2018 has been a great year for new scores to old films. We’ve already heard such music from Bronnt Industries Kapital and múm, and now Nanook of the North gets into the action with their reimagined score to the 1922 film of the same name. The documentary covers the life of the Eskimo, from igloo building to seal hunting. The earlier scorings were charming, lending levity to bleak conditions, creating a wall of disconnection between subject and viewer. Stefan Wesołowski and Piotr Kaliński (Hatti Vatti) seek to change all that.
At first, the drone and techno seem like impositions, until acclimation sets in. We’ve grown used to hearing these genres score the white wastelands on labels such as Glacial Movements, Archives and Faint. The opening track is already filled with menace, as well it should be. These are harsh conditions, survived only by the lucky and hardy. When the bottom drops out of the track, we hear the chant of the Eskimo, a throat-singing parallel to “Whistle While You Work”, albeit with a tinge of harshness.
The techno emerges in “Tulleq”, dark tones yielding a thickness like the ice sheet. The electronics extend the mood of hard work and furrowed brows. When a tribal pattern emerges, one thinks of families preparing their spears. And as this topples directly into “Pingajoq”, the piano deepens the drama, which reaches its greatest intensity in an unexpected sonic drop. This is music of deliberate uncertainty, wandering in the wilderness, where life and death are separated by a single decision.
In an effort to capture a sense of authenticity, Wesołowski and Kaliński traveled first to Iceland, and then to Greenland. These footsteps may be theirs. While they were never in any risk, they were able to imagine living in such conditions without the benefit of modern comforts. Even today, one may take a wrong turn in either nation, run out of gas, lose cellphone service and be in deep trouble. Would one be able to use one’s surroundings and limited tools in order to survive?
By “Arfernat”, the music is nearly industrial ~ propulsive and devoid of empathy. One imagines the repetitive tasks of carting ice blocks or sharpening steel blades. And then the wind arrives. This is the tipping point. Are the Eskimos ready? Will they live? By the eighth and longest track, the battle has arrived. It’s live or die, right now, no room for error.
Watching the images with the modern accompaniment, one gains a feeling of rightness. Nanook of the North honor the vision of Robert J. Flaherty and lend dignity to the lives of the family portrayed in the film. The new coat of paint is just what this classic film needed. (Richard Allen)