Nanook Blog

Over the next few weeks prior to the first performance of my new score, I will explore the issues and processes of working with Nanook of The North…

#1 Restorative Voicing

nylaAs part of this year’s Faclan Festival, guitarist and composer Mark Hewins and I will premiere a new score for Robert Flaherty’s classic silent film, Nanook of the North (1922).

Over the past few years,  I have engaged as a composer and pianist with a number of classic films from the silent era –Nosferatu, Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc – as well as lesser known movies by Dimitri Kirsanoff (including Brumes D’Automne and Menilmontant). Repeated live performances of these films has developed my experience of how audiences engage with and react to live music in cinema: live music as an interpretation of cinema. But nothing has prepared me for the unique experience of accompanying Nanook of the North, and the challenges it presents to us as composers and performers.

In the first place, it is a question of  deciding what this film actually is. Hailed as the first docu-drama upon its first release, it is clear that Nanook is a fantasia. (My understanding of that conflict – documentary, fantasy – is based in my reading of Flaherty’s own notes (Robert J. Flaherty, “How I Filmed Nanook of the North,” World’s Work, October 1922) as well as our knowledge of Inuit society in the early 20th century.) It’s a fantasia marketed as ‘real life’ to its audiences of [white] urban Americans and Canadians viewing from a distance: cleansed colonisers hungry for the absolution of a truth forged via the silver screen. But, of course, not so distant as the film was largely facilitated and financed by the economic interests of the white fur  traders. 

But what do we see when we look at Flaherty’s Nanook? Nanook, as an edited construct supposedly depicting truth, defies the tropes of fictional narratives.The film is episodic and broadly divided into circa 11 scenes showing differing aspects of daily life for the Inuit. Each episode contains new ‘factual’ information, and with only a light sense of dramatic construction or tension (will they make it back to the igloo before darkness or the cold get them, will they starve?) This makes the construction of a score very difficult, the troupes of dramatic accompaniment seem wrong, bringing a layer of melodrama to a sequence that does not encourage emotions other than laughter. 

The tropes of early ‘documentary’ nonfiction include the suspense of morality as opposed to that of belief – native nudity, uncomplex happiness etc – as well as non-sustained narrative sequences. The film is a patchwork and therefore easily differentiated from fictional film.   

On screen, we have the image of the happy savage and his hoard: the infantilisation of the Inuit. We see a fantasy of naturalness. Through smiling Inuit eyes, we see evidence that colonisation was ‘right’, the white man’s burden and a benefit to the Inuit. In other words, this driven simulation enables us to hide another very different reality. 

There is no better example of this than the sequence in the trader’s house which stages Nanook’s version of that classic anthropological theme: the savage’s ‘first encounter’ with the modern world. In this instance, Nanook’s ‘first encounter’ with a recording of the human voice on a 78rpm record. What we see is Nanook trying to chew the disc; his responses to the magic of this technological sound cast as a source of ridicule when he is bemused and then enthralled by the magic of voices from a box.

Look away from the screen, and turn to Flaherty’s diaries. Nanook’s real name is Allakariallak; in fact, he had often heard and enjoyed gramophone recordings, and was particularly keen on Caruso’s version of the prologue to Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), finding the melodramatic tragedy of the scene very funny indeed and many Inuit people would have experienced the white man’s technology many years before.

In Nanook, we are looking at a fiction. A fiction that, in holding out the promise of fact, gains an alibi against morality and censorship. The documentary gaze enjoys more freedom than fiction. In the so-called ‘natural world’, nudity was recast as ‘fact’ – the facts of native peoples and their worlds – not pornography. Depictions of ‘Native nudity’ had been freely available to Americans and others since 1896 when National Geographic published its first pictures of naked women from African tribes. On a number of occasions in Nanook, we see Nyla (Maggie Nujarluktuk),naked (she is supposed to be Nanook’s wife). Her nudity is acceptable, a way of ‘knowing’ Nanook – but in the name of what and for whom? 

In approaching Nanook, I have a powerful sense that its claims to offer a historical and cultural document is nothing but a thin veil. And that behind that veil there is another act of denial of a culture and its values. But as a performer and composer, am I in a position to create a work of rejection, anger and resistance to the film in the music that comes to accompany it/becomes its companion? If I don’t create that resistance, am I left siding with oppression? With destruction? My approach to this dilemma is broadly to answer that question, yes.

That creating a score that is a direct and angry rejection or denial of the film (as portrayed) is of course very possible and possibly desirable. But it is not the only route, and is one that I feel leaves too many questions unanswered.

I can’t help but feel very tender toward the actors and their film, and my tendency now is toward huge compassion and solidarity, whilst I feel that expressions of strong liberal anger might themselves be a form of cultural appropriation. 

Without hesitation, I can say that what is on the screen is undeniably a display of unique survival technology and technic, allbeit from another era, in part, from the filming of Nanook. The film portrays, and perhaps betrays, that knowledge and its deep routes in an culture that knew and understood its environment. Closly allied to that knowing was, of course, a unique spirituality, but it is not even mentioned in passing in this film.

Instead of a simple anger, my approach is one that I call ‘Restorative Voicing’ – that is, to try and instate the absent voice that is the vehicle of victimisation in the fantasia of reality. 

In this case the restorative voicing starts from the use of historically accurate archive recordings of the area and a hopefully use those materials  to create a sympathetic, sensitive and informed dialogue with the real humans on the screen.

Nanook of the North with live music by Peter Urpeth & Mark Hewins is on Saturday 5th November 2016 at Faclan Festival, An Lanntair, Stornoway. Full details and booking at:


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