Music for film by Joke Olthaar
Rutger Zuydervelt / Hugo Dijkstal / Peter Hollo
1. BERG (album edit)
2. BERG (score sketch)
cd/dl/stream, May 2021
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This isn’t a regular ‘original film score’ album. After working on the sound design and music for Joke Olthaar’s slow-paced BERG film, Hugo Dijkstal and Rutger Zuydervelt (aka Machinefabriek) decided to re-arrange the sound into one long 30-minute piece. In the film, Hugo’s auditory magic is blended with Rutger’s minimalist drones to create an immersive bed for director Joke Olthaar and cinematographer André Scheuder’s striking black and white footage of the Slovenian Triglav mountain range. To best translate the experience into a sound-only piece, the duo decided to create a new aural adaptation of the film by editing the foley and score into a new longform composition. So despite the fact that you might not call this an ‘official’ soundtrack album, the meditative quality of the film is accurately preserved. ‘A movie for the ears’ might be a trite description, but it definitely applies to this audio journey.
The second track of the album is a different beast. Created in a much earlier stage of the BERG film, it was an attempt to create a soundtrack with guest Peter Hollo (Tangents, FourPlay String Quartet, raven) on cello. Peter and Rutger were in contact for years already, but this was their first time working together. Inspired by Joke Olthaar’s ideas about her film and what its music could embody, Peter recorded a few cello improvisations from his hometown in Australia. These recordings were re-edited and combined with Rutger’s electronics, into a half hour piece that served as a proposed base for the movie’s soundtrack. Compared to the first track on this album, BERG (score sketch) is a much more dynamic and (relatively) dramatic affair. Further in the working process of the film, it was decided that the music needed another direction – a more minimal approach was needed, an approach that was more about adding texture and very subtle colour, and blending seamlessly with Hugo Dijkstal’s mix of nature sounds. Luckily, the piece with Peter Hollo is preserved here on this album, because as a listening experience it’s a very welcome inclusion to this album.
Hugo Dijkstal and Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) spent a lot of time on the sound design and music for Joke Olthaar’s BERG film, but they then decided to rearrange the music, turning it into a longform, thirty-minute composition.
Cinematographer André Scheuder’s black and white footage of the Slovenian Triglav mountain range sits well with Zuydervelt’s cold, minimal drones. Differing from an original soundtrack (and freeing itself from the label of an official soundtrack), the music is allowed to have more of a say, with more freedom over its direction of travel. Because of this, the music isn’t inhibited by a specific scene from the film. However, the essence of the slow-burning film is kept alive and well-preserved.
Although it’s as cold as ice, the drone flows without end. Never at risk of becoming frozen or stuttering in any way due to a drop in temperature, the drone is somehow immune to the frosty degrees of the upper atmosphere as it keeps a steady pace, touching the tips of the mountain and passing over the range smoothly, the slim vapours of a cloud in motion. The dynamics pick up and transform the stable drone into a breathing element, alive and in the process of changing, adapting to its surroundings, going with the flow. This makes for an active rather than a passive sound. Its field recordings are 100% natural, and they’re made to feel unpredictable and susceptible to change, which only adds to the general flow. The elements are always in and influencing the piece, and overcast, bass-heavy harmonies come and go. It recalls something like Deep Frieze by Sleep Research Facility in its cold exploration of its environment, its expedition centred around the mountain range.
Coming at a much earlier stage in the film’s development, the second piece is a very different approach. Further into the film’s creation, it was decided that another direction, and a more minimal approach, was required, with an emphasis on texture and subtlety. With Peter Hollo on cello, who recorded some improvisations from his home in Australia, the piece went through a reedit. Placed beside Zuydervelt’s oscillating electronics, there’s more of a structure on display, and perhaps more of a human touch. It’s just as vital, though, and it shows the evolution of the work. The final version is much more minimal, containing nothing but the elements and a bitter, sub-zero wind. However, both are able to capture the atmosphere of the range.
A Closer Listen
Described as “an ode to the mountains,” director Joke Olthaar‘s BERG is an enchanting, patient film, shot in black and white to produce vistas of elegance. Such a film deserves a pristine score, and is graced with not one, but three: the one used in the film and a pair of alternate takes, presented for speculation. Which is better? Is there a “better?” Or might this trio of scores be indicators of a sonic multiverse?
