Original Review by Alan RogersJens Jensen

Jens Jensen (1860-1951) was a Danish-American landscape architect who set his mind to battle against the advancing industrial expansion of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, to create green spaces (the “Living Green”) so people could have access to nature. Jensen created and re-designed numerous parks in order to improve the lives of the inhabitants of the great city, believing that access to nature lifted peoples’ spirits and benefiting society as a whole. As part of his plans, Jensen wanted to use native American plants and flowers rather than import exotic types, making naturalistic parks full of flowers (and materials) in environments where these flowers would flourish. Jens Jensen, The Living Green is a one-hour documentary made for PBS that tells the life story and accomplishments of the Dane, using archive footage of Chicago, interviews and beautiful images from both the parks and the open plains from where Jensen took his inspiration. Director Carey Lundin’s film conveys Jensen’s drive to improve the lives of those living in the industrial slums of Chicago and charts how his work was an inspiration to early conservation movements. The film is interesting and engaging and, at the end, I felt that I had learned a lot.

The music for this biographical documentary is composed by BAFTA-nominated Sam Hulick. Having been a significant contributing composer to BioWare’s Mass Effect franchise for ten years, Hulick has recently branched out as a solo composer and his score for the video game Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad (2011) has been well received, with his choral work coming in for particular praise. Music for the independent short films Collisions (2011) and Hybrids (2013) has marked his expansion into live action projects. With Jens Jensen, The Living Green, the combination of a small-scale synth palette and a few live musicians (violin, viola, cello, flute) for key musical ideas is used to fashion a score that is quite different from what I have heard from Hulick in the past. The composer manages to successfully create a score that complements the open country spaces of the Great Plains of America as well as highlights the sterility of the slums and heavy industry found in Chicago at the time.

The opening “The Living Green” begins with a beautiful piano theme that instantly evokes the America of a bygone age. It’s a theme that brings images of sepia-coloured family groups who have hardship etched on their faces and who are the bedrock of the country. Hulick then builds on this by using a small string ensemble to cement the idea of the people being at the heart of the country – and who are at the centre of Jensen’s drive to bring greenery into the city. Piano and strings feature strongly in the score when we see serene images of the vast panoramas of the Great Plains or the intimate portraits of Jensen’s park creations. They are heard particularly when we learn how Jensen’s values shaped his own life and the lives of those who have been affected by the areas of nature Jensen has created (e.g., “Empty Spaces”, “The Inland Sea”, with the latter track re-stating the theme heard in the opening cue). One of Hulick’s strengths with this score is that, with the limited resources to hand, he saves the live musicians for specific scenes thus maximising their effect. This is evidenced in the cues already mentioned above. In addition, the use of a flute in tracks such as “The Clearing” and “Friendly Rivalry” adds a further, personal touch to the score, being used to highlight the productive relationships Jensen had throughout his life that led to significant steps forward in the landscape gardener’s drive to bring greenery to people.

The documentary shows the deplorable conditions in which people lived at that time, with housing for these poorest of people being adjacent to the factories in which they worked. Hulick uses a driven ostinato motif for violin, viola and cello as the backdrop to these scenes of deprivation and also for the relentless advancement of industry into the wildernesses at the Western edges of the city (e.g., “City of Beauty and Squalor”, “Titans of Industry”). Midway through the score, the cello and low-register piano of “The Chicago Way” marks the score at its darkest, reflecting political corruption faced by Jensen when he stood up to the system.

Over the span of twenty minutes, Hulick’s music touches on each of the aspects covered in the documentary. He has fashioned an enjoyable score that plays very well as a varied, stand-alone listen and adds significantly to the film when heard in context. I think that he manages to give a very personal stamp of Americana to the documentary – highlighting the idea of the use of native plants and flowers to improve the lives of the American people who are living under difficult circumstances – but he avoids doing it in an overly patriotic way. Rather, to me at least, Jens Jensen, The Living Green is bathed in the Americana evoked by the music of composers such as Virgil Thomson and his music for the Great Plains of America (e.g., The Plow That Broke The Plains). Jens Jensen, The Living Green is a solid documentary score from a composer who obviously relished the challenge this project offered. Jens Jensen, The Living Green can be purchased as a digital download in a variety of formats at the composer’s Bandcamp page. The tracks can be listened in full there too.

Rating: ***

  1. The Living Green (2:15)
  2. Seeds of Destiny (1:42)
  3. City of Beauty and Squalor (1:22)
  4. The Clearing (2:02)
  5. The Chicago Way (0:56)
  6. Titans of Industry (2:05)
  7. Empty Spaces (2:27)
  8. Friendly Rivalry (2:14)
  9. The Inland Sea (2:14)

Running Time: 17:22

Sam Hulick (2013)

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