Nigel Westlake is a talented contemporary Australian
composer, with many discs on the superlative Tall Poppies label.
I was particularly pleased to be sent this disc for review. It
contains the very music, albeit in expanded, original form, with
which I originally acquainted myself with Westlake, namely the
stunning soundtrack to John Weiley's IMAX film about Antarctica.
A superb suite (for guitar and orchestra) was extracted/adapted
from it which was premiered, alongside several excellent works
by Peter Sculthorpe, on John Williams' trailblazing Sony disc
From Australia. It has proved no disappointment to hear
its source material (and much more besides). Several sequences
are instantly recognisable, including those for the penguins and
the "wooden ships" of the original Antarctic explorers. The guitarist
on this recording (Tim Kain) has previously collaborated with
aforementioned Williams. He does more than justice to the music
with his contribution here. Harpist Louise Johnson is also impressive
(try Penguin Play for an example of both players' artistry).
That said, all the musicians involved have produced a remarkable,
cohesive whole, which works just as well as an independent listening
experience as it no doubt does alongside the film. The film's
director calls this "Music with a life of its own". This is quoted
in the booklet which also contains a series of superb photographs
The music itself is never inaccessible and manages
to combine a yearning lyricism (e.g. Threnody) with a real
sense of nature's power (e.g. The Last Place on Earth).
The latter aspect is often enhanced, and here it exceeds the experience
of the suite, by the addition of a vocal component. This does
not necessarily humanise the music, rather it adds an extra, often
powerfully poetic dimension. One section that does not quite seem
to fit with the rest of the music, amusing as it is, is Penguin
Circus. It sounds exactly as you might imagine and is, to
these ears, slightly too stark a contrast to the profound pieces
preceding and following it (Threnody and Canyons of
Ice, respectively). I do, however, concede that this might
not be the impression given when heard in the film.
The centrepiece of the disc is the seven minute
travelogue of Meltponds/Dry Valleys/The Ice Core.
Highly evocative it is too, with elements both beautiful and awesome,
especially from around five minutes in, where wordless soprano
and guitar combine to weave a truly magical spell. After the relative
calm of Scott's Theme and Wooden Ships, At the
Pole is a highly percussive fanfare-like piece. A reprise
of Scott's Theme then leads us into a lyrical Finale,
which builds to an energetic and optimistic conclusion. This fits
well with Westlake's dedication of the music to "the future of
Antarctica as a world park". A gentle postlude completes the work.
Antarctica is a place that has always fascinated
me and would love to visit. The fact that this record, short though
it is, reinvigorated and increased those feelings is a tribute
to the vision of the composer and his ability to conjure up these
wonderful places so effectively. As far as documentary soundtracks
goes, this is as good as you can get. This is probably a masterpiece,
although that might equally apply to his later follow-up collaboration
with Weiley (The Edge), also to be reviewed here shortly.