Mountain - a review

Last night I took myself to see the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s (ACO) performance, Mountain, which I’d been looking forward to for months. I'm no expert on classical music. I still learning about the histories, personalities and bodies of work of various composers, but what I do know is that I love listening to this genre of music. Even more, I love attending the performances. Every time, I'm still surprised by those first notes as they float across the room - how is it possible that people are making something so beautiful?! Over the last few years, I've become fascinated by classical compositions about nature. About how it is possible to reflect nature and wildlife in music in a way that is recognizable, musically, literally and emotionally. This interest emerges from my research about surfing, but it's also in no small part a reaction to previous ACO performances and programmes. 

Following the success and acclaim of their collaborations with film-maker Mick Sowry and surfer Derek Hynd to make Musica Surfica and The ReefMountain marks another foray into human experiences of nature, and of how we, individually and collectively, are extended through challenge, risk, failure and awe. In the previous collaborations, surfing, the sea and waves took centre stage, with the project including immersive trips for all participants in two remote Australian surfing places. Musica Surfica was set in the southern island, King Island (SA), while The Reef explored notorious west coast desert break, Gnarloo (WA). In each place, the challenge of the wave was further ramped up by taking the control from the surfboards. Finless surfing on such waves is still new territory in contemporary cultural terms, if not historical; Hawaiians have been doing so for many, many years. Despite the similar formulas and the shared focus on surfing, place and style, each film asked different questions. Muscia Surfica explored what happens when those who are masters of their craft – surfing and music – remove a key component that shapes how they are able to control, to steer, to know their directions? For Derek Hynd, this was the removal of the fins from his board, while for Richard Tognetti – Director of the ACO – this was the shift away from the traditions and cultures of chamber orchestras. The performance of classical music alongside surfing explored these ideas, with a memorable and educational performance of Nicolo Paganini's Caprice No. 5 by Tognetti, standing in a dis-used dairy, playing such complex music to many people who had never before seen or been interested in classical music, let alone performances. A strange vulnerability cut through Togenetti’s own confidence, giving the performance a liveliness and accessibility it might not otherwise usually present. The Reef extended these ideas into a heavier, more unforgiving place of red sand, sharp rocks and dangerous waves. This film and performance was less about the relationships people have with themselves and their craft (surfing and music), and was more focused on bodies moving in a place. As well as the surfing – featuring a much younger, more cutting edge cast – I recall the focus on surfaces. Scenes lingered on water, sand, scrub, flies, and human detritus, as well as on things just beneath the surface: bubbles, rocks, bodies, sharks. I only saw Musica Surfica as a film, but I was lucky enough to see The Reef performed in 2013, something I’ve thought about often. I've posted the trailers below, but you can buy the films: Musica Surfica is here, and here is The Reef.

