'Powaqqatsi' Is the Film That Made Me Want to Soundtrack Movies

The guy behind the 'Lost In Translation' soundtrack talks about Philip Glass's seminal score.

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13 september 2014, 6:00am

Brian Reitzell is a musician and composer who has formerly drummed for Redd Kross and Air and composed soundtracks for films including Lost In Translation. He's currently a member of the band TV Eyes and his first solo album, Auto Music, was released in June.

I can’t remember the exact year I first saw Powaqqatsi, but I would guess that it was in the late 90s. I can remember the opening shot clearly: miners in South America are carrying bags of dirt up and down a hill, barefoot, as if it were 400 years ago. They’re like this giant machine, struggling, and all the while Philip Glass’s music is the only sound device. There’s no effects, no dialogue in the film – just you, the picture and the score.

The name Powaqqatsi comes from a Hopi word and means something like "life in transition". The film pitches all of these natural places like Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley against man’s industrial urge. It’s about how the human race is modernising and it’s interesting to see, as you go from country to country – from China, where it’s hyper industrial, to a village in Africa, where it’s a guy with some sticks and an ox – how the world is out of balance. There’s really not any more to the plot than that. It’s a meditative film.

Powaqqatsi is part of a trilogy – "the qatsi triology" – and I’d already seen the first movie, Koyaanisqatsi, from 1983, on videotape. Then they made Powaaqqatsi in 1988 and Nagaqaatsi in 2002. For me, Nagaqqatsi doesn’t really work so well. It’s mostly using computers. I think I preferred that first film, with its electric organs and sprawling shots of LA. And yet, what was special about Powaqqatsti for me is that I saw it in the theatre. I must have seen it a dozen times while it was playing. It's the only film I've ever done that with. It was like going to see a band play, back when bands weren’t travelling with projectors and they didn’t have the visuals they have now. I loved the experience of looking at those images while listening to that orchestral score.

The man behind it, Philip Glass, is one of the great modern American concert composers. He’s part of the minimalist world along with Steve Reich. He did that movie The Hours, The Truman Show and Mishema, which is an incredible score. But for me this is his best film work. And luckily for him, there’s no dialogue, so he gets to go through the whole thing like it’s a concert piece. It’s not one continuous piece of music but it’s beautifully written as a whole. The transitions are just fantastic. It’s really a beautiful thing. As a drummer, I’m interested in the percussion; there’s some especially fine tambourine work in Powaqqatsi.

Philip Glass’s music sounds like a sequencer. There’s a lot of repetition and it’s very rhythmic. A lot of pop bands have incorporated these arpeggios into their music. My friends in Phoenix are quite adept at playing Philip Glass style sequences, as are people like Apex Twin. I saw the band Maxïmo Park play a few years back and they opened their set with music from Koyaanisqatsi. It’s very rhythmic in that way, where it’s just constant "do do do do do"… but rather than being played by a keyboard, it’s being played by an orchestra. It

definitely had some kind of influence on the music that I went on to make. I listened to a lot of this music as a kid growing up: Steve Reich and Philip Glass and Terry Riley. As a drummer it’s just very natural, rhythmic music. I had a piano in my house as I was growing up and would sit down and play different sequences over and over again on it. Playing it like a drummer would.

At the time I saw Powaqqatsi I was a young musician living in Berkley, California and it wasn’t long after that I moved to Los Angeles to play with the band Redd Kross. I spent seven years or so touring with them, making records, living in the grunge world. It was very fun and very organic, but crazy. I would have friends who would be in the top ten and they would never change their clothes; Mudhoney and Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. We were always on the road with those guys cause we shared a tour manager. It was great in my twenties to tour all that time but I got a little tired of Redd Kross because it was a band that started before I was in it. It wasn’t my band and I was outgrowing it, so I quit.

I’d always wanted to work on films, and a few months later I was asked to be a music supervisor by my friend Sofia Coppola on her film The Virgin Suicides. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I wanted to do the best possible job because she was my friend, so I kind of overworked it. The movie takes place in the 70s so I chose stuff like 10cc and Gilbert O’Sullivan. Then something surprising happened. Nicola and JD from the band Air were going to score the film and I ended up joining their band and doing the score with them. After that we went on tour and made a record together.  

My third film was Lost In Translation. I worked on the movie for quite a long time — I would say about three months of it I was in the back of a tour bus touring around with Air. It was a hectic time. I would go to Japan to deliver karaoke stuff, then to England to do the score with Kevin Shields. I knew what Sofia was trying to create a certain mood: the soundtrack needed to have a sort of melancholic and romantic tone to it because of the story. I had been to Japan a bunch in the 90s and I had been there a few times with Sofia so I knew a lot of those locations and the friends we were using as actors. If you go to Tokyo as an American, the jetlag and that feeling of being in a Blade Runner Fantasy Disney Land Universe is overwhelming. It’s like you’ve taken drugs. I tried to find songs that captured that, captured what it feels like being in Japan.

Looking back, I was definitely inspired by Powaqqatsi and I think there are a couple of scenes that you could just pull out of Lost In Translation and insert into Powaqqatsi that would work. You could take the shot of Scarlett Johansson sitting at the window in her hotel room where she’s like 50 or so floors up and the windows in that hotel are huge and you just get that incredible panoramic view of Tokyo. There’s no sound design, there’s no dialogue, it’s just her sitting there and you just get this sweeping sense of Tokyo from it. It's very Powaqqatsi.

The music I chose for that scene is a piece by a guy called Tom Jenkins and his band Squarepusher. What’s interesting is that it’s one of the few pieces in his catalogue – maybe even the only one on that record –  that’s like it. Everything else is just crazy, acid Aphex Twin-style damage music, which is wonderful but that’s kind of a one-off piece and I really liked it in the film. I didn’t compose it, I just chose it. And I didn’t shoot it, Sofia takes all the credit for that. But, for me, luckily the way that music sounds and the way it sits with the image just works perfectly.

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