In the mix: The Great White Silence

Still from The Great White Silence: Terra Nova
Still from The Great White Silence
By Frances Morgan

Just before the First World War, Captain Robert Falcon Scott led a team of explorers to Antarctica, hoping to plant the British flag at the South Pole. The story of the doomed expedition is well-known, as are the iconic photographs taken by Herbert Ponting of the explorers amid the vast, sublime landscapes of the Antarctic.

Ponting also shot moving film, however, combining stark footage of ice and water with day-to-day documentation of his colleagues, wildlife studies, and dramatised scenes of the expedition. His film, The Great White Silence, was completed in 1924. In 2010 The Great White Silence was restored by the BFI National Archive, and screened at the London Film Festival with a live soundtrack from composer Simon Fisher Turner and the Elysian Quartet. The live performance formed the basis of a new soundtrack that can be heard on the DVD of the film, enhancing the atmospheric, collage-like visuals with crackling gramophoness, glacial electronic tones, sparse strings and ambiguous, atmospheric sound treatments.

Simon Fisher Turner’s extensive and often experimental work with film includes a long collaboration with Derek Jarman, with whom he worked on The Last of England, Blue, and Caravaggio, and Michael Almereyda’s vampire film, Nadja. Creating the sound of The Great White Silence had its own quite specific challenges, as he explains below.

 

Was this a difficult project to do? It’s unlike anything you’ve worked on before.

Simon Fisher Turner: A few years ago I did a live score for a silent film but I’d never done anything quite like this. It was pretty daunting. I actually said yes without having really seen the film.

It was a bit of a shock – it seems to be quite a few films bundled together into one package, which, as it turns out, is exactly what it is. It’s strange: it’s fact, it’s fiction – it’s all fact but they recreated bits and bobs – and there’s the natural footage of the penguins, whales and seals, then there’s the documentary footage itself, and then there’s the recreations of the journeys into the white silence when they [Scott’s party] left their final camp and headed to the South Pole and it becomes a different thing altogether.

What was your starting point – what was the first thing you did?

I phoned up David Coulter, who’s a very versatile musician, and he came round and played the saw at the kitchen table and I recorded him. Then Chris Watson said that there was a recording he’d made in Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans – he’d been there at the beginning of the year with David Attenborough – and he gave me recording of the silence, and that was the beginning, really. I thought, I can’t really go wrong because I’ve got that.

When the silence is played in the film, you hear Chris’s voice introducing it. Why did you include his voice? Did you feel it was important for people to know what they were hearing?

I didn’t think that in the beginning. I was very keen for it to go completely silent and then to have the recording. But the more I thought about it and then in context with the music, it seemed madness just to cut to silence, because the only place the silence could go is where you saw the picture of Captain Scott sitting at his desk, and if I just cut to it with no explanation you wouldn’t have known what it was. It’s such a pivotal and important piece of recording, really – like a recording of Armstrong getting onto the moon, it’s one of those moments. We tried without it and tried it with it, and thought, absolutely, we’ve got to use it, because then we really know where we are and what’s happening.

It puts you back in the present day somehow, and throughout the film you get these shifts in time, with some old archive recordings and also some very new sounding music.

The idea of the archive [sound] was just to give one a sense of what they took, because they did take recordings to the South Pole. They took two player-pianos and two gramophones, and we have a record of at least ten records they took, and so I knew roughly the sort of thing they were listening to. They were listening to some opera [including Puccini’s Madama Butterfly], and some banjo music from New Orleans. I tried to track that down and couldn’t find the original recording but I got as near as I could, going back to a year before they set sail.

The score came from doing the live concert last year at the London Film Festival. We did a world premiere of the film in a live setting for string quartet and a singer, and the structure of the soundtrack for the film was made originally from the concert, then transferred to a more accurate version for the film. We worked quite hard in the studio to make things up as we went along, seeing what worked and what didn’t, because there were masses of gaps where we didn’t know what to do. That’s the nature of how I like to work, anyway, and it’s the nature of how film composers make up music for films: they sit in front of a film and they try ideas out. For this, we didn’t have bundles of time, but what we did have the advantage of, and I know this sounds cruel, was that there was no one telling us what to do. The director was long gone…so it was actually really enjoyable because we could do exactly what we wanted and we could experiment, and also we could be very accurate.

