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Simon Fisher Turner's Epic of Everest

Exclusive: Stream a track from the composer's mountain opus, featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti

All this month, we'll be bringing you a daily trip as inspired by our #Tripping issue theme of the new Dazed & Confused. Expect iconic journeys, sideways looks at out-there places, and articles that'll take you from the ocean depths to higher than God. Check back for daily updates on the first article for #trippingout, we take an aural journey to the top of the world. 

Simon Fisher Turner is deservedly infamous for his work composing soundtracks, from his work with Derek Jarman and for Jean Genet to the BFI re-release of the documentary of Captain Scott’s fatal exploration of the South Pole. Over the past year, he has been composing the music for the restored version of a film in a similar vein to the Scott saga: Epic of Everest, Captain John Noel’s original documentation of the expedition of Mallory and Irvine up the summit of Everest, and their subsequent deaths.

Initially considered a controversial, colonialist depiction of Tibetan custom, the real power of the film lies in the humbling tragedy of British failure, mirrored in the subtle interweaving of Tibetan and Nepalese sounds plaited throughout a powerfully minimal collage of music. A step away from Turner’s medleys of archive and found sound, the music collaborates with iconic figures like Cosey Fanni Tutti and Asaf Sirkis alongside a Nepalese Thapa family to create an original soundtrack which stands as a beautiful testament to a complex narrative of 20s masculinity, bravery and tragedy.

DD: I know that you’ve been working with sound recordings for a long time… how did you start?

Simon Fisher Turner: It was Derek Jarman, really… even before we did Caravaggio. He did a collection of Super 8 films called Sloane Square: A Room of One’s Own, about the final life of his apartment. He lived above the tube station in Sloane Square and he was moving out of his flat and so he documented the apartment and then had a party and destroyed it. He asked me to do the music for that, so I did it on a 4-track tape recorder with radios and bits of sound… This is in the days of cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tapes. I’ve always been interested in collaging real songs and using sound source as a beginning for as a piece.

DD: You moved away from artifact recordings in Epic of Everest to produce an almost entirely original soundtrack: how did you decide who to collaborate with?

Simon Fisher Turner: I tend to sort of get things in my mind and then think, ‘what would I love to hear?’ So, I pulled up a wishlist and I asked around and then, about 6 months into it, I changed my mind completely and decided to throw everything out. It just wasn’t working, so I decided to compose music instead of making music from sounds and artifacts like I did with the Captain Scott film. And I was just working one day and I thought, ‘what about Cosey, of course!’ I remembered from the Throbbing Gristle days that she plays this beautiful cornet and so I got holdof her and she replied and was very sweet.Then I met a Nepalese family, this guy called Madan and his daughter Ruby, and went round to their house and he’d play beautiful little Nepalese instruments sitting on the sofa, watching it, and I’d record. It was very gentle, back to the old intuition and ‘can you come round and have a little bit of a play?’

DD: The soundtrack could have ended up a colonialist disaster, how did you work around that history?

Simon Fisher Turner: We have to remember that when the film was initially released, it did provoke an outcry in certain circles... it was a little controversial; there was trouble brewing between the embassies. I immersed myself in the whole history of it because that’s the only way to attack it: you can’t look at it frivolously. I  talked to climbers, joined the Alpine Club… I didn’t want to end up sounding like a cod trying to be a Nepalese composer. And I really didn’t want to make it sounds like a Tibetan tourist film or a yoga thing. Mountains for me mean brass, alpine horns and longhorns, but I’d never really done that before. So, I went to the local plumbers and asked for 6 feet of copper piping. One of the ideas I had was to do what we did in the film and then go and play it live in the studio with the musicians and then I realised, ‘hold on a minute, we’ve done this so carefully, why am I gonna go and bowl over it?’ So… I didn’t. It evolved slowly!

DD: There is a lot of similarity between the narratives for the Everest soundtrack and The Sound of Silence, and the record itself stands alone beautifully – how did that differentiation develop in the music?

Simon Fisher Turner: The stories are both the same sort of shape: they’re both about failure and heroism within a certain time although, funnily enough, this was a very different experience. This is so much more musical in a sense and to a certain extent less was more… I wanted to give the audience the time to give the film their inner soundscape. I nearly thought, ‘I’ve got to get some poetry and have Cosey sing it’, because Mallory took up a book of it with him that he used to read quite obsessively – that could have opened a way I could have got into the film as well. But someone said to me, ‘as long as you’ve thought about the sounds going into the film, even if they’re not directly there, they’re reflected’ and that’s exactly what happened. What’s really interesting is what happened before the expedition, the First World War, that’s where all the bravery and foolishness came from: the trenches. There’s a wonderful author called Wade David who was really helpful and spoke to me a lot, he just wrote a massive tome called the Into the Silence. He explained to me why they did these things, why these men went up mountains. They had been to hell already, the foot of a mountain was nothing compared to being mowed down by machine guns and I think that bravery is seriously what it’s all about. 

Simon Fisher Turner's score for The Epic Of Everest is released on Mute on 21 October. The BFI National Archive’s restoration of The Epic of Everest (1924, dir. Captain John Noel) premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on 18 October, tickets on sale from 20 September.