At the beginning of the 4th century BCE, Socrates described the Greek colonists at the birth of Western Europe sitting around the Mediterranean 'like frogs around a pond'; when Xenophon's routed and weary mercenaries making their way on foot from Persia saw the sea, a cry went through the ranks, 'Thalassa!, Thalassa!' and to the Romans of course, the Mediterranean was simply Mare Nostrum. In the 1920s. Hermann Sorgel, a German architect, engineer and visionary devised a project which he felt would pave the way for peaceful coexistence within a divided Europe. This project involved principally building a series of dams, most notoriously across the Strait of Gibraltar, to lower the Mediterranean and provide new employment, finance and opportunity for settlement of the new lands which would be created.
Now the Atlantropa Project is a loosely organised collective of producers and musicians with a mission to appreciate this massive concept through music. Given the large cast from a diverse range of musical backgrounds, this is a remarkably coherent endeavour. The sound is immaculate and the musicianship of the first order. This is a highly polished and experienced group, with backgrounds as session musicians, producers, band leaders and from film and TV. The music is varied, sophisticated, theatrical in all senses and makes for a remarkably entertaining set, collated over a period of years and then honed into a mighty oeuvre by producers Heinze Kuhne and Lothar Krell.
The problem is that while the music is outstanding and beautifully executed, the concept lacks a single creative spark lyrically. 'Dam' rhymes with, well 'man','plan' and 'Atlantropan' and unfortunately also drags the lyric into doggerel which is clunkily repeated. The effect is of experiencing a musical Wikipedia page. Dramatic opportunities of human hubris and unrecognised genius are passed up in favour of sterile literalism. We learn little of Sorgel except for being a man with a plan for a dam and that for a while everyone loved him. Well there's nothing a government loves more than full employment, and nothing businessmen love more than a big, fat government contract. Think of what Kate Bush managed to achieve with another of life's misfits in 7 minutes with Cloudbusting, and this appears as appetising and engaging as a ton of gravel. The flaws in the concept are stepped through. No-one ever thought to consult the Neapolitans about turning the Amalfi Coast into the Amalfi Region of Atlantropa. Here there is a pat on the head, a few platitudes about not getting too attached as nothing lasts forever. Not even dams presumably, although the end of this one is as yet nowhere in sight. Suffice to say it continues in this pedagogical vein for about 7 years. Only stepping outside the narrative line on Mare Nostrum Dream, delivered with heart-tugging grace by Elinor Pongracz does the piece achieve the emotional intensity it desperately demands elsewhere.
Ultimately Sorgel and his plan simply disappeared from view; there were other plans and it just wasn't his day. Equally the Atlantropa Project lamely fades away, not quite sure what to make of itself. There is a reason why every historical and imaginative epic of the founding of Western European culture features a host of seafaring adventurers, from the Greek ships lined up on the beach at Troy, to Aeneas and Odysseus, continually washed up on some shore having come off worse. Those people understood the cultural importance of the sea, And they knew how to tell a story. I wonder what they would have made of this one, somehow I'm confident they could have turned it into a drama.
*** Andrew Cottrell
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