In the summer of 1924, two British explorers endeavoured to make history by reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made three attempts to climb the top, but during the third they disappeared without a trace. Although Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, no one really knows if the men ever made it to the peak.
With them on the trip were a number of Tibetans, Sherpas and British mountaineers, including one, Captain John Noel, who brought with him a hand-cranked camera to film the expedition, bringing back images of a world never before glimpsed by British audiences. Noel’s footage has recently been restored by the British Film Insitute to present a fresh version of his original film, The Epic of Everest. Looking for a composer to provide a soundtrack for the silent reels, the BFI turned to a previous collaborator, British musician Simon Fisher Turner, who had already created music for the BFI’s restoration of a similar film documenting Captain Scott’s fatal exploration of the South Pole, The Great White Silence.
Fisher Turner, who made his name as a teenage actor in the early ’70s before embarking on a solo musical career and scoring numerous films for the likes of Derek Jarman and Mike Hodges, has turned in 90 minutes of eerie and fascinating music that deftly knits the natural with the synthetic, weaving bright bells and horns between ethereal synth flutters and droning EBow guitar. The hired hands who contributed to the soundtrack include former Throbbing Gristle musician Cosey Fanni Tutti, James Brooks of Land Observations, Andrew Blick of Gyratory System, cellist Peter Gregson and Nepalese father and daughter Madan and Ruby Thapa.
Seven of the musicians, including Fisher Turner, will perform the soundtrack live at the premiere of The Epic of Everest on October 18 in London. Tickets for that event are sold out, but the film will be released to cinemas nationwide and on DVD on the same day, and further performances are promised in the new year. The soundtrack will also be available on CD and vinyl that day via Mute Records, and you can pre-order signed copies here.
FACT spoke to Fisher Turner to find out more about composing for silent films, recording bells in the bathroom and working with dead directors.
The Epic of Everest could be seen as a sequel of sorts to The Great White Silence, which the BFI restored in 2011 and for which you composed the soundtrack. What appealed to you about both of these stories?
Well, I’m 58 and I kind of knew them, if you know what I mean – when I was a kid at school, I knew about Captain Scott and I also knew about Mallory and Irvine, although not as clearly. And silent film is appealing for any composer. It’s a fairly daunting task initially, because you say, yes, I’d love to do it! And then you realise that it’s 90 minutes long and it really is silent – 90 minutes is two albums, a double album, and it’s also a concept album, so you’ve got to really watch your step.
Were you able to see the restored version of the film before you started composing and recording?
I saw a very wonky, very hairy version, it was dirty and quite unfocused, like getting a rough mix of a track, or getting a demo.
What did you think when you first saw it?
Horror. But although Mallory and Irvine are the main characters, and we concentrate on them because they were the people who perished, actually the other climbers are equally important, and the whole support team, the Tibetans, the Sherpas – there’s a massive amount of stories behind this one story.
The footage was filmed by Captain John Noel, who accompanied Mallory and Irvine on the expedition. He died in 1989. What are the difficulties of working without a director?
I love it! Having said that, I could really do with working on a film with a director who actually is alive. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and some of them want to do it themselves, some of them leave it up to you, some of them want to come halfway with a collaboration. But I was very happy to work with a dead director this time because it actually freed me up enormously, and I decided to do a lot of music as opposed to soundscape-y music. I was trying to escape the archaeology of sound, which is something I’ve dealt with before. I became more musical and leapt off in a different direction.
How did you go about picking the instruments you wanted to use?
I phoned up the Nepalese Embassy. You’ve got to start at the Embassy, it’s the only place to start! They put me straight onto a family from Nepal, from Kathmandu, and once I’d found them I was away. I didn’t want that much traditional music – it’s not a tourist film. It’s almost an invasion film really. It’s the end of the British colonial period and it’s our last peak, you know – Captain Scott’s died, we’ve got to do something else, I know what we’ll do, we’ll go up!
I’ve got a lot electronic stuff, synths and soft synths, programs on the computer, and I don’t use them a lot. So with this one I discovered a few really important pieces of software which I started using. And also, you think of mountains, you think of Tibet, you think of the Alps – what comes into your mind? Horns! So I thought I’d really love to do this with French horns. You get lovely sounds of synth horns and stuff that sounds horn-y, as it were, and brassy. And if you listen to traditional Tibetan music there’s a lot of bashing going on, lots of percussion.
I’m not trying to copy anything, there’s nothing which is copied at all really. Madan [the father of the Nepalese family] played a hand drum and a stringed instrument, and the rest is samples, hitting things, lots of made-up sounds which just sounded okay, you know?
And one associates Tibet and Nepal with gongs and bells and chimes, so I got my kids to get some cup gongs and some bells and we recorded them maybe three or four times. We’d do long takes of 20 minutes, in a church in Gloucestershire for instance, in the flat in London, in the bathroom, just recording kids playing and listening and trying to be very still. Then I took bits from there and collaged them together, so it’s actually a very homemade process, a bit like the expedition itself – it’s a bit wonky, really.
