The dan­ger­ous al­lure of moun­tains has drawn mu­sic and film to­gether in a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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