Evokes the exotic and the awe-inducing with disarming subtlety.
David Sheppard 2009-10-27
Any album which can boast such alluringly bizarre titles as The Sex Life of the Fern and Mating Dance for Prairie Garter Snakes has got to be worth investigating. Or so it seemed to the record hound who snaffled a vinyl copy of this ornate musical adjunct to David Attenborough’s groundbreaking BBC2 natural history series, from a musty London charity store.
When news of this discovery reached one Jonny Trunk – renowned curator of music’s esoteric yesteryear (The Wicker Man soundtrack and music from The Clangers TV series being typical exhumations released by his Trunk Records label) – he was staggered as, to his certain knowledge the album had never been officially released. In fact, composer Edward Williams had pressed up a handful of copies as mementos for the musicians who played on the original recordings. Now, a mere 30 years after the composer’s haunting chamber suites first wafted into British living rooms, Trunk is making them available to everyone.
Surrey-born Williams was already a seasoned soundtrack creator by the time he recorded his Life on Earth accompaniments. Deploying a discreet orchestral arsenal – clarinet, flute, harp and strings alongside vibraphone, marimbas, keyboards, percussion and slivers of electronics – his pieces were adroitly designed to both mimic and augment the often stunning visuals, underlining the fluttering, flickering and often magisterial strangeness of the natural world as laid bare by Attenborough.
Thus, the aforementioned Sex Life of the Fern proves to be a compellingly autumnal harpsichord-led reverie, while sinuous woodwind arabesques ingeniously summon those jiggy Prairie Garter Snakes. Elsewhere, First Fossils paints the primordial world using little more than austere piano arpeggios and saturnine clarinets while the impressionistic Comb Jellies finds an Eric Satie-esque flute melody perfectly mirroring the decorous sashaying of medusa jellyfish. Plucked kotos conjure the avian Orient with similar deftness on the self-explanatory Japanese Macaques – Warm Baths in a Snowscape.
It all makes for a woozy, wonderstruck album that, not unlike Attenborough himself, evokes the exotic and the awe-inducing with disarming subtlety and ineffably British understatement. No wonder Radiohead have lately been expressing their esteem for it.