The first score dances on glaciers of drone, while the second swims in the river of modern composition. Both are elaborate, slow to unfurl. The first piece, from Rutger Zuydervelt and sound designer Hugo Dijkstal, arises gently from silence, allowing field recordings to slip in, as quiet as the hooves of the mountain goat in the trailer. This alternate take is referred to as a translation, mood for mood rather than note for note. We feel the frozen expanse, along with its awesome beauty. The low, early drone reflects the seemingly never-ending vistas, frozen yet not devoid of life; local birds compare notes. Three hikers venture into the great unknown, but save for an initial conversation (found only in the film), they do not speak.
But then, yes, the wind advances. The territory may be lovely, but it hides its treachery in snow-covered crevasses. One hears subterranean rumbles along with what may be helicopter wings. A cold stream flows, threatening to become a tumult. But then, mercy; the danger subsides to reveal a consoling bass. There is still time to drink in the horizon. In the final third, the elements make themselves known in thunder, crackle and wind. We hope that the hikers have found safety; the film’s rescue footage comes from a different expedition. Eventually, the birds are closer, louder, the stream calmer: kind harbingers in a cold climate.
The second half of the disc includes the original score proposal, which Zuydervelt recorded with cellist Peter Hollo. Zuydervelt calls this “an outtake that’s too beautiful not to share” ~ we agree. Discarded does not mean disliked. This rare glimpse into the process of forming a film score is a precious artifact. The choice to move to something more subdued seems to fit the film, but once the film hits international distribution, listeners will be able to decide for themselves.
A breaking wave sets the stage for what will be a (slightly) more action-packed journey. The cello conveys its own narrative of struggle, leaving the ending wide open: surrender or survival, failure or success. Hollo bestows an additional layer of nobility on the hikers as they set out on the grand adventure.
But the cello also communicates melancholy, as may be felt when one encounters the vastness of a great terrain and reassesses one’s own importance. The Slovenian Triglav mountains do not care: they stand mute, existing generation after human generation. Zuydervelt’s electronics now become mountains of their own, casting shadow after cold shadow, creaking and surging, implying landslides and cracking ice. Even the bass is different, a low, intimidating thrum.
Percussion also appears for the first time, light taps atop sonic booms. The low end grows even lower. And now, the wind. Foreboding chords visit mid-piece; there is no time afforded to lower one’s guard. Do not lie down in the snow. Do not close your eyes. We’ve seen these movies before, but these are not this movie; instead, they are alternate timelines portraying how the fate of the hikers might have changed under worsening conditions. One must wait until the 22nd minute to reach a playful plateau, which comes as a relief after the elemental battle.
Strangely, although neither piece is the “actual” score, the album makes even more eager to see the film; we suspect Joke Olthaar is pleased at the path these three composers have taken, striking out into new territories, just like the trio of hikers in her own cinematic narrative.
Berg was originally conceived as a soundtrack for Joke Olthaar’s same-titled film: “A journey at high altitude seen through the eyes of three mysteriously connected hikers. The levels of concentration they exhibit in trying to avoid mistakes makes their experience of the overwhelming landscape even more intense.”
But what you hear on this album is not the same as the score for the movie: it is edited, re-arranged and reworked into two different long pieces – each over 30 minutes in length.
The first part is an ‘aural adaption’ of the film, created by Rutger ‘Machinefabriek’ Zuydervelt and Hugo Dijkstal. With the introduction of the cello performance by Peter Hollo, the second piece on the album is quite different in nature – it presents some more dramatic climaxes.
This second piece was originally proposed as the soundtrack for Olthaar’s film, but it is not used in this particular form because the film needed “a more minimal approach, an approach that was more about adding texture and very subtle color.”
So, ultimately, Berg is nót a ‘soundtrack’ album in the usual sense, but a work of aural art derived from the same source of inspiration.
I have not seen the film (it will have its premiere in June), and I definitely have no mountaineering experience, but this is an almost palpable experience of the awe as well as the stress of such a high altitude journey. The weather conditions can change from lovely to life-threatening within a few minutes. There’s always tension between watching the impressive panorama unfolding, while carefully avoiding a simple misstep on the path below your feet.
An impressive case of sonic mountaineering!