Jocelyn Pook & Akram Khan on reimagining The Jungle Book

Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined is an extraordinary re-rendering in ballet of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories for a world facing an environmental crisis, with a score that emerges from it fully-formed – whispering, sighing, calling, roaring.

There is “power when we’re left with the composer’s wistful and mournful music,” wrote The Guardian’s dance critic Lyndsey Winship when the show had its acclaimed premiere last year. “A compelling soundtrack…atmospheric and gorgeous,” ran the theatre blog, Beyond The Curtain.

Jocelyn Pook is this soundtrack’s composer. Winning Olivier and BAFTA awards for her work in theatre and TV, and known for her work on films from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to John Smith’s Blight to Björn L. Runge’s The Wife, this new Real World release marks a powerful new chapter in her career.

Jocelyn Pook - Where We Came From (extract)

With some of the score reworked boldly and beautifully to let the music soar without dialogue, Pook’s Jungle Book reimagined takes us out of the theatre and deep into the sonics of the journey of Mowgli, now a young girl and refugee. Thrown off a life raft at sea without her parents, she is found by animals who take her to their new home, created in abandoned land. Here, many animals from faraway places and situations are living together, some escaped from zoos, others from laboratories, trying to look after each other in this time of ecological disaster.

Pook’s soundtrack carries us from a dramatic ‘Exodus’ to an intimate ‘Mother’s Lullaby’, creating a vivid world through new music. Here are creatures rustling through the trees, moving and connecting, conjured up by the sounds of twitching strings, sighing woodwind and delicate kalimbas. Here are their deep, resonant voices, lamenting alone and rallying together.

This is the latest of the BAFTA-winning Pook’s collaborations with award-winning director, choreographer and dancer Akram Khan, following their work together on 2011’s DESH and 2018’s Dust. Pook has been a seasoned collaborator for years: “We’ve got a language that works together, which always helps”, Pook says of the start of their project. “He’s a great person to collaborate with – very hands-on from the get-go.”

Jocelyn Pook. Photo credit: Matthew Andrews.

“It was so organic with Jocelyn,” Khan says. “But I’m also always very demanding of my collaborators, working very closely together – the role of the director being about guiding without being guided.” He also wanted Pook to provide an emotional way into the narrative, “about how we are guests on this land and must look after it, respecting animals and nature, which is where it gets complicated. Music can sway how we’re feeling so easily, and I had to guard against that.”

But Khan knew Pook’s work through the decades was emotional and resonant, but it wasn’t sentimental. In recent years, her work was particularly relevant: her 2019 piece for The Proms, You Need to Listen to Us, used words from speeches by environmental activist Greta Thunberg set to music. “My job was not to give Jocelyn the staircase but the first step, then think, does this hit me deep in my gut?” Her final score did that and more, he says. “She’s an amazing composer of vocals especially, and brings in influences from so many places.”

Akram Khan. Photo credit: Max Barnett.
"My job was not to give Jocelyn the staircase but the first step, then think, does this hit me deep in my gut?" Akram Khan

Throughout Jungle Book reimagined, yearning tones and tough drones interweave with gentler sounds and fluttering rhythms. The global influences are not always clear-cut. Elements of traditional folk song weave around ‘Bhagheera’s Vision’ as she remembers her life in Africa, Pook explains, “but apart from that direct link, I wanted musical resonances from different cultures to just naturally seep into these ideas and settings. The animals kind of have their memories, but they’re all there from all different parts of the world.” This all mixes and meshes.

Solo singers were brought in for the different styles and textures of their voices, contributing to a wider canvas for Mowgli’s multicultural world. They include the Macedonian singer Tanja Tzarovska, Carnatic vocalist Sushma Soma — the Serbian ‘basso profundo’, Voya Zivkovic, the English Melanie Pappenheim, and the Bangladeshi singer Sohini Alam on the stunning final track.

"I wanted musical resonances from different cultures to just naturally seep into these ideas and settings." Jocelyn Pook

Many instrumental passages teem with power and portent, but moments of great intimacy and playfulness shimmer through the score. Many come from Congolese musician Mulele Matondo’s dextrous thumb piano, and Pook’s own instrument, which she plays here, the viola. Ideas from the past and the present also often bubble and burst through, including on the central track ‘Where We Came From’. This sprouted from Pook’s earlier work on her Olivier Award-winning music for the 2008 National Theatre production of Saint Joan. “That idea of burning just crept through.”

This feels like a cohesive, important work in her catalogue, Pook admits – and for the listener, it is a reminder of all the stunning music she has made in the past, and for what it says to us about our future. “Somebody said recently that the mark of my music was that I often create pieces that are a little like urban hymns,” Pook says. “That’s a good description of what I was trying to do here – to get across a world of different creatures and stories.”  As we feel ourselves being stretched, moved and enveloped by them, she succeeds.

Jungle Book reimagined by Jocelyn Pook is released on 31 March 2023 via Real World X, an imprint of Real World Records. The lead track, ‘Where We Came From’ is available to listen and download on all digital platforms now. Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined runs from 4 – 18 April at Sadler’s Wells, London and then continues to tour internationally throughout the year.


Further Listening

  • Untold Things

    Jocelyn Pook

    Released 21 February 2001

    Encouraged by Real World's penchant for blurring boundaries, Jocelyn Pook channelled her trademark combination of classicism and innovation into an exhilarating gem of an album, one which pulls off that rare coup of putting listeners in touch with their deeper feelings.

By Jude Rogers

Jude Rogers is a journalist, interviewer, arts critic and broadcaster.

Published on Wed, 08 March 23

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