Helen Wallace © Nick White
Helen Wallace
© Nick White

We live in a fast-paced world, flitting from meeting to meeting, eye on the phone, constantly connected to the wider world. Yet how well are we connected to the real world? To the natural world? How often do we enter a concert hall at the last moment, hastily reminding ourselves who – or what – is playing that evening? But imagine entering a hall and being enveloped in the sound of birdsong, or the sound of deer rutting or ice cracking; something to make you stop and reflect before a note of the live musical performance has even begun. With Nature Unwrapped, Kings Place brings the natural world to your concert hall.

Helen Wallace is about to unveil her fourth season as Programme Director at Kings Place. Although Venus Unwrapped, its flagship 2019 series celebrating the music of female composers, is still firing on all cylinders – Kings Place seasons run in calendar years rather than traditional September-to-July dates – the brochure for next year is about to land. This is the twelfth “Unwrapped” season the venue was presented, so is programming a season around a single theme, I wonder, a constraint or does it inspire her own creative juices?

“It very much fires the creative juices,” she enthuses, “especially when you’re dealing with such a range of genres where you need to find something that’s common to them all. And it also makes the artists that we work with think harder. There’s always a push and pull with programming – artists who come to you with great projects but also people who you you would love to have, and you’d like to fire them up with the topic.”

Cello Unwrapped, her first season, was very much driven by the artists she wanted to engage, but Wallace explains that with Venus, it was very different, focusing on composers, as it is again with Nature. So where did the idea for Nature Unwrapped come from? For Wallace it is both a response to the current call for action on climate change, and a celebration of the inspiration of nature, in all its teeming, fragile, awe-inspiring diversity. “There will be works within the series that are to do with melting ice and rampant consumerism,” she explains, “but I was very keen that we don’t make this an agitprop series. We’re not going to constantly beat people over the head with a piece of music about climate change, because that can be a bit of a zero sum game both artistically and intellectually.”

The idea for the series springs partly from Wallace’s own interest in the natural world. “In another life, I’d have been a biologist,” she admits. “I’ve always had a strong interest in wildlife, walking and gardening. I was brought up in the country between the North and South Downs on the Hampshire-Surrey border. My father collected butterflies and moths, and my sister works for the London Wildlife Trust. I’ve always loved the repertoire that’s connected with nature, from the Pastoral Symphony to Handel's L'allegro, Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending to Gubaidulina’s Canticle of the Sun through to Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. This gave me a rich seam as a start to planning the series.”

But Wallace’s programming goes way beyond obvious staples such as the Pastoral. Repertoire was one route, but the other was field recordings, especially the way in which they have fed into contemporary music, a vibrant, vital strand of the season. This is where sound recordist and composer Chris Watson plays a key role, as the season’s Artist-in-Residence. “I’ve always really loved his work,” Wallace begins, “whether as an installation or a radio programme on BBC Radio 3, or his more experimental work as a composer. Lots of people make sound recordings, but his approach is unique. He’s worked on most of Sir David Attenborough’s series and has a huge catalogue to draw on and an imaginative approach to how he puts things together. So when you ask for an environment evoking a coniferous forest awakening in spring, he will create a piece with its own narrative. He doesn’t manipulate it, but he thinks of it as a score.

Chris Watson recording Matabele ants, South Africa © Miles Barton
Chris Watson recording Matabele ants, South Africa
© Miles Barton
Geyser recording, Galapagos islands © Jo Stevens
Geyser recording, Galapagos islands
© Jo Stevens

“Chris is doing a type of sound calendar for us in Hall One. The idea is that before the beginning of each Nature Unwrapped concert, when you go into the hall you will enter a natural environment, taking you into a different world. We open in January with birdlife in The Wash and end in December with the sounds of bearded seals singing and the sound of ice cracking. Chris is brilliant at making you reconnect with sound. We see a lot of wildlife through the screen but we don’t feel it – so the idea is to get people to listen more deeply.”

