Life on Earth Has a Soundtrack?

by Jennifer Frazer on November 10, 2009

Image by Anastasia Shesterinina, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. Click image for link.

Why do I suddenly feel . . . melancholy? Image by Anastasia Shesterinina, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. Click image for link.

Oh, Sir David Attenborough . . . how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Blue Planet . . .  Planet Earth . . . Life in the Undergrowth . . . and a gem I just recently encountered, his 1979 BBC debut, Life on Earth. I haven’t seen it, but apparently someone rummaging through a British charity store recently encountered one of only about 100 copies of its score the composer ever pressed, and they’re now being offered for sale on CD online.

Listening to the meditative and elegant sample tracks of Gymnopedie for Jellyfish, or Arabesque for Flatworms, I am transported back to the nature documentaries that aired on the lazy Sundays of my childhood, in which the pace was slow as molasses and many long moments passed narrator-free so as to better contemplate the mystery of nature. Behold: the brook trout spawning, or the grizzly grabbing salmon.  It was a simpler time, when the TV’s four channels (CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS, which in my little remote corner of rural southeast Tennessee went snowy all night, to return to the air early the next morning preceded by the Star Spangled Banner and space shuttle lifting off) were inhabited by the likes of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom(I briefly considered naming this blog, but it turned out the domain was already taken). How I miss them sometimes.

I also briefly considered buying the Life on Earth soundtrack, but after doing the Dollar-Pound conversion and learning it’d cost me $21 to buy and ship to Colorado, the cheapnik in me won out. And Life on Earth itself remains out of grasp for now too. Though it has been released to DVD in the UK, the US has not been so fortunate. That is a shame, because the British Film Institute ranked it 32nd in the top 100 British Television Programs of all time, ahead of Walking with Dinosaurs and the 1995 Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice (Why is that ranked only 99th? Why? Why?) Wikipedia has some sort of conspiracy theory about Life on Earth never being released here because of its (gasp!) explicit evolutionary content, but plenty of other evolution-based programs have been put on DVD here no problem so I have a hard time buying that. Here’s a clip (featuring a very young David Attenborough) on the making of it to give you a taste for what you’re missing:

In any case, we will hopefully soon have the next best thing because we still have D.A. with us, and he has done a bit of a re-do of Life on Earth that is currently airing on BBC One: Life. Though all my British readers may be having a “Duh!” moment here, most of us in America are quite ignorant of it — or at least I was until about two weeks ago. Let’s hope this Life does find a way — to jump the pond.

Have any British readers seen it yet? Any early reviews? And Discovery Channel, if you are reading this, please leave David Attenborough’s narration intact in any US broadcasts. No Sigourney Weaver, Morgan Freeman, or (god forbid) Tom Cruise. Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Oroboros November 11, 2009 at 9:28 am

I had to look into the description of Gymnopédie and it certainly seems right for Jellyfish:

The melodies … use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece “slowly”, “dolorously” or “gravely”.

Arabesque music doesn’t have a very interesting Wiki page- all I got is that it is done in 2/2 or 4/4 meter.

Did you catch the piece on music for monkeys at WIRED last month? I followed the links to find the music for cats and played it for mine. It definitely gets her attention.

I grew up on the same set of TV shows and remember life before cable. I don’t know what a kid would do today if you said there were only 4 choices on TV.

Finally, speaking of BBC documentaries, you did you see this rare bird attempting to mate?

Jennifer Frazer November 11, 2009 at 11:33 am

Gymnopedies should be familiar to classical music fans, particularly Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, from which the Gymnopedie for Jellyfish is obviously derived. And yes, I agree it’s a good fit for jellyfish, unless perhaps one is stung, in which case this might be more appropriate.

I’m not a Wired reader, and unfortunately on top of that I must admit that I have an (ironically) rather strong anti-primate bias. One of my more favorite human-music-animal moments was in the amazing documentary “Berserk in the Antarctic”, when the crazy Norwegian sailing the ship decided to play AC/DC’s “Back in Black” for a pod of whales. The whales really seemed to dig it.

The bird mating was hilarious. I felt sorry for the guy, though. I can’t conceive why he didn’t throw that damn bird off of him, though, rare or not.

Oroboros November 11, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I can understand your anti-primate bias in a way. I recently discovered the phrase vertebrate chauvinism and really like it. I’m fascinated by insects more than anything else, and found this blog that uses the phrase in a way I can appreciate. If I’m not mistaken it may have originated in this paper:

To a rough approximation and setting aside vertebrate chauvinism, it can be said that essentially all organisms are insects.

The context where I encountered the phrase first was an anecdote in Carl’s Zimmer’s Parasite Rex about a journal of animal behavior that initially rejected a paper on a parasite’s behavior. On resubmission and acceptance the author was told by the editor to excuse his vertebrate chauvinism because he didn’t realize that parasites could behave.

I just got a microscope so I’ll go play with it instead of spamming your blog with more of my comments. Just tell me if I get too out of hand.

Psi Wavefunction November 11, 2009 at 7:02 pm

“To a rough approximation and setting aside vertebrate chauvinism, it can be said that essentially all organisms are insects. ”

Now that’s bloody metazoan AND eukaryotic chauvinism! >.<

Without setting aside anything, essentially all organisms are prokaryotes. Those minutely few who aren't, are protists.

First day of ecology (mandatory class), prof goes: "We're gonna look mostly at animals because plants don't have much in the way of behaviour." *twitch* I had a chat with the guy after class, which probably didn't do much good for my diplomatic relations with the Zoology dep't…

Then again, I consider amoebae to be intelligent and clearly in possession of behaviour… =D

Oroboros November 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Psi, I had a bit of awakening on the matter of plant behavior recently. I shot years of timelapse movies when I lived in the mountains and noticed in some that the pine trees all lifted their branches upward over a period of some hours for no discernible reason. I watched this same scene on other surrounding days and didn’t see it happening. I couldn’t find an obvious cause related to sunlight (even though plants obviously do seek it out). I need to edit the video and include the surrounding days for the same time period and blog about it. I’m almost certain this wasn’t a wind effect. I’m guessing it was more related to something like air pressure or humidity and may still have external cause.

Speaking of pedantry, you and Jennifer may both appreciate following that Benweb blog I found yesterday. His subject today is pickerelweed and I really have to admire his determination and apparent attention to detail, including the commentary on taxonomy.

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