Review: Songbook of the Earth

Posted on April 19, 2010

Lauren Strain from reports from the Songbook of the Earth gala concert at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 19 April, where more than 400 school children and the Manchester Camerata unveiled a collection of pieces
about the environment.

“It’s delightful to hear a hubbub of hiccups, giggles and fast-paced chatter fill the Bridgewater Hall. Gone are the polite whispers and stifled coughs of adults – in their place, the sound of what looks to be more than 400 excitable kids from schools around the North West (and that’s just those on the stage, eagerly awaiting their performance of a song-cycle they’ve written themselves; there’s a good deal of classmates and siblings in the stalls, too).

  Audience members at Songbook of the Earth final performance 

Photo: Children from Mottram C of E Primary School performing at the Songbook of the Earth concert on 19 April

Partway through the afternoon I narrowly escape a missile to the head in the shape of a dummy, its elusive owner nowhere to be seen in the seats around me – I can only assume it was thrown from a great height in a particularly enthusiastic appreciation of the music.Songbook of the Earth is a 50-minute piece in four movements that has been written over the last few months in collaboration between children from 14 schools in Greater Manchester, Cheshire and the Wirral, the Manchester Camerata, composers Kate Pearson and José Guillermo Puello and poet Terry Caffrey.

In acknowledgement of this year being the 150th anniversary of his birth, the pupils studied Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) as their original inspiration – and then let their imaginations run riot with ways of describing and singing about ‘the environment’ in all its forms, whether personal or public, local or global. As further inspiration, earlier this year the children were treated to a Camerata performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Having since put the finishing touches to their lyrics and melodies, they’ve turned out today in their kaleidoscope of school colours – greens, reds, purples, blues, yellows – to showcase their hard work.

The piece’s first movement focuses on animals, with lyrics describing a tiger poaching its prey – using Rousseau’s famous painting, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprise!), as a starting point – and the rather unconventional flight of an urban bumblebee (“Lands on a can of coke on the Costa coffee floor”).

The children’s portrayal of a lone polar bear whose last area of ice is being invaded by humans is especially touching, the final verse intentionally left open-ended (“I smell the breath of humans/In their strange white houses/A banging noise shatters the night/A blast of silver/Spirals towards me”).

The Polar Bear and a later song, Life of a Child Soldier – which was written in response to the contrast of the way guns and fighting are glamorised in our culture and the horror and grief they cause in real life – are really quite moving. It’s clear that the children have been encouraged to think deeply not only about such huge issues as global warming and war (two subjects that can be very difficult to teach), but also about how they can affect individuals.

The coda to Life of a Child Soldier is particularly interesting – the kids have obviously taken the recent Royal Navy recruitment campaign and turned it on its head, making what was originally intended to sound like a series of exciting challenges and reasons to join the Navy sound, instead, like a warning against warfare. (“You’re born, you cry, you play, you learn, you change, you turn, you chase, you fight, you pause, you click.”) The result is rather eerie.

But ‘the environment’ as a theme doesn’t have to make you think big – it can make you think about your own personal space, families and friends. The connecting songs between each movement, entitled Little Steeping 1, 2 and 3, are variations on a theme, each being about the everyday task of walking the dog but in different seasons (“Woolly mittens, warm scarves… while parents drink steaming hot tea” for winter; “Short shorts, filmstar shades… while people sit in roasting cars” for summer; “Our trackies splash through/The muddy puddle traps” for autumn).

A song that imagines what the children’s perfect bedrooms would be like if they had their way – they list iPhones, “plasma TVs”, “succulent burgers” and even a “bubbling spa” – draws wry smiles from parents (along with some protective fingering of wallets).

Recurring images of the sun, the rainforests and the danger our planet currently faces complete the programme, leaving audience members with plenty to think about. “Drenched in colour, blue and green/Nations of grass and emerald trees/Clouds and birds, everything bright/Dark and delicious dolphin blue seas”, sing the pupils during one of the final songs, Earth Voice, painting a poignant image of our vibrant earth and the delicate balance it finds itself in. It seems Songbook of the Earth certainly achieved its aims – to celebrate, through music, our planet; and emphasise just how important it is that we look after it.”