.)
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