Simon Fisher Turner: Angelic conversation

When the composer Simon Fisher Turner met the film-maker Derek Jarman, he met his artistic soulmate, hears Martin Longley
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The Independent Culture

Simon Fisher Turner has a love-hate relationship with technology. We have arranged to meet "under the clock at Marylebone station" but are both rather distraught to discover that, instead of a grandiose Victorian contraption, it is, in fact, nothing but a tiny digital rectangle. And when I reveal my minidisc recorder, Turner bemoans the fact that he's still grappling with an outmoded DAT format. For a sound artist whose very essence is the capturing and subsequent manipulation of found sounds, this comes as a surprise.

Turner, whose UK tour for the past month culminates in this evening's performance at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, prepared for his tour by dusting off his old cassette archive of location recordings made during the filming of Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986), The Last Of England (1987) and The Garden (1990). Turner was the sole provider of soundtracks for Jarman's films, beginning with an early set of Jarman's Super-8 home movies. Indeed, the title of this evening's concert - "The Fifth Quarter of the Globe" - takes its name from a piece on The Garden.

After rejecting a whole host of eateries as being too loud and crowded, we head for Regent's Park. To the dedicated sound recordist, even a supposedly silent lakeside bench is awash with the distracting possibilities of background quacks, gasps, and roars.

Turner makes the story of how he was to become Jarman's recordist sound almost prosaic. "I needed a job, and started making sandwiches and driving him around. I didn't even know who he was. Turned out he'd just finished this film called Jubilee. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time: The Tempest was happening, and I was in the office when he got the money. That meant we had to start filming in six weeks, so somebody with a clean driving licence had to have a van and start collecting props."

For the tour, Turner has amalgamated his scores, turning the themes into an extended suite for strings, voice and his own playful interventions. "The evening's programme is based specifically around the string parts," Turner says. Films tend to want strings, really. It's a chamber piece. We've selected string parts, some guitar parts and some harp pieces.

"They come from me, originally, and then they were arranged by other people for the films, and now they're being re-arranged. They'll go further forward. I'm playing a bit of laptop, a bit of mandola, a bit of piano. I've got into a state where I'm hardly using instruments at all, but it's nice to have them there. I've got a bank of sounds. I've taken sounds from all the films, bits of dialogue, sound effects, people singing in pubs. When Derek was making these films, I tended to tape everything. Derek talking in his apartment, or down in the cottage, or Derek's kettle boiling. I'm working with about 30 cassettes. Some of them are such bad quality that I'm having to regurgitate them in a different way."

Despite his problems with the virtual realms of digital recording, Turner has immersed himself fully in the world of laptop composition, developing his SFT persona with a series of albums on the Mute label. Whereas the Jarman soundtracks are usually concerned with a classically-styled chamber ambience, SFT's recent work has shunted sideways into a fractured collage-zone, obsessed with altered electronics and jagged edges.

Even though this music might sound like a radical shift, Turner's working methods remain very similar in concept if not technique. "When we were making Caravaggio, I was taping the shooting by accident, really. Running around talking to extras, the make-up department. Although it was set in the 17th century, there was a modern element in it of motorbikes, trains, jackhammers and lots of building sounds. It made sense for me to tape these sounds. I was using a mono cassette recorder. When we came to the soundtrack, we used modern sounds anyway. By doing that, you actually record things that only happen when you're making a film."

Singer Melanie Pappenheim - already known for her work with Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman - joins Turner and his string quartet. "I'm not going to say anything to her, really," Turner says. "She just does what she likes, which is what it was like working with Derek. He didn't have to say much in the end. We just knew we had to get on with it. He'd come up with lots of ideas, and I'd ignore them," Turner adds laughing, "or to do the opposite of what he said was always quite a good idea.

"The idea was to plant a seed, then let you get on with it, and be surprised. He loved to be surprised. I'd make up a cassette for him, and he'd say: 'Oh, don't worry about it. Wait until the dub. If I don't like it, I don't like it. There's nothing I can do about it. It's too late. If it's no good, we won't use it.' He was very sweet, like that."

Turner seems slightly alienated by the overly cerebral approach. "I left school when I was 17. Does that stop me being intellectual? I'm inquisitive. Derek would say: 'I'm doing a film about Caravaggio', and I'd ask: 'Who's Caravaggio?' Or 'I'm doing a film about Edward II.' 'Well, I don't know anything about Edward II.' It was always learn, learn, learn. Down to the bookshops, down to the National Gallery and then: 'Oh, I see what you're talking about!'"

By the time of Blue in 1993, Turner had honed his craft, bearing the responsibility for shaping this image-less film's blank blue screen with music, speech and silence. "I was a controller for Blue, just trying to make sure it all worked. It was very difficult, because there was no image. Derek wrote all the words and it turned out to be more about him, and his illness. It became very personal. They recorded the dialogue, and it only came to 23 minutes, so we had to place it with silence, and fill the gaps, really. It was a pleasure to do, very uplifting."

Between 1969, when Turner made his teen debut as a Jonathan King protégé, up to the late 1980s, when he was producing albums such as The King Of Luxembourg, a vocal/guitar, singer-songwriter approach provided the main thrust. "Now, I don't like the electric guitar. I thought of an electric guitar the other day. I've just gone off guitars completely, from being a complete guitar freak when I was a kid."

For his next Mute album, Turner is going in yet another unpredictable direction. "I've been recording pianos for quite a long time now, just pianos all over the place. My favourite so far has been playing in piano shops. You've got me playing in the foreground, and then other people playing in the background, which I really like. It comes from a frustration of not knowing what to do next. If I could write intelligent political songs, I'd probably be doing that now. I have problems with words, because I can't really articulate what I feel, intelligently. I babble, and it doesn't come out right. I don't sound convincing at all. I've got a weedy, rather soprano-ish voice. I don't sound like a man, to start with," he titters.

Turner is now having problems with DAT. "I used to tape things all the time, but I find myself taping things less and less, because the world seems to be sounding the same. In Singapore, the most interesting thing I recorded was a zebra crossing. That was great. I heard nothing, and I've always got my ears open...."

Our conversation ends when hope arrives in the form of a passing schoolgirl party, bringing a cross-cutting clamour that alerts Turner's ears to the possibilities of future album usage. I'll send him the tape.

Simon Fisher Turner performs tonight at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161-907 5555) at 7.30. The Derek Jarman soundtracks are out on Mute