“It’s like going into a church while the organ is playing,” she explains when I suggest how this installation may better prepare us to listen to the concert. “We have Voces8 singing The Turning of the Year by Jonathan Dove and you’ll come into the hall hearing rutting deer and the gathering of ravens. It will bring the two things together.”

No season with nature as its centrepiece could ignore Mahler, even if the halls at Kings Place couldn’t accommodate any of his gigantic symphonies. “The Orchestra of the Earth conducted by John Warner, has a mission that anything done in Mahler’s name celebrates the biosphere and makes a difference. They plan to present a chamber version of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony here with footage of the arctic melting.”

Of the many contemporary composers programmed in Nature Unwrapped, John Luther Adams is very important. “We’re programming a beautiful work John Luther created called A Wind in High Places where he essentially uses a string quartet as an Aeolian harp and imagines what a wind going through that would do. I love the way he thinks about music more as an environment than a narrative.”

Tamara Stefanovich © Marco Borggreve
Tamara Stefanovich
© Marco Borggreve
Theatre of Voices © Reinhard Wilting
Theatre of Voices
© Reinhard Wilting

Known for immense orchestral works like Become Ocean, Adams also writes for much smaller forces. “Pianist Eliza McCarthy is doing a great programme which includes three of his works including the monumental Among Red Mountains which rarely get played. Paul Hillier is artist-in-association on the series and his Theatre of Voices have commissioned John Luther to create a new work, which will premiere in December 2020 and will be connected with the Winter Solstice.”

George Crumb's Voice of the Whale will feature, as will Toru Takemitsu, whose music Cage said concerned “the transformation of nature into art”. The season also features Georg Friedrich Haas’ Solstices, which premiered at the Royal Academy of Music last year, and is “a shamanic vigil”, taking place entirely in the dark until light gradually seeps in at the end.

Hollie Harding’s Melting Shifting Liquid World is an immersive work, created by sonic interpretations of climate change data from the deep, recently premiered at the National Maritime Museum, while Matthew Herbert’s more, more, more is a reaction to endless consumerism. “It’s a very direct, powerful statement piece. He’s recorded rubbish and amplified it and then aggregated that over and over again so it becomes this room-filling, ear-filling installation about the philosophy of growth and the endlessness of waste.”

Along with the return of familiar faces such as the wonderful Theatre of Voices, singing Arvo Pärt as part of a live soundtrack to a film about a biodynamic farm, and names new to the venue like Laurie Anderson, Vox Luminis and Tamara Stefanovich, playing Messiaen, it’s the presence of a strong contingent of folk artists who really excite Wallace for Nature Unwrapped.

“As a community, the folk artists are the most engaged with this topic,” she enthuses, due to the way folk music is rooted to its environment. Martin Simpson, Karine Polwart, Nancy Kerr, for example, or Lau, whose name comes from an Orcadian word meaning "natural light", create music connected to their landscapes. “They’re also great spokespeople for the cause,” she explains, playing local venues “whereas classical artists are more aware that their lifestyle is not terribly conducive to saving the planet!”

Highlights include Daniel Herskedal, a Norwegian jazz tuba player, who is coming with a Sami singer. Also from Norway comes jazz saxophonist Terje Isungset, famous for his ice trumpet. “This time he’s bringing a project called Arctic Ice Music involving several instruments made of ice along with Inuit throat singers, a Tuvan throat singer from Mongolia and artists from Greenland. It’s going to be extraordinary and ethereal!”

And as part of the programme involving all the family, Aurora Orchestra launches its new Chopin-based programme, How the Dragonfly Brought the Spring, and composer Ben Corrigan brings his Lydian Tree installation. “He and Matthew Watt have created an interactive art installation, a tree of sound and light, that will form the centrepiece of both an adult and children's immersive programme,” Wallace explains in utter amazement. “Honestly, I couldn’t have made this up!”

Nature Unwrapped opens on the 11th January 2020.

Click here for published listings.

This article was sponsored by Kings Place