Mountain follows this tradition of exploration. While it (and the previous films) could be read as action or extreme sports films (and they certainly fit that genre), the lingering, intimate focus on these often harsh, always beautiful places makes them so much more. In Mountain, people are like extras to the place, their presence, and their attempts at conquer so small against the timeless backdrop. While water is always moving and changing, mountains offer different challenges and require different responses. And yet it had echoes – a phrase sung by Danny Spooner in Musica Surfica makes an appearance in Sublime, which immediately took me back to King Island, and placed this performance within what is perhaps a particular genre in the ACO’s repertoire.
As a performance, Mountain has three key components – the orchestra and music, the footage and the narration – and four key players. Richard Tognetti is Artistic Director of the ACO, responsible for driving the direction of this celebrated ensemble, He composed much of the score, and is the lead violin, so while his voice is silent, his contribution and presence shape the entire event. Jennifer Peedom is the Director of the film. Peedom delivers a narrative of human engagement with various aspects of mountains – from standing in wonder and terror, to taking them on as a challenge – climbing, skiing, jumping, walking, and playing amongst and between them. People facing sheer walls of rock and snow and ice, and facing them as an adventure. Renan Ozturk’s cinematography is breath-taking, and I can’t imagine I will forget it anytime soon. His magically clear images linger on places and events, replicating the slowness of time associated with mountains, allowing us to get a real sense of the size and scope of the vistas we encounter. Even gentle and spare shots – a minutes long sequence of falling snow against a black sky – offer moments for reflection and rest, and remind us that there is softness to offset the rock and stone. Finally, Robert Macfarlane’s narrative (voiced by William Dafoe). Macfarlane is a British writer whose first book, Mountains of the Mind, won multiple awards. His love of wilderness is clear in his advocacy for the natural world, and his critique of contemporary human engagement with risk, such as his scathing observation of the commercialised consumption of an increasingly crowded Everest: “This is not climbing. This is queueing.”
The contributions of each of the collaborators weaves together beautifully, to offer a performance that left me floating out of the room, and wishing I could go straight back to watch it all over again. As always, the physicality of the ACO’s performance was mesmerising, the musicians lifting, swaying and moving with the music, their postures and stances adapting in response to the music. Musicians bodies always help me better understand the music, and, with him so prominent at the front, Tognetti’s movements offer insights into the messages of the scores, as well as what might be physically required to produce such music. Arvo Pärt’s buzzing and then rolling Fratres was played wide-stanced with bent knees, the notes seeming to flow through his feet and core, while Beethoven’s Larghetto was played while standing tall and with an arch to his back, as though the music descended from above, and action of his shoulders and fingers, more than the earthiness of his performance of Fratres. I can only imagine how exhilarating and exhausting performing at such a level and for such a length of time, must be.
The film takes you high amongst the mountain peaks, soaring through rocks and snow and clouds, watching from on high as time-lapse of rolling clouds flood valleys and softening the harsh terrain. The definition in the images is so clear, that it feels hyper-real, the way that being amongst the mountain tops can be – the kind of clarity that comes with removing ourselves from the mundane every day. Mountain plays on this exact point; the specular, sublime nature of being amongst mountains, of ascending to places where the line between death and life shimmers with uncertainty, places not meant for people. Indeed, it is the relationships of humans with mountains that is the key narrative of the film: Risk, danger, arrogance, humility, wonder, awe and a sense of the fleetingness of human existence in comparison to the age evoked by rocky and icy peaks. How do we make sense of such enormous ideas, seemingly insurmountable challenges, and such breath-taking vistas? How is it possible to think in such terms, and to consider that we are able to find a place for ourselves in all of this? It is the ways that humans make sense of such big ideas that is the core of the film. It offers no answers, instead inspiring the kind of awe in the natural world that seems so necessary in how we might successfully re-negotiate our relationship with the natural world in an era of human-produced climate change. It was difficult not to notice the whiteness of the snow reflected in the skin tone of the dominant number of participants. This is not to suggest Peedom and Macfarlance were unaware of this. They each actively commented on the colonial undertones in their own way – Peedom though her constant return to Nepalese people and culture, and Macfarlane in his critiques of Everest, and of the arrogance that drives people to take risks in climbing and other sports. But these were subtle, especially considering that audiences for classical music performances such as this remain, for many reasons, white, and middle class. The people in this film are so well kitted out in brightly coloured outdoor wear, so imbued with access to leisure time, so committed to seeking refuge from middle-class comforts though cultures of play and risk in the extremes of nature. As with Peedom and Macfarlane, this fact does not escape the attention of Tognetti and performances like this are meant to be an attempt to broaden who can access classical music, as well as shaking up the often elitist culture that surrounds chamber orchestras by taking the ACO to regional and rural towns and performing in venues more usual for local populations. Tognetti’s contribution to Musica Surfica played on his commitment to opening the classical music and the ACO up to more people, both in its production, as well as the way it was toured. It’s a remarkable and admirable approach. While Tognetti’s diverse programs make excellent steps in welcoming new audience members, the price and the still-intimidating nature of performances spaces reman barriers.
The musical programme was similarly lovely, offering a moving interpretation of the footage and words, that sometimes led me to think anew about behaviours and spaces. I’ve already looked it up and have been listening to it again as I write this review. You can listen to it here or, even better, contribute to the ACO by buying the soundtrack here.* The music soared and floated and reflected the beauty, terror and enormity of the film. I wish I could tell you more about the music, but all I know is that I was carried along on every note, my heart full to bursting with the magic of all the best of humanity – people made this music and people play it. In a world of climate change and war and poverty and cruelty, all of which is created by people, the arts is an incredibly powerful reminder that people can create beauty as well.
As an audience, the experience of Mountain is shaped by these three spaces – footage, music and narration. From my seat in the balcony, I had a lovely view of the orchestra playing, but it offered some challenges, as my attentions shifted between the footage and the music. The footage is compelling an immense – both in subject matter and as a presence – and it was easy to get lost in the images. This meant that the ACO often acted as soundtrack. In a film, a good soundtrack is often invisible in its presence – inciting emotion and adding to the story that is only understood afterwards. But considering this was a live performance, the role of the music and musicians is different. While it might have simply been a consequence of my elevated position (perhaps they were more framed by the film from below), the dominance of the visual left me feeling as though I missed much of the performance and backgrounded the music. But then, I kept thinking of stream of consciousness styles of writing, and how, as a reader, these often incite in me drifting thoughts as I move along with the flow of the words, often slipping into my own streams of thought. In particular, I was thinking of Virginia Woolf, and how the almost meditative nature of her compositions can take me several attempts to focus on. Perhaps instead of worrying about my own drifting attention, I should consider this a part of the style of performance – if only I could return to the performance again and again!

If you’ve not been, and you have the chance to go, I cannot recommend enough that you make the effort. You will be supporting the arts, but you will also be immersing yourself in an incredible and memorable experience.

*Note: Having moved house so often, CDs are a thing of my past. I now live digitally, but I’d buy this soundtrack if it was on iTunes.


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