Saturday, 1 September 2012

Music in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is predicated on its function - the creation and ordering of sound in film making. Peter Strickland's new film is at once sumptuous and disturbing, almost abstract in its focused collage of images and sound, and all the time hinting at something below the surface.

Naturally the making and application of sound is extremely important. Strickland has blogged and interviewed about the process at some length. I would recommend an account of the process for Film 4 and an interview in MOJO about his musical influences.

One might also want to read Strickland's blog, which seems to act as a scrapbook for his interests. I went to it as I am interested in two pieces of 'classical' music imported into the film.

*possible spoiler alert*

First of all there is Luigi Nono's Musiche per Manz├╣ (1969), a slowly shifting, metallic composition with stretched-out vocals on tape. The piece was originally intended for a film itself - a document about new doors for a church in Rotterdam damaged in the war.

In his blog, Strickland flags up a short document on the Studio di Fonologia, a Milanese version of experimental workshops, like Karlheinz Stockhausen's Cologne laboratory or IRCAM in Paris, where Nono worked. Founded in the mid 1950s by Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio (yesterday I tweeted a "pun" about the film being a biopic of singer Cathy Berberian but, of course, that comes back to bite me as the soprano was famous for her collaboration with both Berio and Maderna) the Studio di Fonologia was distinct from explicitly cinematic studios like Cinecittà, concentrating on sound and music for it's own sake.

Given the abstracted nature of much of the music and sound in the film (though, as Strickland has pointed out, all the sound has some diegetic origin, even if the sound and its source doesn't always coincide on-screen), probably the most startling moment in the film is a breakaway to something apparently conventional. A documentary film about the Surrey countryside takes over (as if Strickland has just interpolated it wholesale). It's like Toby Jones' psychosensually-besieged Gilderoy suddenly has a moment of 'clarity', not only recalling the England he claims to have left behind but also the sort of innocent work that is the exact opposite of his present project. The music that accompanies the film is the appropriately halcyon Lark Ascending by Vaughan-Williams, (in this recording by Hugh Bean conducted by Sir Adrian Boult).

What I found remarkable about experiencing this music at this point in this film was how alien, how wrought it felt. The Lark Ascending is a fine piece, much loved for its alchemic ability to conjure a bucolic vision of a former Albion. But that alchemy is in its compositional art and having adjusted to the immediacy and imaginative associations of the Berberian Sound Studio soundscape it struck me as just as overripe as the saturated colours of the film which it accompanies, when in this context.

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