Friday 20 May 2011

Simon Fisher Turner and ‘The Great White Silence’

‘Great God! This is an awful place,’ Robert Falcon Scott confided to his diary on January 17 1912, having just reached the South Pole only to discover that a Norwegian expedition, led by Roald Admundsen, had already been there ahead of him. Within weeks of penning that entry Captain Scott and his entire party would be dead. The official record of their journey, which had begun in October 1910 with the Terra Nova setting sail from New Zealand for the Antarctic, was entrusted to photographer and filmmaker Herbert Ponting. First released in 1913, Ponting’s film document of the tragic endeavour, The Great White Silence has been fully restored by the British Film Institute National Archive and features a remarkable new musical score by Simon Fisher Turner. Having created soundtracks for many of Derek Jarman’s later movies, including The Last of England, The Garden and Blue, Turner is the perfect choice to produce the accompaniment to a film that, even in its title, seems to push at the very edge of audiovisual experience.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Simon Fisher Turner about his new soundtrack for the film over Easter – you can read a more condensed version of our exchanges in the June issue of The Wire. Simon was, as always, very generous with his time, giving me more detailed information than I could possibly fit into the space allotted in the magazine. I am therefore reproducing below – with his permission of course – a complete transcript of my questions and Simon’s answers.

KH: It must be daunting to create an OST for a film with the word ‘silence’ featured so prominently in the title – were there any specific challenges that you identified and how did you approach them?

SFT: I like the silence, but it’s very difficult to use it when you’ve been commissioned to make music, not silence. To start with the film is a composite of probably three parts, so to start with just working out what was what was a difficult thing. It’s a complicated, layered film: fact, fiction, faked fact, and a nature film too. It took weeks to understand this. I worked initially from a shot list that I found at the BFI. This was crucial, as it explained exactly what I had. It was the script basically, and I used it constantly.

How do you score twenty-two minutes of penguin music, however?

I decided not to go down the sound effect route. I wanted to create something which was related as much as possible to fact and reality. I was lucky in that I recorded the bell from the Terra Nova. I was lucky with Chris Watson giving me the recording from Scott’s hut. I was lucky with a list which Briony at the BFI uncovered, which had the names of at least ten recordings they took with them on the journey. We know they took two gramophones and a piano player with them. So I went online searching the globe for recordings of piano players playing pre-1911 songs. Great fun this research by the way. It was a real privilege to have the time to search all this out. Extraordinary we never found a recording of the man himself. I would have liked that.

KH: It must feel strange to create new music for footage that is now a hundred years old. How did you approach this?

SFT: The age of the footage worried me not. The silence was the worry.

KH: The accompanying BFI notes mention that you drew inspiration from Indian and Japanese silent movie conventions – what are these and how did you use them?

SFT: It’s not so much the inspiration from any particular film; but with some research a few years ago I found out that in early Japanese silent films, the musicians who accompanied them didn’t really take too much notice of the films they were accompanying. They apparently just played, so this in my mind also freed me up to just play and not worry so much about the way the film had to be supported musically.

KH: What kind of sound sources did you use for the creation of your score?

SFT: This film has used up all my best found sounds from over the last three years. Odd things seemed to make sense. For our first iceberg sighting I used a recording of a metal bench I recorded in Berlin. The timbre and quality of sound seemed to make sense. You can hear the rust jump inside the bench as I hit it with my fist. Rust works for me in this context as all the hut and belongings in the hut now remain but are rusty and decaying. This was also put into FORESTER, a beautiful piece of something that Leafcutter John made and invented.

To imitate the sound of the blizzard at the end of the film I used a recording of a huge silk stage-curtain I recorded in Kyoto after a concert by Jyoji Sawada. It was like a safety curtain, and I knew immediately I should record this. I had a Sony Pro cassette machine then and just dragged the mike over the surface of the curtain. Then I put it into Ableton and recorded it straight to picture, re-EQing as I went along.

For the sea journey to the Pole I went online initially and just got seascape sounds, but we dropped these after I went to Porto in December last year and I found myself recording a large sea at the end of a pier jutting out into the Atlantic ocean. The penny dropped, and as soon as I was in the studio again the following week we replaced the temporary sea for my new one. It was a stroke of luck again. My favourite found sounds used in the film are: BENCH, SILK THEATRE CURTAIN, ELECTRIC TOY HAMPSTER ( sound of the penguins) and MUSICAL SAW.

The Great White Silence
from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

KH: The archive recordings are particularly effective – especially the Madame Butterfly at the start of the voyage – what drew you to these specific recordings?

SFT: We knew Scott took a recording of this to the pole. Not this exact one but a similar recording. For the historical things I went online and searched for recording before 1911. We know he took banjo music too, hence the one we used in the film too. It’s all out of copyright. There were only ten entries on the list Briony found of records they took to the Pole. Once I knew Butterfly was on, it made a lot of sense since Scott was also leaving behind his wife and baby son.

KH: It was very nice to hear Chris Watson’s voice on the soundtrack – what made you include this?

SFT: He gave me the recording after we met in Newcastle. He casually asked me what I was doing, and I had just been asked the day before to score the film. So I told him, and he kindly said: ‘Well I’ve got exactly what you need.’ This was the very first piece of the jigsaw, and what a kind gesture too from Chris. He got the ball rolling in the most honest and wonderful way. What a way to begin the project. I was so excited I called Jane Giles who commissioned me and I told her. It was a wonderful beginning to an extraordinary journey.

I initially wanted to just have ‘the silence’ he recorded, but without Chris’s explanation as to what we were listening to, it would have made no sense whatsoever. I like the fact that he tells us where he is and what he’s recording. It’s a key moment for me.

The other silent part of the film we have is when the team reach the pole and realize they’ve been beaten. There’s a sad picture of them looking into camera, demoralized and beaten. For this silence I recorded the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month from the Cenotaph! This made sense to me too and it is like our own private honour for these explorers.

KH: The footage of Scott and his team ‘snuggling down’ in their sleeping bags is especially moving – was it particularly challenging to create music for that moment?

SFT: A difficult scene: long. It uses drifts I’ve processed from one of my favourite instruments which is ‘Leviathan’ from the reactor family. Also piano and four separate bass parts. The piano I made up in the studio. Very improvised to picture initially, then it’s eyes closed for emotion. For the second half of the film once they left camp for the final push into ‘the great white silence’ I started to record very long takes and re-EQ all the time to keep textures moving constantly.

KH: Are there any plans for a separate CD release of the soundtrack?

SFT: There’s a CD release on Soleilmoon in June. A double disc limited-edition with beautiful artwork made with care by Charles Powne.

KH: Simon Fisher Turner, thank you.


Keith Seatman said...

Absolutely haunting & moving stuff indeed. Have got to see the whole film when its released in June

the legendary dolly disco said...

Great article, thanks and amazing film - saw it yesterday. Profound effect.