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You’ve always had an interest in pre-modern and non-Western instruments, haven’t you?
Well, I like a combination of real instruments and electronic instruments, and I love people who are really beautiful at playing their chosen instrument, it doesn’t matter if it’s a triangle, even. I actually can’t play the triangle terribly well, but you get a percussionist who plays the triangle or maracas really well and you realise how difficult it is to stand at the side of an orchestra and go bing! at the right time. I chose in the end to work with really specific musicians and I knew exactly how they sounded.
Who were the other musicians involved in the project?
There’s Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle, she plays the cornet and she has a very, very distinct sound. There’s a young man called Andrew Blick, he has a band called Gyratory System who are very interesting, and there’s James Brooks who has a band called Land Observations, and he’s on Mute Records as well. Believe it or not, he plays guitar on the records, he plays EBow guitars.
What’s great about James’ playing is that it’s the complete opposite of any other sound on the record, it’s very dry, very in-your-face, and it sounds really powerful. Because I play guitar I normally wouldn’t dream of getting in anybody who can play guitar, but actually I can’t play EBow guitars like James. And he used a sort of Cage-y concept while doing this, he gave me a variety of things to fiddle with. It was an odd choice, but it actually was a really good choice.
Then there’s Peter Gregson, who’s a cello player I’ve known for a few years, and he can play ordinary cello or not-ordinary cello. So we tried both and he came round to the flat and just played, and I sat at the kitchen table with a tape recorder. I just ripped him to pieces really, put him here, there and everywhere, sampled him. It was all made on the kitchen table.
Were you wary of how to score such a tragic ending? The average Hollywood score might tend to lay it on thick with the weepy strings, but how did you approach it?
Well, with Scott’s film [The Great White Silence] we went to silence because he’d died, and we finished that film with a solo voice singing something from Scott’s memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. There was also a memorial service for Mallory and Irvine at St Paul’s, but I didn’t bother going down that route again because I’ve been there before. So when Mallory and Irvine disappear off the mountain, that’s the only time you really hear bells in the film.
But then you see mountaineers and you see the rest of the team returning from the summit. They’re obviously extremely upset and depressed, but we had to give it hope in the end, so in fact we did a strange, hopeful piece of music, which actually is rather uplifting as opposed to depressing and cheesy. The instrumentation of the last piece is unusual for a film about Tibet – it’s a combination of all sorts of things, but it’s a gentle, very quiet, ballad. But it’s not strings, we didn’t use strings in the film at all.
And of course there is a sense of hopefulness about the ending – it’s possible that they did make it to the top, and they were still heroes in a sense.
The way the film is, they go off on their own and they’re spotted near the summit, and then you don’t see them again, so that was our climax. They were being watched from a couple of miles away with binoculars and everybody could see them go up, and then clouds came over and a storm appeared and a few hours later the storm abated and they’d gone. People went up to find their last tent and there was no sign of them, so obviously something had happened. I love to think that they made it, I must admit.
Ironically enough, years ago when I was a bad actor, a BBC cameraman called Mick left the kids’ series I was working on at the time to go and join Chris Bonington’s team who were climbing Everest. Mick was the guy who went up before Chris to do filming, and Mick never came back again either, which is desperately sad. I was talking to Chris Bonington about it because I wanted to get him involved in the film, and I wanted his blessing in a way.
One of my first ideas for the film was to record breath from people who’d summited the mountain, and Chris was pretty obvious because of this connection, so I got hold of him and told him this story, but we never did it. But there are a lot of ideas which aren’t in the soundtrack at all, although the ideas are there, so it’s a lot deeper than it might appear.
You’re going to be performing the soundtrack live at a screening in London this month. So you’ll be conducting the musicians?
Well, when they say ‘conducting’ I think they mean ‘eyebrow raising’ – when you see bands on stage and they look at each other, that’s conducting. I won’t be there with a baton. When we do this live it’s really all about thinking, not so much about playing. It’s about embellishing and trying to create an atmosphere – we’re not all there being musos playing for 90 minutes.
It’s really all about being sensitive, because we’ve got seven musicians doing it and that’s a big band, so you don’t all want to play at the same time and you’ve got to be terribly careful, because you can overplay. I’ve been in a band with three people and there’s at least one person too many, so I’m well aware of overspill. I think people play too much because they’re nervous – they don’t know what to play so they play everything, which is a mistake.
Cosey, James, Andrew, everybody who played in the film will be there, apart from the percussionist, Asaf [Sirkis]. He’ll be there on tape. In the next year we’ll play it around festivals and things like that and see how it moves along, see how it changes. I can get very possessive about things like this and very set in my ideas, but I learned so much from doing The Great White Silence and playing it live, I’ve just decided to be less possessive about it.