By Charlie Brigden
When it comes to nature documentaries, you can’t beat the BBC. For decades the Beeb have been throwing out groundbreaking films about animals, be it flying falcons or self-beaching whales. But while the film on their own is generally breathtaking, there are two sound elements that play an important part in their success: Sir David Attenborough’s timeless narration, and the musical score. Relative to this, soundtracks from two of the BBC’s recent series are now available for your pleasure: Frozen Planet and Africa.
George Fenton’s Frozen Planet tells the story of life in the Arctic and Antarctica, looking at the trials and tribulations of penguins, seals, whales, and polar bears. It’s certainly a harsh life out there, and while there are fun and games to be had, there are constant threats. In other words, drama. And that’s music to a composer’s ears, which will translate into music to our ears. Obviously.
Fenton has had plenty of practice in the documentary department, having scored a ton of previous series including The Trials of Life, The Blue Planet and the stupendously good Planet Earth. So it’s not surprising that his score for Frozen Planet is spectacular, a stirring and inspirational score that would make a scrap between your cat and hamster seem like it was a death-locked survival struggle to save the respective races. I’m instructing you all to make this happen, film it, and slap it on YouTube, by the way.
Fenton seems adept at creating truly emotional music, right from the word go and the stately theme from the main title. He builds on this right away, with the playful mood in ‘Rapid Change’ giving way to a foreboding sense of the passage of time, before moving into a sense of suspense and a scale of insignificance in ‘Antarctic Mystery’. There’s a sense of urgency instilled into ‘McKenzie River’ that could easily come from a top class Hollywood score, which is slowed by the return of the Rapid Change motif in ‘Cubs First Hunt’ which segues into a charmingly comedic section before moving into a quite beautiful passage for piano and strings.
He shows a real taste for the dramatic in ‘Elephant Seal Duel’, with great sweeping brass and chugging strings, and the gutteral and violent ‘Walrus Kill’, and the romanticism with the evocative ‘Returning Seabirds/Albatross Love’ and its touching piano. As with the best natural history films, there’s a heavy sense of wonder, especially in the majestic ‘Seal Ballet/Arrival of the Humpbacks’, with the latter half having a magnificent passage that brought me to tears through its beauty. It’s a score that has a core running through it, narratively and emotionally, and is music of the highest order.
Not to be outdone, however, is Sarah Class and her music for Africa, a documentary that was shown at the beginning of this year. Similarly to Frozen Planet, it looks at the circle of life across the continent of Africa, from the Kalahari desert to the Rwenzori Mountains to the great white sharks of South Africa and the conservation efforts in the wartorn Mozambique. Best of all, it does it without the tiresome Lion King-esque musical efforts most use now to reference Africa.
No, instead we have a fresh voice in Class, who is a singer/songwriter as well as composer. In some ways she has a different approach to Fenton, but it’s not in any way less effective, in fact parts of her score is perhaps better in melody, but it’s like comparing Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams really. Each composer is creating amazing music, and any difference is probably down to personal preference. Perhaps some of Class’ cues have some more modern edges, such as the frantic strings in ‘Force of the Whale’, but it’s a moot point when they’re combined with brass to create a classically stirring fanfare that makes you cheer.
Class also includes some interesting homages, not least the stylings of ‘Giraffe vs. Giraffe’ and its twanging solo guitar that combines with the brass section to create a wonderful homage to Ennio Morricone. Then there’s the weirdly fun ‘Lions and Lizards Rock Cafe’, that features a rockabilly atmosphere with a wonderful electric guitar sound. And ‘Mystery Path’ sounds to me rather like Vangelis’ indelible score to Blade Runner, but I’m not sure that’s a definite homage.
There’s some real muscular writing at work here, with the wonderful action writing of ‘Bats and Eagles’ that is not only tense, but also has a wonderful use of brass. Class makes great use of female vocals, both choral and solo, which lends Africa an ethereal feel, as heard in ‘The Desert Victor’ and ‘Fairy Circles’. It’s a really great touch and utterly beautiful at times, especially in the heavenly vein of ‘Under The Stars’, which is frankly just amazing, especially with the inspirational string writing in its climax.
There’s certainly some darker work here as well, notably the foreboding and serious ‘Draconsberg’, which sounds like it would fit right into Lord of the Rings (to which point I’d seriously recommend hiring Ms. Class for the next series of Game of Thrones). But this is merely a patch, as the album features some incredibly uplifting tones. It’s hard to come up with more superlatives for this album really, it’s just that good. Magnificent, majestic, emotional, and with a powerful finale
In fact, both of these albums are absolutely brilliant. Two composers at the top of their game, two albums that don’t have any kind of dull spot, with flawless performances by the BBC Concert Orchestra. I can’t really say much more, except please buy them. You’ll thank me, and you’ll thank George Fenton and Sarah Class. And the thanks they’ll receive will be hugely deserved.
FROZEN PLANET and AFRICA are out now from Silva Screen Records