Review: Dead Rat Orchestra’s Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North, a depiction of an Inuit family’s life in the Canadian Arctic, is widely considered the first feature-length documentary film. Prospector-cum-filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty had caught Inuits on camera previously but been unhappy with the outcome; Nanook of the North grew from the filmmaker’s belief that if he were to take a ‘single character and typify the Eskimos’ then the result would be more worthwhile. The chosen individual was Nanook, or ‘The Bear’. Flaherty’s respect for the Inuits, coupled with the reductionist approach he favoured, led to Nanook being held up as a romanticised ideal of his culture, a great man whose daily life consisted of hunting polar bears with only a harpoon to hand and expertly navigating ice fields.

Nanook of the North
A still from Nanook of the North. Public domain

Coupled with this admiration, though, an underlying condescension is present throughout Flaherty’s film, with the Inuits being depicted as innocent and naïve. In one early scene, Nanook is shown a gramophone – ‘how the white man “cans” his voice’, as Flaherty’s intertitles explain – and he bewilderedly searches for the source of the sound. In Stanley Silverman’s original scoring of the film, chirpy violins paint the Inuits in a childlike light by emphasising the humour of their actions. Nanook of the North is in this sense guilty of presenting an image of primitivism that masks the reality of Inuit modernity, in which rifles were used for hunting, while gramophones were known and understood.

Saturday 9th May saw the accompaniment of Nanook of the North by nu-folk trio Dead Rat Orchestra, performing a quasi-improvised soundtrack at Oxford’s North Wall Centre, an event co-promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music. The group’s score was replete with string harmonics, whistling woodwinds, resonant chimes, and ambient drones: common yet powerful signifiers of harsh, icy landscapes. While these sonic characteristics imitate the natural sounds of wind, snow, and howling huskies, though, they do not mirror them. They pass them through a filter of Western musical expectations, and Western contemporary electronica at that. Dead Rat Orchestra, aware of this culturally informed construction of space, consciously decided to avoid incorporating Inuit music into their score. To attempt to replicate the indigenous musical forms and fall short, DRO’s Dan Merrill explained, would be to do them an injustice.

The film is divided into sections that follow Nanook and his fellow Inuits trading, hunting, building igloos, fishing, kayaking, and getting ready for bed. Dead Rat Orchestra did a remarkable job of ensuring that the soundtrack never felt too monotonous or stagnant, using each new section to experiment with a new instrumental permutation. In one segment, a solo banjo accompanied Nanook setting off alone on the water; in another, scratchy double stops on the fiddle represented the cry of a harpooned walrus. The music of the final scene, in which the trio sang Nanook’s family to sleep with a wordless lullaby, their instruments set to one side, felt an appropriate manner in which to draw proceedings to a close.

Many of the musical decisions were driven by the band members’ personal responses to the film: the hand-clapping percussion of the igloo building scene approximated applause, for example, recalling the group’s excitable reaction when first viewing the film. Other aspects were a result of research, undertaken over the course of a decade, into the background of the film and its director. One scene of Nanook in the North, for example, switches between shots of the Inuits and their dogs eating, and has been criticised for seeming to draw parallels between the two. Dead Rat Orchestra here symbolised the noisy feasting of the dogs musically with the clacking of a camera, forming – as the group were keen to note – a metareading referencing Flaherty’s power as the film’s director, cinematographer, and editor to infer meaning by framing his images in a certain way.

A still from Nanook of the North
A still from Nanook of the North. Public domain

The screening was followed by a twenty-minute panel discussion, in which Dead Rat Orchestra were joined by Professor Marcus Banks (University of Oxford) and Dr Charlotte Gleghorn (University of Edinburgh), whose contributions, though brief, were highly insightful. Topics discussed included the staged nature of many of the film’s scenes, the challenging of cultural inscription, and Nanook of the North’s continued use as an education tool. Also addressed was the element of performance on Dead Rat Orchestra’s part, primarily their choice to play with their backs turned to the audience, engrossed in the film.

This decision seemed a sensible one, with a conscious effort made to deflect attention away from the act of musical performance and towards the film being shown, but it also obstructed view of the instruments used and the actions undertaken. While this might not be such an issue for most live film accompaniments, in which musicians’ invisibility is taken as a positive, many of the compositional choices made by the group – such as the aforementioned camera clicks – added a fascinating interpretative layer to the film. In preparation for future screenings, Dead Rat Orchestra might consider their roles as performers, and how they might make their perceptive observations more evident, either audibly or visibly, to audience members. By emphasising these elements, which would have gone unnoticed were it not for the enlightening panel discussion, Dead Rat Orchestra would complement their excellent musical score with a similarly astute, recognisable commentary.

J. Wadsworth

You can view Nanook of the North in its entirety, albeit without Dead Rat Orchestra’s score, here:

Dead Rat Orchestra will be on tour over the course of the next two months, performing a live soundtrack to James Holcombe’s Tyburnia, a film documenting six centuries of public execution. You can find more details about the events here. The Oxford screening will take place on July 3rd at Modern Art Oxford.

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