Art and science confront the climate crisis: UMass Fine Arts Center opens new season with music, film and climate change discussion

  • The Philip Glass Ensemble will perform a live rendition of the soundtrack from “Koyaanisqatsi” when the 1982 film screens at the UMass Fine Arts Center on Sunday. Photo by James Ewing

  • Composer Philip Glass, now 85, comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center this weekend to lead his ensemble and to take part in a panel discussion on climate change. Photo by Raymond Meier

  • A still from “Koyaanisqatsi,” which examines through images and sound the disconnect between the natural and man-made world.  Image courtesy UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center

  • The title of “Koyaanisqatsi,” a landmark experimental film, is a Hopi word for “unbalanced life.” Image courtesy UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center

  • Essayist, novelist and environmental writer Roy Scranton will talk about climate change this weekend at UMass Amherst on Friday and Saturday. Image courtesy of Soho Press

  • Jazz bassist and composer Avery Sharpe brings his sextet to the FAC in November to perform a new piece examining the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in North America. Image courtesy UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2019 5:01:57 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 5:01:41 PM

Climate change, in the view of a growing number of people, has become the most important issue facing society today: How will we cope with a predicted increase in temperatures, extreme cycles of drought and rainfall, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising seas and damage to forests and crops from expanding pest populations?

It’s a question artists are pondering alongside scientists. At the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the new season opens this weekend with three days of events built around the landmark experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance,” and a live rendition of its soundtrack, which will be played by the score’s composer, Philip Glass, and his ensemble.

The 1982 film, directed by Godfrey Reggio, eschews narration and instead uses time-lapse and slow motion footage of cities, industrial settings and natural landscapes that, coupled with the ambient Glass soundtrack, looks at the sharp divisions between the natural world and the one we’ve constructed — and suggests the latter is spinning out of control.

That’s a message that’s even more relevant today, notes Shawn Farley, the FAC’s marketing director, which is why the arts center has joined forces with the UMass School of Earth & Sustainability, the university’s MFA program for writers, and some Five College programs to offer various events this weekend, including a panel discussion with Glass, UMass educators and an acclaimed environmental writer.

Climate change, said Farley, “is an issue that affects all of us, so it made sense to bring different people together to look at how we can address it.”

And, added, Farley, it’s a thrill to have Glass, whose ensemble is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, coming to the university. The 85-year-old composer, Farley added, “has a lot of concerns about the environment and climate change.”

Later this fall and in early winter, the FAC will showcase an array of other programming, including theater, dance and music — jazz, Brazilian guitar, Indian classical music — that’s “designed for the diversity of our community here in the Valley,” Farley noted.

The big disconnect

The screening of “Koyaanisqatsi” (the title is a Hopi word for “unbalanced life”) and the Philip Glass Ensemble’s live rendition of the soundtrack takes place Sunday, Sept. 22, at 3 p.m. in the FAC’s concert hall. The movie, about 86 minutes long, was filmed in the 1970s before being released in 1982.

Among the most striking sequences are shots of the majestic canyon country of southeast Utah, where exotic rock formations and pictographs give way to industrial views, such as a huge mining truck belching clouds of jet-black exhaust, a coal-fired power plant, and ranks of transmission towers and power lines marching across dry hills. Sped-up images of cars and people racing through cities contrast with slow, aerial shots of other natural settings.

In a phone call from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Reggio, the director, said he was drawn to make his film to depict the increasing disconnection he saw between the natural world and what he calls “wonderland” — the “artificial environment we’ve built of steel, glass, concrete, the world of technology.” By using images alone, without a vocal narrative, he hoped to create a more sensual and poetic way to present the story.

He also said he initially envisioned using classical music — “something dramatic, like Beethoven or Mozart” — for the film’s soundtrack but instead was introduced, through a musician friend, to Glass’ work, which he thought would be a much better fit. He eventually arranged a meeting in the mid 1970s with Glass in New York City, though he felt dubious about winning him over: “He was not really into film … I thought Philip was going to come in and go right out the back door.”

But after he watched some of the early clips from “Koyaanisqatsi,” Reggio says, Glass agreed to write music for the film “which at that point had no immediate prospects of any financial success. He did it for the love of the project, for which I’ll always be grateful.” The two went on to work together on two additional Reggio films without narration, “Powaqqatsi” and “Nagoyqatsi,” and they’ve now collaborating on an experimental opera Reggio is creating, “Once Within a Time.”

Reggio says “Koyaanisqatsi” has been “adopted” over the years by a number of environmental groups, for which he says he’s grateful, though he didn’t intend for the film to be an environmental manifesto; rather, he says, his goal was to show the ways in which “we’ve come to live almost off the planet, like aliens that have constructed a giant space station of elaborate technology. We’ve become cyborgs.”

Is it too late?

Before the film screens, the FAC and the MFA writers program will host a talk with Roy Scranton, the author of several nonfiction books, including “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene” and “We’re Doomed: Now What?” Scranton, a U.S. Army veteran who nows teaches English at the University of Notre Dame, has also written two novels, but he’s won particular attention for his argument that climate change is unstoppable — and that we’d best learn how to deal with the changes it’s going to bring.

“I think it’s pretty clear by now things are not going to get better,” Scranton said in a recent phone call from Los Angeles. “Our way of life right now? That’s done. What we need to do now is learn how to live with each other, to help each other, in whatever way we can.”

Scranton, who will speak on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the John M. Olver Design Building — his presentation is free — adds that even given the best intentions by political leaders genuinely committed to fighting climate change, government institutions move too slowly to stop environmental threats long since set in motion. Then there are the entrenched industrial interests, like the oil industry, that wring profits from the very processes exacerbating climate change.

“I’m all for democracy,” Scranton said. “But I don’t know how, within that system, ordinary people get the power to take on the corruption and greed that drives so much of this problem.”

He acknowledges this isn’t the brightest message to bring to college campuses. “A lot of young people today are very passionate about fighting climate change, and they’re angry — and rightfully so — about what they’ve been handed…. But we have to be realistic about what we can do.”

“We all have to make our way in the world,” he added, “and I think we do that by trying to make it better however we can: by helping the homeless, by supporting local economies, by finding new meaning in our lives.”

Regardless, Scranton says he’s thrilled to be part of the events this weekend, and to see “Koyaanisqatsi” again (he calls the film “striking and effective”) and hear Glass and his ensemble perform the live soundtrack. Scranton will also join Glass and a number of UMass professors — ecologists, conservationists, clean energy experts — for a panel discussion on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. in Bowker Auditorium on the theme of the arts and sciences working together.

“I’m looking forward to a good discussion,” he said.

Also on tap in coming weeks: The FAC will celebrate two award-winning female jazz musicians, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, with concerts on Oct. 24 and Nov. 14, respectively. In 2013, Carrington became the first woman ever to win a Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental album, and the same year Aldana, a native of Chile, became the first female musician — and the first South American musician — to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. She was just 24 at the time.

And on Nov. 21, jazz bassist and composer Avery Sharpe, who has a long UMass resume as a student, workshop leader and performer, brings his ensemble and a new composition to the FAC. The title is “400” — a reference to the grim anniversary of 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to North America, in Jamestown, Virginia. Sharpe’s new music is “touched by spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz and classical idioms,” according to press notes, and also features a video component.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

At press time, tickets for the Sept. 22 screening of “Koyaanisqatsi” were limited; prices range from $33 to $65 for adults and $10 to $15 for people 17 years or younger. Contact A pre-performance talk takes place Sunday in the FAC lobby at 2 p.m.

You can also register for the free panel discussion “Philip Glass in Conversation” on Sept. 21 by visiting and following the links to that event.

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