Philip Glass’ Minimalist Music

Minimalist Music’s Database Structure in Film: The Case of Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi


Lev Manovich devised the term “database cinema” through the films of Peter Greenaway and Dziga Vertov. Manovich asserted these films display the database structure form inherent to new media. Marsha Kinder further intensified Manovich’s notion by establishing the term “database narrative” exemplified by films such as Run Lola Run or Mulholland Drive.

Yet, the classification of database cinema seems to linger in a relatively constant arena despite the innate intertextuality of this term. The majority of films provided as examples of database cinema exhibit their modular structure through varying conditions inside the diegesis.

To investigate alternative candidates, I propose Philip Glass’ minimalist music as a database structure in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982). The repetitive nature of Glass’ minimalist soundtrack assigns a modular, database structure to Reggio’s disordered visual imagery. I will first examine the linkage between minimalist music and database structure. Then, the analysis of Koyaanisqatsi’s The Grid sequence will be dealt with to connect Philip Glass’ music with the filmic images.

  1. Minimalist Music’s Database Structure

Before probing into Philip Glass, minimalist music itself has notable features to juxtapose with database cinema. According to Gann, Potter, and Siôn, minimalist music is marked by the following traits: Harmonic stasis, Repetition, Drones, Gradual Process, Steady beat, Static instrumentation, Metamusic, Pure tuning, Audible structure. Harmonic stasis implies the reduction of number of pitches and repetition, as in Steve Reich’s Octet (1979) composed of few chords. Repetition is exemplified by Dennis Johnson’s piano piece November. When further considering the traits “Steady beat” and “Audible structure,” one can easily trace the repetitive “loops” and the modular structure of minimalist music. This highly visible repetitive structure resembles the form of database structure.

Though the repetitive nature of minimalist music was often degraded as a sign of regression in the past, recent scholarly interest in musicology is clearing the way for interdisciplinary research to take place. Particularly, Philip Glass’s minimalist music in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi provides the possibility to reconsider the connection of film soundtrack and image in relation to a database structure.

2. Koyaanisqatsi as Database Cinema

     (1) Koyaanisqatsi’s Cinematic Idiosyncrasies

Koyaaniqatsi’s traits elude explicit analysis of classical film theory. There are no dialogues in the film, only music. Moreover, the images do not lucidly link to one another. As Glass points out, Koyaaniqatsi does not have a clear-cut beginning, middle or end, and the spectator can rearrange its elements in varying ways. The relationship between the director Reggio and the film composer Glass is peculiar as well. Whereas most composers participate as secondary technicians, the two equally collaborated in the film because they “conceived the film as a real symbiosis of music and image.”

Drawing from these traits, the significance of the soundtrack is notable in this film. Glass’ music organizes the discursive imagery of Koyaanisqatsi by assigning a modular structure.

     (2) Koyaanisqatsi’s as Database Cinema: Glass’ “The Grid”

As mentioned above, database structures possess both static and variable factors. For instance in Run Lola Run, the static factors are the setting that Manni left Ronni’s money in the subway, and that Lola has to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Mark in twenty minutes, The main variable factors in the film are Lola’s decisions (to go meet a certain person, run into a casino, etc.). Run Lola Run’s database narrative is developed inside the diegetic world as karma and the butterfly effect intertwine with Lola’s decisions throughout the film.

On the other hand, Koyaanisqatsi obtains a database structure through the static factor being Glass’ music (repeating harmonic sequences) and the variable factor being the moving images. In musical terms, Glass’ music resembles the accompaniment and Reggio’s images resemble the melody. This is possible only because minimalist music “repeats itself without variation” unlike most classical music of the West.

This structure becomes clear when examining the sequence of Glass’ The Grid in the film. As Rebecca Marie Doran Eaton analyzed, The Grid consists of two main arpeggios during 00:51:32-00:52:22. There is a variation in speed and the number of repetition, but the structure itself it clearly modularized.

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When connecting this structure to the images of Koyaanisqatsi, it is apparent that the intercut machines with scenes of humans are all set to the same music, as Eaton points out. The time lapse technique used in this imagery accelerates the speed of both human and machine to an unaccustomed level, leading the spectator to perceive them as abstract objects of motion. While these specific scenes allude to the technocritical theme of the film, the structure also resonates with the message. This modular structure is analogous to the conveyor belt’s mass production in the film.

While machines and human beings are visually “fused” into automatic systems in the latter scenes of The Grid sequence, the music’s repetitive nature aurally emphasizes this message at the same time. Moreover, the (visual and aural) interchangeability of these modules presents us the various ways this mosaic may be composed. For example, arpeggio A in a fast rhythm was combined with the image of “cars/traffic” and then “traffic/people crossing the street.” Though Glass and Reggio loosely chronologized these “subject-roles (Glass and Reggio’s term for image categories),” many of the sound and images are interchangeable when approached in smaller units. Thus, arpeggio A with “traffic/people crossing the street” may come before “cars/traffic” without damaging the “narrative” of this film. This interchangeability and library of “sound:image” modules opens a track to consider Koyaanisqatsi as a database film.


Through focusing on Philip Glass’ minimalist music, I could find a modular database structure in Koyaanisqatsi – a film renowned for its discursiveness. Though they have their discrepancies, database cinema and minimalist music has noticeable linkages to one another in various ways; and the success of Koyaanisqatsi provoked the birth of many films with minimalist music since 1982, providing us with ample references. As “seen” through this analysis, sound may provide us with rich potentials of alternative cinema interpretations once we step out of our yet visual-centric perspectives.



  • Films

Reggio, Godfrey. Koyaanisqatsi. 1982.

  • Publications

Berg, Charles Merrell. “Philip Glass on Composing for Film and Other Forms: The Case of Koyaanisqatsi – An Interview by Charles Merrell Berg” In Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (JDTC). 1990.

Eaton, Rebecca Marie Doran. Unheard Minimalisms: The Functions of the Minimalist Technique in Film Scores. 2012.

Gann, Kyle, Keith Potter and Pwyll ap Siôn. “Introduction: experimental, minimalist, postminimalist? Origins, definitions, communities.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music. 2013.

Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema.” Future Cinema. Ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel. 2003.

Lee, Minhee. “A Study for Ways of Combination of Philip Glass’s Music and Moving Images in Multimedia : Focused on Film Koyaanisqatsi [멀티미디어에서 나타나는 필립 글래스(Philip Glass) 음악과 영상의 결합 방식에 관한 연구]” In Western Musicology [서양음악학]. 2014.

Manovich, Lev & Andreas Kratky. Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database. 2005.