Richard BLACKFORD (b. 1954)
The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony for Orchestra and Wild
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Carnival of the Animals (new orchestration by Richard Blackford) [23:17]
Richard Blackford and Bernie Krause in conversation with Christopher Cook before the premiere of The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony at the Cheltenham Music Festival 2014 [21:48]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 14 and 21 July 2014, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6274 [75:26]
By way of introduction to this music I openly admit to taking the following extracts from The Great Animal Orchestra website:
"In April 2012 composer Richard Blackford heard extracts from Bernie Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra read on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. By inventing the term ‘biophony’, or the collective voices generated by all the organisms in a given natural habitat and time, Krause invites the listener to become aware of the intricate layers of sound created by the animal world within natural habitats which he likens to the layers and textures of an orchestra. When he first visited Krause in Northern California Blackford not only heard the beautiful recordings that Krause had created over 45 years in the field, ranging from Borneo and Zimbabwe, to the Amazon and many other countries, but he also saw their beautiful and compelling organisation on a spectrogram, a graphic illustration of sound. Here was a visual impression of the extreme highest ‘instruments’ of the animal orchestra (the bats that are beyond our range of hearing yet visible on the spectrogram) to the lowest growls of African elephants. Spectrograms also illustrate the varied shapes of animal vocalisations – a swooping glissando, a hard, percussive pattern, a complex, skipping or melodious birdsong – remarkably similar to the notation and design of a musical score. Krause pointed out the acoustic order (biophony) these collective animal voices generate; that instantaneous and organised expression of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals in which they inhabit their own set time and frequency niches just as musical instruments operate within a given range in an orchestra. They even interact with each other, interrupting and resuming in the way a concerto soloist interacts with the orchestra."
So in essence we have a work that combines an orchestra with some pre-recorded animal sounds. This thirty minute orchestral commission from the Cheltenham Festival was premiered on 12 July 2014 in Cheltenham Town Hall. There’s really nothing ground-breaking about laminating the sounds of nature to an orchestra. Alan Hovhaness with his whales, Einojuhani Rautavaara with his gulls, geese and swans and Respighi with his nightingale have trodden similar territory. Personally this sort of thing always strikes me as being a bit of a gimmick. I don’t doubt Mr Krause’s incredible dedication in collecting this fantastic and valuable archive of recordings from the natural world. What I do question is the use of these recordings as part of a piece of orchestral music. These words are written prior to me sitting down and listening to the CD. Maybe I can be convinced to change my pre-conceptions so here goes.
Introduction and Tuning opens up with the sounds of Borneo in the early morning. Following an opening flute melody the big tune then arrives on the cellos. This is reminiscent of the soundtrack from E.T. and the melody then passes through a thunderstorm; Ferde Grofť did much the same thing. We then hear the calls of Arctic seals and a humpback whale at the close. The music is, tuneful, evocative, easy on the ear but hardly original. Scherzo with Riffs is a movement that gives the percussion section a chance to shine. The tempo and rhythms are cleverly set at the outset by tree frogs and a woodpecker. The percussion section joins in, takes over and then leads into a riff. The music then morphs into something that wouldn’t be out of place in West Side Story. The jazzy riff is very similar to Bernstein’s material. The central Elegy is musically the most satisfying part of the symphony. A dark atmosphere pervades the music with the distant howls of wolves and the cries of a beaver adding to the desolation. The strings dominate proceedings with a nod towards Shostakovich in one of his grimmer moods and the reduced reliance on animal sounds here is most welcome. March and Charge is a galumphing Mahlerian funeral march for elephants, using the French horns most imaginatively. The final movement Song of the Musician Wren opens with a repeated chirpy tune and the woodwind take this up and add their own variations to it. Other bird-calls try to disrupt the tune but the movement ends triumphantly with the animals and orchestra coming together in a final climax.
Is it enjoyable? In its own way, yes it is. Is it gimmicky? Well, I’m afraid I also have to say yes. It’s the sort of thing you could imagine being belted out of the speakers at Disney’s Epcot Centre. It’s atmospheric, dramatic and populist in its approach. Listening to the CD was rather like sitting through a David Attenborough TV programme without hearing the spoken commentary or seeing the film. I can imagine this symphony being rather spectacular when seen and heard live. As an experience to be repeated over a domestic hi-fi system I’m not so sure.
I have nothing but enthusiastic praise for the new orchestration of Carnival of the Animals. It works really well and the key feature to its success is that Richard Blackford has resisted making changes just for change’s sake. For example Aquarium, Aviary and Personages with Long Ears are not markedly different from the originals. The orchestration isn’t trying to be clever — it just sounds right. The extra power in the Royal March of the Lion takes things to a new level and the use of contrabassoon in The Elephant makes the music sound especially comical. The solo cello is replaced by French horn and oboe in The Swan and the xylophone is replaced by col legno strings in Fossils. Both pieces sound great in their new guise. Pianists is brilliant, with those soaring scales cascading up and down the orchestra. The Cuckoo deep in the woods is my favourite of them all. The usual plodding two piano accompaniment is replaced with something that sounds more like a religious procession. Wonderful stuff.
Recording quality throughout is natural and clear with a manageable dynamic range. The animal sounds in the symphony are in just the right proportion to the orchestra. The combination is subtly managed by the engineers. The orchestral playing is top notch under the guidance of Martyn Brabbins. Personally I will not return to the symphony but will definitely listen to the Saint-SaŽns again.