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North's masterpiece, but it's not easy listening

In many ways, I consider Alex North to be the finest film composer of them all - there are, of course, several composers whose music I find to be beyond reproach (I have yet to hear a score by Miklós Rózsa I considered to be less than perfect) - but all in all, I would have to say that North stands out from the rest. There are several reasons behind this - foremost among them is that he managed to introduce a very brave, modernistic musical style into cinema that was completely different from what had become the accepted norm - Erich Korngold, Max Steiner etc - and in doing so, he paved the way for most of the great film composers who worked during the 1960s and beyond that we all know and love so much today. His own compositional skills were surely among the finest ever to be unleashed on motion pictures, though unfortunately his occasionally avant-garde style does not go down very well with the modern-day listenership. When he died in 1991, I truly believe that film music lost its greatest practitioner.

I don't think it would be too contentious to say that Africa is probably North's most ambitious score. In 1967, the producers of a four-hour documentary about Africa invited North to write the music. North based his score around a four-movement symphony, "Symphony for a New Continent", he wrote especially for the series. As is the norm with this extraordinary composer, the music is not for the uninitiated - it is challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding. The symphony develops organically from untamed, wild origins to a more "civilised" finale - along the way comes some of the most extraordinary music ever written for film or television.

The first three movements are dominated by a large percussion section (eleven percussionists were needed) as North travels through a range of aboriginal musical sounds. The music is almost entirely dissonant and it is impossible not to marvel at the technical brilliance of it all. The fourth movement is the pick of an extremely impressive bunch - slightly more tonal ideas are introduced and the strings and brass begin to come together more conventionally, as North represents musically mankind's development on the continent.

The album also features a few shorter vignettes North wrote for the series, including most fascinatingly his main title, which was also included on Jerry Goldsmith's recording of North's score for 2001 - apparently the score had been misfiled by North along with his 2001 material, so when Goldsmith was preparing the score for his recording, he assumed the piece was to be included with it. What has always seemed a fairly strange inclusion on the 2001 album now becomes clearer. (I have to say at this juncture that Goldsmith's reading of the piece is far superior sonically, and makes one long for a rerecording of the whole of Africa.)

If the music is challenging for the listener, it must have been virtually impossible for the orchestra, so the Graunke Symphony Orchestra's performance must be given the highest praise. Despite the unfavourable comparison with Goldsmith's digital version of the main title, this complex and difficult work sounds generally fine, and the remastering by James Nelson for this new album must be given all due credit for that. An LP was released in 1967 but quickly went out of print and became one of the most-prized possessions of any film music fan; hopefully this release from the Prometheus CD Club (limited to 2,000 copies) will allow a wider audience to hear this classic work.

Not for a moment could I suggest that this will be an album for everybody; however, for those willing to broaden their horizons and try something which is probably a very long way removed from the modern-day film music they like, Africa is essential. Alex North wrote many masterpieces, and there can be no doubt that Africa is among them. This is a landmark film music release.

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Rating *****

Alex North

Prometheus CD Club PCR509

  • Composed and conducted by Alex North
  • Performed by the Graunke Symphony Orchestra of Munich
  • Orchestrated by Alex North and Henry Brant
  • Engineered by Val Balentin
  • Produced by Ford A. Thaxton

Total Time 50:08

    Symphony for a New Continent

  1. I (7:14)
  2. II (5:10)
  3. III (9:36)
  4. IV (8:19)

  5. Main Title (long version) (2:54)
  6. Man in Africa (4:06)
  7. The Joyful Days (3:39)
  8. Victoria Falls / Progress (3:38)
  9. Kilimanjaro (3:15)
  10. Main Title (short version) (2:09)

Artwork copyright (c) 1967 American Broadcasting Music; review copyright (c) 2001 James Southall

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