“We write and play what we want, the way we want” - An Interview with Go Go Penguin

First released in 1982, the film Koyaanisqatsi (‘unbalanced life’ in the Native American Hopi language) is a luscious visual exploration into the uneasy state of human, capital-driven destruction of the natural world, told through wordless sequences of time-lapse nature footage. In place of dialogue, Philip Glass produced an iconic modernist score to accompany the images, heightening the emotive visuality through sparse passages of choral vocalisations and synths. The film has gained a cult following over the three decades since its initial release, and its themes of natural ruin at the hands of mankind still unfortunately seem more relevant than ever today. In 2015, Manchester-based trio Go Go Penguin adopted the task of rewriting and revitalising Glass’ score for a new generation, and in October they will perform the work in full at London’s Barbican.

Ahead of the show, we spoke with pianist Chris Illingworth on the group’s approach to rescoring such a renowned work, departures from their own acoustic-electronic productions, and the inherent power latent in the combination of music with imagery.

How did you become involved with rescoring Koyaanisqatsi?

There’s a great arts venue in Manchester called HOME and they invited us to be part of a film project back in October 2015. The idea was to have a few Manchester musicians write scores for silent movies which they would then perform live along with the film. We originally found a Japanese film that we were interested in called A Page Of Madness but we had trouble finding the owner and a copy we could use. So, even though it already had a score, we suggested Koyaanisqatsi as we thought it would be great to work on and luckily we were given permission!

How did you initially go about the rescoring process?

In many ways it was a very different process working on this project compared to our usual writing. When we start work on a new album there are no restrictions or limits, we choose where and how to start, whereas with film there’s already a structure and form to work with, and whilst there was plenty of freedom within the structure there were images and ideas that created a foundation to work from.

We spent a lot of time deciding on how to split the film into sections that made sense to us visually so we could then write a bit more like we would for an album, thinking of individual tracks as having a character that fit the imagery, however we then developed these sections into a single through-composed work.

A lot of the score is performed to a click—which isn’t something we do in our usual gigs—so that it locks in with the visuals but we still made sure there was space for some improvisation. As with our albums a lot of the music was composed collaboratively but there were some sections that we felt individually more drawn towards and so were developed independently before being finalised together.

What were your intentions in terms of departure from the Philip Glass original?

Phillip Glass’ score, like any great film soundtrack, plays an important role in the experience of watching the film and we wanted our re-score to be a new experience and not just a variation on the original. We obviously watched the film with the original score but spent a lot more time watching it repeatedly without sound so as not to be too influenced by the original soundtrack. We wanted our score to be a completely new take, reflecting not only the original intentions and meaning of the film but also our interpretation, bringing a new perspective from over three decades later, and with a score that stays true to our sound.

How influential is Philip Glass to your own music?

I got into a lot of contemporary piano music when I was at college, not only Philip Glass but also other great composers like John Cage, Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara, John Adams, and György Ligeti. They opened my eyes to a lot of different sounds and approaches to playing the piano, particularly things like Cage’s prepared piano techniques and Rautavaara’s harmonic style; composers of that era have been a big inspiration on the way I write and play piano.

Being a Jazz-influenced group, do you feel a similar pressure to pay homage to the traditions of the genre, especially since signing to Blue Note?

To be honest we just write and play what we want the way we want and don’t worry about what category or genre it falls under. We want complete freedom when we make music and as soon as you think about the music belonging to any particular genre you immediately begin putting up boundaries that the music has to fit within. We don’t mind what other people call our music, it’s just better for us to avoid applying these labels ourselves.

What role do you feel a score should play in accompanying a visual work?

A lot can be said with imagery alone, just as you can say a lot only with sound, but when you combine them you can often create a far stronger effect. It’s about having more than one sense active at once, it’s more visceral and creates a more immersive experience. We definitely want the music to enhance the experience but we were also aware that seeing the film with the score being performed live is a different experience to watching a film with recorded audio, and we wrote it with that in mind. There are moments when the music is quite programmatic and descriptive but it’s more about conveying an emotion attached to the images and not a specific idea or piece of information; we want to leave space for the audience to make their own judgments and interpretations, just as we do with all of our music.

Fusing the electronic with the acoustic, how far does your own work deal with issues of technological augmentation or disruption of human processes?

Transhumanism and augmentation was just one of the ideas behind our 2016 record Man Made Object. We’re always looking everywhere with an open mind as you never know where ideas might come from. Combining electronic and acoustic ideas and techniques is something that was there right from the start and has developed naturally within the band.

Transhumanism centres on the idea that we can develop and evolve past current human limitations using science and technology. We often look to electronic music—its sounds, techniques, the technologies used to make it—to push what we can do as musicians and with our instruments, such as using preparations to enhance the drums, electronic effects to add new abilities to the bass and piano, using classical techniques but with the intention of treating the piano more like a synth (altering decay/sustain/release) or using the combination of instruments to achieve effects more common to electronic music than acoustic music.

What challenges do playing 90 minutes of uninterrupted live music pose, especially when touring the piece?

It’s a tough piece to perform, we definitely didn’t make it easy for ourselves! The main challenge is the amount of stamina and concentration that’s needed, since it’s 85 minutes continuous with only the odd few bars rest here and there. I get about 30 seconds rest in the entire gig, it’s pretty exhausting! Like any of our gigs though we back each other up and work as a unit, it’s kind of trance-like, once it starts you forget you’re in a gig until the end and the applause brings you back to reality. It’s a lot of fun getting to perform in a way that feels so different to our usual gigs.

Are you looking to do more film scoring in the future?

Definitely! Writing the rescore of Koyaanisqatsi was a huge amount of work but it was a great experience and I know we would love to work on more film scores if we get the chance.

[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 27/09/17]