Composition Study Results: “Pruit Igoe” by Philip Glass
Written by Ben Kammerer
Something totally different (or maybe not so much?) tonight: “Pruit Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass.
I took a different approach this time, choosing something much shorter so that I could listen multiple times through the piece instead just once.
As the title might suggest, this piece is a little dark and set in a minor key. The work it’s taken from is the soundtrack from an art film about modern life (Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance”).
I chose this movement in particular because something has always struck me about and I was never sure what, and now I at least have a good guess: Glass’s excellent use of mixed meters that feel real smooth until the end of each phrase where you’re thrown by the unevenness if you’ve been tapping your foot or nodding in time. The pattern starts as 9/8 for three bars, then two bars of 4/4 , then a bar 4/4 and two of 6/8 . It changes more throughout the piece, add and subtracting bars, but I elected to direct my listening elsewhere for the short time I had to work with.
The harmonies are pretty static and repetitive, generally drawn out across multiple bars, and all focused around one tonal center.
The texture grows slowly with repetitions of the form and each sections plays a specific role:
- first strings, playing the melody and slow arpeggios
- then winds, playing very fast arpeggios (sixteenth-note triplets) and horns, filling out harmonies and occasionally playing hits for rhythmic emphasis
- lastly a choir (singing only ahs) singing offbeat rhythms to provide some syncopation, and occasionally singing drawn out chords
After the bridge the horns and winds drop out and it is essentially just like the beginning, but with the choir singing a chord across each bar. The dense rhythmic environments Glass creates are just fascinating to me.
Overall this piece has a sort of verse/chorus (times a bunch)/bridge/verse form. The verses are slow arpeggios and the choruses are beautiful, but still a little haunting, descending figures. The bridge keeps the upper harmony (minor V) constant over a descending bass line (bVII, bVI, V) played by trombones which creates the effect of new harmonies with each new note (something I’m totally a sucker for).