You’ve talked about using Foley sounds and how, for example, you used a recording from Japan of some curtains for the Arctic wind. I thought that was a nice parallel with the visual material, the way that Ponting would reconstruct footage or even, in some still photos, he would draw a little person to show scale.

That’s exactly true. The way we made the music is pretty much the way Ponting edited his final version of the film. We only realised it afterwards but actually we’d taken very much the same method he had.

Do you collect sounds for use in the future?

I tend to record specifically, and then something is used or isn’t used…for instance there’s an iceberg sound that was recorded for a film a few years ago but it didn’t have a place in that film in the end and it turned out to be perfect [for The Great White Silence]. I used to be a mad recording freak – friends used to warn each other, be careful because Simon’s likely to be recording us! I do record stuff now, but not constantly. I tend to record much more abroad – I feel that I’m quite familiar with the sounds around me in England, in London. The curtain from Japan was perfect because it was very windlike, and we were able to manipulate it on a Mac and change it and play it on a keyboard.

In the last section of the film there are very long takes so you can keep EQ-ing stuff, [using] really long live passes, eight- or nine-minute long live passes, layering things up, constantly moving and changing the EQ so that it’s like you’re in a landscape which sonically is moving all the time. That was something I’d never tried before because I’d never had the opportunity. And at the end of the film we would have three different Moogs and EQ them differently and have them on different octaves…It was easy to get lost sometimes. One thing about the end of the film is that there’s no reference to the beginning, so you can’t tell what volume anything is at: when we first did it, we completely overloaded everything and we had to remix it three times because it was too messy and too big and we’d gone well over the top! We had to go back and keep making the volume better, because when you’ve got a silent film what does loud mean, when you get to the end of a film compared to the beginning of the film? We had a few frightening test screenings, sitting in front of the speakers in the theatre – I was getting a headache from the volume.

Still from 'The Great White Silence'

I had imagined that the film would mostly be of the expedition and the landscape, but there’s tons of animal footage. I was interested in the way you scored that because often with animal footage, say on wildlife programmes, the music is really anthropomorphic – like Ponting’s captions, which give them human characteristics…

Yes, the music tends to be too emotional, and dramatises the action of the animal, which is ridiculous, I think. If I’m going to watch a nature film, I just want nothing; I don’t want the dramatic music behind it. So with the animal music it was difficult: what do you do when you’ve got eight and a half minutes of seals trying to get in and out of the ice? With the seals we tried all sorts of things, and it was a real problem. We were puzzled. But there’s some software on the Mac I use called Forester, which is made by Leafcutter John. You put in sounds and you can either let it be random or you can play it, and it’s really handy for films. It makes rhythms and loops and all sorts of things, and is a good jumping-off point. We used it two or three times in the film; it’s a lovely way of making music because it’s such a fantastic piece of software.

We were tossing references all around from making the soundtrack so it all relates – the sounds, for example, that we put in for the seals actually are bits of the vocal from the end of the film, from Alexander [L’Estrange’s]’s singing voice doing ‘Abide With Me’. It’s made with tiny fragments of it.

Obviously ‘Abide With Me’ was a popular hymn at the time and also it was sung at the memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral after the expedition –

Yes, and also they took a recording of it to the South Pole. We found that out through digging around in the archives and St Paul’s Cathedral sending us the memorial service schedule from 1914.

Its use in the film is very moving.

It’s sad but I don’t think it overdoes it. It was an idea that worked, thankfully, and it seemed natural to do it; it wasn’t as though we thought, let’s be really emotional, let’s make it terribly sad – it’s a fact, it’s one of those things from the film where we could say, well, this is what they were listening to, and this is what happened at the memorial service as well. When Alexander did it live it was wonderful. It was very poignant.

Herbert Ponting

The Great White Silence recently won the award for Best Archival Restoration Title at the Focal International Awards 2011. It is out now in a Dual Format Edition (DVD & Blu-ray discs in one box) and available from all usual outlets and the BFI Filmstore.

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