Tall Poppies


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Film Music by Nigel Westlake

$20   (Australian dollars)


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Australia's first IMAX film (currently showing in Sydney) with powerfully evocative music by Nigel Westlake which captures the awesome spaces and the delights of the local fauna and features soloists David Pereira (cello), Dene Olding (violin), Timothy Kain (guitar) and Christine Douglas (soprano). The orchestra is conducted by composer Carl Vine.

Film music byNigel Westlake
Yearning for the continent
The last place on earth
Penguin play
Penguin circus
Canyons of ice
Meltponds / Dry valleys / The ice core
Scott's theme
Wooden ships
At the pole
Scott's theme


Nigel Westlake is a talented contemporary Australian composer, with many discs on the superlative Tall Poppies label. I was particularly pleased to be sent this disc for review. It contains the very music, albeit in expanded, original form, with which I originally acquainted myself with Westlake, namely the stunning soundtrack to John Weiley's IMAX film about Antarctica. A superb suite (for guitar and orchestra) was extracted/adapted from it which was premiered, alongside several excellent works by Peter Sculthorpe, on John Williams' trailblazing Sony disc From Australia. It has proved no disappointment to hear its source material (and much more besides). Several sequences are instantly recognisable, including those for the penguins and the "wooden ships" of the original Antarctic explorers. The guitarist on this recording (Tim Kain) has previously collaborated with aforementioned Williams. He does more than justice to the music with his contribution here. Harpist Louise Johnson is also impressive (try Penguin Play for an example of both players' artistry). That said, all the musicians involved have produced a remarkable, cohesive whole, which works just as well as an independent listening experience as it no doubt does alongside the film. The film's director calls this "Music with a life of its own". This is quoted in the booklet which also contains a series of superb photographs from Antarctica.

The music itself is never inaccessible and manages to combine a yearning lyricism (e.g. Threnody) with a real sense of nature's power (e.g. The Last Place on Earth). The latter aspect is often enhanced, and here it exceeds the experience of the suite, by the addition of a vocal component. This does not necessarily humanise the music, rather it adds an extra, often powerfully poetic dimension. One section that does not quite seem to fit with the rest of the music, amusing as it is, is Penguin Circus. It sounds exactly as you might imagine and is, to these ears, slightly too stark a contrast to the profound pieces preceding and following it (Threnody and Canyons of Ice, respectively). I do, however, concede that this might not be the impression given when heard in the film.

The centrepiece of the disc is the seven minute travelogue of Meltponds/Dry Valleys/The Ice Core. Highly evocative it is too, with elements both beautiful and awesome, especially from around five minutes in, where wordless soprano and guitar combine to weave a truly magical spell. After the relative calm of Scott's Theme and Wooden Ships, At the Pole is a highly percussive fanfare-like piece. A reprise of Scott's Theme then leads us into a lyrical Finale, which builds to an energetic and optimistic conclusion. This fits well with Westlake's dedication of the music to "the future of Antarctica as a world park". A gentle postlude completes the work.

Antarctica is a place that has always fascinated me and would love to visit. The fact that this record, short though it is, reinvigorated and increased those feelings is a tribute to the vision of the composer and his ability to conjure up these wonderful places so effectively. As far as documentary soundtracks goes, this is as good as you can get. This is probably a masterpiece, although that might equally apply to his later follow-up collaboration with Weiley (The Edge), also to be reviewed here shortly.
Neil Horner

Antarctica directed by John Weiley and filmed in IMAX drew its global impact from impressive photography (some stills from the film are printed in the insert notes) and from Nigel Westlake’s very fine score. As I mentioned in a recent review (Timothy Kain – Mirrors of Fire on Tall Poppies TP 169), the composer reworked some of the music of his film score into a suite for guitar and orchestra written for John Williams, in much the same way as Vaughan Williams reworking some of the music for Scott of the Antarctic into his Seventh Symphony. Westlake’s well-crafted, slightly eclectic but effective music is quite different from that by Vaughan Williams, although he too uses wordless soprano and boy soprano voices. So, it is both interesting and rewarding to be able to listen to Westlake’s film score to realise how he approached his task when reworking some of the music for the concert hall. A film score is often made of relatively short cues that do not lend themselves to extended reworking all too easily. Actually, two cues from the film score have been recycled into the suite for guitar and orchestra almost as they stand in the film score (albeit slightly revised and expanded), viz. the atmospheric miniature tone poem Wooden ships and the delightful Scherzo Penguin play. The last place on earth [track 2] also provides much of the music heard in the Antarctica suite, and so do the final tracks [12 – Finale and 13 – Postlude] in the suite’s last movement. Westlake’s film score nevertheless includes several longer cues such as The last place on earth [track 2] and Meltponds/Dry valleys/The Ice Core [track 7] that are rather more developed and some of which also made its way into the suite. The film score, however, is well worth hearing on its own right because it includes a good deal of really fine music, in turn lyrical and brutal, serious and funny. The funniest track is, no doubt, Penguin circus [track 5], a delightful Scherzo mostly for percussion, complete with slide whistle and honking horns, and ending with that arch-cliché of circus music, i.e. a side drum roll followed by the "circus chord". There are also many more lyrical sections such as the already mentioned Wooden ships [track 9], Threnody [track 4] and Scott’s theme. Westlake also sees to it that some coherence is achieved by the use of some recurrent motives.
Westlake’s score is for fairly limited orchestral forces, strings, horns and trumpets (apparently recorded in multi-tracking), an important part for cello (I even think that the concert suite might have been for cello and orchestra rather than for guitar and orchestra), guitar, percussion and parts for wordless soprano and boy soprano (a bit à la Vaughan Williams although the music is quite different but equally effective). It also seems that some electronic devices may have been used (multi-tracking, etc.), but always tastefully. As such, Antarctica is as fine a film score as one may wish : superbly crafted, quite attractive and very accessible; and the performance by soloists and an ad hoc orchestra conducted by fellow-composer Carl Vine is excellent.
Hubert Culot

'The music is often romantic and thrilling - driving and explosive - but also mysterious and tender in many places ... Recommended'
Stephen Ellis, Fanfare (USA), December 1993

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