Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

by 5:4

The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

But i’m aware i’m running the risk here of getting bogged down in the potential for a lengthy essay about the nature and methodology of contemporary film music – which i’d love to write but not right now – so let’s get back on track. Perhaps due to his involvement composing the theme for the BBC’s recent series Planet Earth II (another example – though not by Zimmer – of music incapable of knowing when to shut up), Zimmer’s new work, premièred at the Proms last Sunday by the Chineke! Orchestra conducted by Kwamé Ryan, was titled Earth. i say “new work” – but never have i used the word ‘new’ less accurately. It’s perhaps telling that the piece was included in a concert aimed at children, and i’ve little doubt that that audience will have lapped it up. But for anyone even remotely more discerning, this music could have been cut and pasted from practically any of Zimmer’s projects of recent years – or indeed any of the plethora of Zimmer knock-offs and wannabes that litter the landscape of today’s film and tv music. Its only meaningful connection to ‘earth’ is that Zimmer happened to create it here. All of it – every single note – is so entirely formulaic it could have been (and perhaps was) whipped up by a computer algorithm in barely a few minutes: blank triads, predictable but pointless surges, voices used as mindlessly as they are wordless, all floating aimlessly in an amorphous, globular, syrupy mess. Empty wonder, vacant awe, counterfeit majesty, ersatz emotion. Having claimed before that Zimmer abhors a vacuum, it’s ironic that when he composes like this, his music consists of nothing but that.

Linked to Zimmer’s piece by a thematic connection to the Earth, but about as diametrically different as possible, is UK composer Alexia Sloane‘s new choral work Earthward. It was also given its world première last Sunday, at the first of this year’s Prom concerts at Cadogan Hall, by the vocal group VOCES8. In their response to my pre-première questions, Sloane spoke of an ongoing preoccupation with “contemporary crises, especially the environmental emergency”, and that Earthward “expresses both the joy at [the] beauty of nature and connection with it, and a profound grief and pain at its fragility and loss”. Informed by their adherence to Buddhism, Sloane’s text is a short ‘eco-poem’ in which Earth is made “the object of devotion”:

oh Earth:
we will cherish you
    for you have sculpted our flesh
of our soul, and your song
is the ground of our body’s sky.
    The hooves of dusk’s shyness
have set alight the silence
of the sky’s leaves
        to gather
        and scatter
    their own swiftness
like blue ashes. through the quickening
    of their blaze, Earth’s wings hatch
an ocean, blossoming
    into a moon
        who draws the wind away
    from the sky,
earthward in a bright
eclipse of wildflowers.

In contrast to everything i’ve written in the first two paragraphs, Sloane’s musical language, as captured in Earthward, could hardly be more – in the best sense – strange. Its nature, on first contact at least, is disarmingly alien yet at the same time so abundantly personal as to feel instantly recognisable and familiar. Sloane’s articulation of the text consists of a kind of oscillation: short, somewhat chant-like undulating lines that continually erupt and explode at its key words. On the one hand, there’s something almost a little clunky about this, though the more time i’ve spent with the piece the less this seems like a compositional defect than a side effect of both the often uncomfortably vertiginous leaps required of the singers (many of them way more than an octave) and also the music’s extreme emotional shift between the measured and the exquisite.

i use the word ‘exquisite’ deliberately, as it seems to me that the peculiar flavour of Sloane’s chords is infused as much by pain as pleasure. As such, they act not so much as functional but emotional harmony, communicating equal parts rapture and agony.  This, in combination with the intimacy of its personality, lends Earthward an intensity that’s almost excruciatingly private, as if we were listening in on someone engaged in an act of private prayer. It is that, i think, but of course it’s a lot more than that; in making their deeply personal paean to the Earth public in this way, Sloane clearly yearns to create a kind of empathetic resonance in all of us. Personally, i won’t pretend that that resonance happened instantly, but it did happen: gradually, and with increasing fervour, such that now it feels as if the music, the words and i are entirely in accord.


Hans Zimmer - Earth
  • Loved it! (5%, 2 Votes)
  • Liked it (5%, 2 Votes)
  • Meh (21%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (14%, 6 Votes)
  • Hated it! (55%, 23 Votes)

Total Voters: 42

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Alexia Sloane - Earthward
  • Loved it! (23%, 12 Votes)
  • Liked it (44%, 23 Votes)
  • Meh (19%, 10 Votes)
  • Disliked it (8%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (6%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 52

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Daniel Pett

Have you or are you going to review the newish album (–elfman-violin-concerto-eleven-eleven) of Danny Elfman’s latest works? It’s certainly a much better example of a film composer branching out into concert music.

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