The dangerous allure of mountains has drawn music and film together in a powerful combination, writes Matthew Westwood
The opening scene of Jennifer Peedom’s film Mountain is as astonishing as anything you may see in a Marvel Comics adventure. A lone climber, gripping by his fingernails, his foot searching for the smallest ledge, stands flat against a sheer cliff hundreds of metres above the ground.
He could be Spider-Man but this is a real-life climber, American adventurer Alex Honnold. A wide-screen shot shows the immensity of the scene: Honnold in his red T-shirt and the implacable rock face, 450m of Mexican limestone called El Sendero Luminoso. He flashes a grin, the camera sweeps down to show the ground far below, and the viewer’s stomach lurches into their throat.
Honnold is a free-solo climber, which must be one of the most dangerous sports invented. It’s just man and mountain: no ropes or harnesses, let alone CGI film trickery. Indeed, the only strings present are those of the nervy tremolo violins, playing Richard Tognetti’s music in the accompanying score.
Mountain is the latest filmmaking venture from Tognetti’s intrepid Australian Chamber Orchestra, this time with Australian director Peedom and US cinematographer Renan Ozturk. The documentary is a kind of cinematic essay about the might and majesty of mountains, and mankind’s often courageous but ultimately futile attempts to conquer them. The narrative text is by the British author of Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane, and read by Willem Dafoe. The ACO provides the soundtrack — performed live at the film’s Sydney Opera House premiere last month and to be repeated on a national concert tour that starts on Thursday.
Perhaps “soundtrack” is inadequate to describe the orchestra’s contribution, which is no less thrilling or sublime than the vision on screen. It includes original compositions by Tognetti — the violinist and artistic director has written about half of the listed musical numbers — as well as repertoire pieces that summon the sublime, from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto to the “holy minimalism” of Estonian composer Arvo Part.
Choosing the music was a painstaking process, and not all of Tognetti’s early ideas made the final cut. Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony was deemed too sugary — a meringue as big as the Matterhorn. What about the European avant-garde? Tognetti heard the “psychic terror” but the music missed the beauty and wonder of mountains Peedom was looking for.
“At this point we realised that we were looking at mountains in a different way,” Tognetti says, in a conversation with Peedom at the ACO’s Sydney studio. “I love skiing, love it, but I have no aspiration to ascend slowly on rock faces. We were trying all this music, going, Sherpa ‘Wow that’s epic, that’s terrifying,’ but when I played it to Jen, she didn’t get it at all.”
Peedom, a former musician who grew up playing the violin, has a long association with mountains. She is the director of the BAFTAnominated documentary Sherpa, about the indigenous people of the Himalayas, the tensions between them and the foreign climbers they assist, and the 2014 avalanche that killed 16 of the guides.
Although Peedom says her climbing activity these days is limited to clambering with her children over the rocks at pretty Gordons Bay in Sydney, she was once an experienced mountaineer and high-altitude camera operator. She discovered she was able to function efficiently at high altitude — she has climbed to 8400m, 400m below the Everest summit — and believes she may have what’s called the “altitude gene”.
“What the Sherpas have is a particular genetic disposition that makes them able to process more efficiently the (low level of) oxygen, and it is sometimes found in other members of the population,” Peedom says. “It’s all a sliding scale — I still feel terrible at altitude, everybody does, including the Sherpas. But I can work more efficiently than some other people.”
High-altitude cinematography is a specialised skill, as camera operators have to work and survive in extreme conditions. When she was preparing to make Sherpa, Peedom came across Ozturk: not only an accomplished climber but also an experienced filmmaker. He has tested for manufacturers the top-end equipment that is used in high-altitude filmmaking, such as the tiny GoPro cameras that can be mounted on helmets and a camera stabiliser called MoVi that was used in Sherpa.
“Renan is on the cutting edge of all the technology that mainstream filmmaking then ends up adopting,” Peedom says. “He is a North Face-sponsored athlete, he is one of the best climbers in the world. He just also happens to have an amazing eye.”
What’s not seen in Mountain’s opening footage of Honnold is the camera operator: that’s Ozturk. He was with Honnold on the rock face in Mexico, although he used ropes. Peedom says Ozturk can be seen in other footage from the climb that may be used in an IMAX version of Mountain.
“You see Renan literally swinging off a rope, jumping over Alex, who is just holding on — no ropes at all,” she says. “He puts a fixed rope above, and then abseils down to get the angles he needs. They also use drones for the aerial shots.”
While Peedom shot original footage for Mountain in Hokkaido, Japan, logistics and costs meant she had to rely on existing footage previously shot by Ozturk and others. There is magnificent scenery of mountain ranges from
The ACO’s Richard Tognetti with filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, above; Peedom during the making of her documentary