LIFE: A Journey through Time

Frans Lanting’s LIFE: A Journey through Time

Philip Glass, arr. Michael Reisman – Music
Frans Lanting – Images
Alexander V. Nichols – Visual Choreography & Technical Direction
Christine Eckstrom – LIFE Project Editing
Peter Coyote – Recorded Introduction Narration

London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Post-concert discussion: Frans Lanting, Marin Alsop and Cameron Hepburn (environmental scientist and environmental economist)


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall. London

For the second time in a week, I attended a work by a seminal American contemporary composer which lasted about an hour, followed by a discussion with some of the principal motivators. Previously it was Steve Reich hearing his Drumming for the first time as an audience member, and now, it was Philip Glass’s accompaniment to a state-of-the-art photographic essay, “LIFE: A Journey through Time”.

Impressive in its exquisite visual imagery and miraculously co-ordinated musical accompaniment, this project arrived in London having first been seen at Marin Alsop’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, California, in 2007. As it happens, photographer and sometime National Geographic Photographer-in-Residence, Frans Lanting lives there and approached Alsop with a project he was working on in book form. This was to tell the story of the planet with photos of the natural world only containing features that would have been seen at whatever particular time in the earth’s development.

Inspired by a photo he’d taken of horseshoe crabs, millions of years old, the first image in Lanting’s show is an image to illustrate the Big Bang (actually wood rings, animated by rotating the image). The ‘film’ developed through various sections, ‘Elements’ (in two parts: the first wonderful images of the powerful forces of the earth, particularly volcanoes), then ‘Beginnings’ – the earliest, weird, miniscule organisms – followed by ‘Out of the Sea’; ‘On Land’; ‘Into the Air’; ‘Out of the Dark’ (mammals) and, finally, ‘Planet of Life’, an indication of the enormous variety that evolution has bequeathed the earth. Apart from the most subtle of references – particularly a human embryo – one species is absent; ourselves and there is only one image that Lanting himself did not take – the final one of the ‘blue planet’ resplendent from space.

Alsop and Lanting considered various composers to accompany the sequence of images, but always first choice was Philip Glass, known for a number of film scores, particularly those about man’s place on earth in his four collaborations with director Godfrey Reggio – “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Powaqqatsi”, “Naqoyqatsi” and “Anima Mundi”. As it happened their discussions resulted in a selection of Glass’s music, mostly (and appositely) for film, as orchestrated by regular collaborator Michael Riesman. Only one short bit was originally composed – a portion of the section ‘On Land’. These extant pieces included Glass’s scores for “The Secret Agent”, Tod Browning’s “Dracula”, Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terrible” and “La Belle et La Bête”, his work for the Athens Cultural Olympiad “Orion” (the major non-film music), and two excerpts from the “Shorts” project – first Shirin Neshat’s “Passage” (‘On Land’) and, finally, Peter Greenaway’s “The Man in the Bath” (‘Planet of Life’).

Fashioned into a pleasing orchestral homogeneity by Riesman, there is nothing particularly revolutionary or radical about the music, but it expertly underscores Lanting’s stunning images rather than swamping them. I particularly liked the long, slow build-up during the first section, the force of the volcanoes indicated by sonority rather than vacuous effect. Given the nature of the stills, even when moving in Alexander V. Nichols’s “visual choreography”, this marriage of music and visuals was subtler and less superfluous than the, by now, somewhat overbearing scores, such as those by George Fenton, for television natural history programmes like “The Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” (less, sometimes, is definitely more).

So an unusual, but intriguing and satisfying evening. With hindsight, perhaps the talk should have come before – many of the audience opted for an early trip home, but Lanting and Alsop were interesting in describing the development of the project, and hopes for the future (regrettably a recording for DVD fell through because of scheduling). The widening of the ecological debate was rather weak though.

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