I love words. Writing helps me think things through and is a way of discovery for me. With music, I can like a song for the lyrics without liking the tune, but I can’t like a piece of music if I don’t like the lyrics. But, as much as I love words, I know that music can sometimes communicate in ways that words can’t.

Today, I share a work that explores our place in the natural world, presenting a picture of an out-of-balance existence. (Next week, I will share a piece of music that explores what it might sound like to be in balance). Koyaanisqatsi, a film directed by Godfrey Reggio, music by Philip Glass, and cinematography by Ron Fricke is from 1982 and has no dialogue or narration but consists of the juxtaposition of slow motion and time lapse photography and Glass’ music.

Glass himself describes what Koyaanisqatsi attempts to do in this way, “There seems to be no ability to see beyond, to see that we have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself. We do not live with nature any longer; we live above it, off of it as it were. Nature has become the resource to keep this artificial or new nature alive. … The film’s role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer. This is the highest value of any work of art, not predetermined meaning, but meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter.” [1]

In light of that, I present many questions throughout this post for you to consider and try to answer. Feel free to ask questions of your own that come to mind as you experience part of the film (and share them with us!).

The word “koyaanisqatsi," which in the Hopi language means, “life out of balance,” is periodically chanted in the background, encapsulating the mood of the music and pictures. They reflect a bleak sense of disease, disconnection, and disorientation of contemporary humanity with the natural world, building from section to section to the unsettling conclusion of the final movement, “Prophecies.” The six parts of the original score are: 1. “Koyaanisqatsi,” 2.“Vessels,” 3. “Cloudscape,” 4. “Pruit Igoe,” 5. "The Grid," and 6."Prophecies."

I invite you to pay attention to your response to the images and music as you watch this beginning section of the film, titled "Koyaanisqatsi." In this first section, we move from pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon to the launching of the Saturn V rocket. This sweep of history, showing the huge changes that have occurred in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, is preparation for the rest of the film with its windows into an increasingly distant relationship. The background chant creates an eerie backdrop for the images.

In what ways do the music and pictures mirror your experience of the world? In what ways does it seem unlike your experience? If you watch without the music, do the images have the same affect? If you listen without watching the images, how does it change the experience?

For me, the film is disquieting from the start—things don't seem right—and that disquiet builds with each section, toward the eventual climax of “The Grid,” with its sped-up, panic-inducing, discordant notes. Watch all or part of this section below.

"The Grid" section for me portrays a particularly disturbing view of modern life, filled with screens, fast food, and assembly lines. The background music consists of discordant vocals crescendoing, mimicking the pace of the quickly-changing pictures, which, even as they change, are mostly just the same thing over and over again, with little variation and no significant progression or pause. The image of a hamster running around on a wheel is what comes to mind for me. Pavement predominates, with bits of sky only splintered between skyscrapers and pieces of green squashed between roadways. For the most part, this picture is of nature squeezed almost entirely out of human experience.

As you watch the film, does it make you long for a breath of fresh air or a walk along a river? Do the images seem true to today or do you see significant shifts since the film was made in 1982?

Through each section of the film, humanity's habitation on the earth seems to grow more and more dysfunctional. The final movement, “Prophecies,” ends the score in a non-conclusive conclusion; nothing seems to have been resolved; no solution has been found. The first minute and the last minute of the clip below capture the mood and feeling of the film's place of closure.

Two things particularly strike me in the first minute of this clip: the eyes of people and the song in the background. In particular, the man who continues to make and break eye contact with the camera sums up the state of the world as it is portrayed here. People are suspicious and disconnected from each other, except in superficial ways, even when they are in close proximity physically. The chorus in the background translated from the Hopi language is: "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster. Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky. A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."

In the last minute of the clip, we see that precise thing happening as a rocket explodes and falls to earth. In that final minute, the chant of "koyaanisqatsi" returns; in the view of the film, life is still out of balance. The film concludes with the sense that, without change, the discord will continue its movement toward despair.

Reflection Questions: Does this work give you new insight into your experience of the world? If your life feels out of balance, what steps can you take to answer the "call for another way of living?" What are some healthy ways you are currently connected to other people, the earth and all of God's creatures? Are there movements around you that give you hope?


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You can contact me directly at info@circlewood.online.

For more of Koyaanisqatsi, listen to the complete soundtrack by Glass or watch the entire film. You can also watch the official trailer, which gives you a bit of all sections.

[1] Glass, Philip. 2019, philipglass.com. Accessed 8.15.2021.

To learn more about The Ecological Disciple's parent organization, visit the Circlewood website.