March 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings /March01/

the composer conducting The Symphony Orchestra Graunke
Prometheus PCR 509 (limited edition of 2000 copies) [50:06]

The introduction (by producer Ford A. Thaxton) in the booklet begins with the sentence "Why in the world would a TV production company want to talk about Africa for four hours?" To which one might equally ask, why in the world would a TV production company would want to talk about America for four hours? Is one more interesting than the other? One also wants to suggest that they do actually have TV production companies in Africa… which companies probably spend all day talking about Africa.

Of course, in reality Thaxton's statement reveals the very different, and much more provincial attitudes, of American television. As I write this (in February 2001) the BBC have just finished broadcasting a magnificent six hour series about South America, and far from being unusual, it is exactly the sort of thing we in the UK expect from a quality TV production company.

By the standards of American network TV, Africa was something very unusual. This 1967 documentary series attempted to tell the story not just of the African continent as it then was, but through "a million centuries" of history. Composer Alex North was commissioned to write the music, himself no stranger to epic productions following Spartacus (1960), Cleopatra (1963) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

It is not entirely clear from the booklet notes, but given that North's score had to be written and recorded before the programme was completed, presumably the footage was then edited to the score. This appears to have been the case, leaving North free to write in a much more organic way than is usual in television and film. The recordings were divided into three parts, a series of 'stings', none of which are included here - this album being a slightly expanded version of the original soundtrack LP - a suite using a smaller orchestra, and an Africa 'symphony' (Symphony for a New Continent) in four movements utilising a 100 piece orchestra with a colossal percussion section.

The symphony comes first, with four untitled, numbered movements lasting in total just over 30 minutes. The opening movement depicts the primordial earth and the dawn of life. One can not but help think of the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was to be North's next score, and one which famously was rejected by director Stanley Kubrick. This is aggressive, yet majestic, percussion-dominated music filled with powerful cross-rhythms and boldly inquisitive writing. Melody develops in fragments, assimilating the cries of animals, birdsong, African folk music, and eventually the modern jazz which grew out of the African music taken to America. In some of the more dissonant percussive music one is also forced to thing of Jerry Goldsmith's great score for Planet of the Apes (1968), and considering that North was Goldsmith's mentor and that Goldsmith has in the last decade recorded several albums of North's music (including the unused score for 2001: A Space Odyssey) it appears that the influence on the younger composer from North's Africa was fairly direct. It would certainly be thrilling to hear Goldsmith conduct a new performance of Africa. This music does not form a symphony in the traditional sense, but really plays as four extensive and developed selections of television music of the highest quality.

The 'Suite from Africa' consists of six cues, two of which were not on the original LP - a long version of the 'Main Title' theme, and music for 'Victoria Falls/Progress'. The suite totals 20 minutes, and is more focused into specific scenes, a mysterious evocation of 'Kilimanjaro' being far removed from Bernard Herrmann's depiction of the same mountain in the 1952 The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

The album has been produced by Ford A Thaxton with the full co-operation of the late composer's wife, Annemarie North - the couple met when she became his assistant during the recording sessions for this score - and has been mixed from the original stereo masters. The sound is very full, detailed and up-front, with a hard edge which well suites North's craggy style. Of course there isn't the sheer dynamic range of a modern recording, and a little hiss is present, but these are not things to be overly concerned about. The 16 page booklet is informative and well-illustrated with photographs from the recording sessions. And we learn one especially fascinating thing given this year's date… Some of the music which Jerry Goldsmith recorded for his North 2001: A Space Odyssey album - the final cue, 'Main Theme' on Varèse Sarabande VSD-5400 - was actually misfiled and untitled material from Africa. A fact which only came to light with the preparation of Africa for reissue.

This is an excellent release of a major score. While listeners who want easily accessible 'tunes' may find this hard going, especially during the symphony, any serious film music aficionado will want this in their collection. Now if only some of the other unreleased material and 'stings' could have been found… that's the trouble with soundtrack collectors, they always want something more!

Gary S. Dalkin

Prometheus Records
Astridlaan 171
2800 Mechelen,

Fax (+32) 15 43 36 10

The score for Symphony for a New Continent:

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