Proms 2011 – Human Planet Prom (2)

Human Planet Prom, with music from the series by Nitin Sawhney, and Scrapheap Orchestra

Ayarkhaan [Sakha Republic, Siberia]
Bibilang Shark-Calling Group [Papua New Guinea]
Khusugtun [Mongolia]
Rasmus Lyberth [Greenland]
Enock Mbongwe [Zambia]

BBC Concert Orchestra
Charles Hazlewood

Paul Rose (presenter)
Nitin Sawhney (presenter)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 24 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Charles Hazlewood conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra during the Human Planet Prom (1). Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis Sunday morning concert was a repeat performance of the previous night’s Human Planet Prom and explored three activities of the BBC: the TV show Human Planet (which was screened on BBC One, and showed how humans interact with nature); BBC Radio 3’s Music Planet (complementing Human Planet, it explored how music is shaped by the natural world, as well as highlighting musicians hidden away in far-flung communities); and Scrapheap Orchestra, which is an up-coming BBC Four programme in which an orchestra’s instruments have been made entirely from scrap.

Nitin Sawhney’s music from Human Planet was interspersed with Music Planet musicians, some of them having never left their villages. Typical of their struggles to get here, the members of Bibilang Shark-Calling Group all required passports but most of them could not even fill in their dates of birth “sometime during the 1980s – yes, definitely during the late 1980s” was one response!

What impressed about the TV show Human Planet was the photography, and how awesome the natural world is. What grated throughout the series was the music and the producers’ reliance on contrived musical textures when the sound of nature itself would have been infinitely preferable. Nitin Sawhney’s music is simplistic and derivative, lacking imagination, using cheap tricks such as swells of string sounds (for vast landscapes) to nervous flutes (frolicking gazelles) and brass interruptions (elephants). Saint-Saëns did it so much better. In itself the music proved to be uninteresting and superficial, and not adding anything at all to what should be inspirational sights (there were projections to accompany the music). Without the pictures, Sawhney’s music is as bad as the worst a call-centre might put one on-hold to, each piece sounding much the same.

Rasmus Lyberth with Christian Soegaard (accordian) & Jane Clark (Violin) at the Human Planet Prom (1). Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouFar more interesting was hearing the music of some of the contributors to Musical Planet, which, although far-removed from the Classical Western tradition can be appreciated as a way of passing-on stories and guidance. Musically, all the performers are not developed but the sounds were interesting and unique. Rasmus Lyberth gave powerful and energetic voice to his songs about life and an optimistic future, and Enock Mbongwe’s kalumbu (a musical bow held against a bare chest which aids resonance) kept pace with his words of warning and how to lead a good life. The singing of the Mongolian group Khusugtun was a surprise (its range restricted, and all in the throat), but proud and energetic.

Most impressive was Scrapheap Orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (arranged, or is that recycled? for this group). The players were members of the BBC Concert Orchestra, and they played nstruments made from materials recovered from waste dumps. It was amazing to hear instruments sounding incredibly close to their real counterparts. The performance itself had a few forgivable glitches and drew a deserved standing ovation. It was remarkable.

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