Peter Strickland and his Berberian Sound Studio – an interview

 

The story of Peter Strickland is as compelling as his films. The British director and screenwriter made his breakthrough feature Katalin Varga independently, using money from his uncle while moonlighting as an English teacher in Hungary. A darkly emotive movie set in Transylvania—with a script in a language the director didn’t speak—it earned Strickland a Silver Bear at the Berlinale as well as numerous other awards, granting him instant access to the upper echelons of the film industry. His follow-up feature Berberian Sound Studio pursues a very different direction: set in 1970s Italy, a hotbed for giallo films and soundtracks that went on to influence generations of sonic horrorists, it features an ethereal soundtrack provided by Broadcast. Here, the director talks about his “hauntological horror film” (a description he contests), working with Broadcast and meeting the Goblin

 

What was the inspiration behind Berberian Sound Studio?

Normally in a film, the mechanics and process are completely hidden from the viewer. With Berberian, I wanted to try the opposite—to reveal the mechanics of a film, but not actually show it. But also what’s interesting about the foley sound effect process for horror films is the two extremes: intense violence on the screen soundtracked by a process which is actually quite comical, with people smashing vegetables and trying ridiculous things with many objects. So the question for the audience is how to react to these scenes showing this? Should they laugh? Should they be disturbed? Those foley scenes cause a kind of polarity in the viewer, which I wanted to exploit, especially since we’re dealing with the subject of exploitation.

 

Why have you decided to set your film in that specific context, especially after your debut which was from a completely different time and space?

It had to be Italy in the 70s. There was no other country in the world with such a profound relationship between horror and music/sound. There was also that very strong and specific link to horror from the avant-garde with both Bruno Maderna and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza putting out electro-acoustic music, but also making soundtracks to giallo films. I found that really fascinating and I wanted to dip my toe into that world for 90 minutes. There is a continuation from Katalin Varga in that the film is exploring the effects of violence on the psyche. Superficially the films are very different (apart from the fact that Gilderoy has the same suitcases as Katalin Varga), but both the atmospherics and the emotional weight they carry come from the same place.

Have you been inspired by the revival of interest in Italian film soundtracks in music?

I started buying Italian soundtracks around 1997 when the first Mondo Morricone compilations came out and they were truly beautiful and sinister with Edda Dell’Orso’s voice getting under my skin. The Mondo and Canto Morricone compilations were amazing, but this was years ago. All this stuff was in the air for years—there just wasn’t a name for it, which I like. I had arguments with someone who wanted to market Berberian as a ‘hauntological horror film’. I said “no, no, no”. But yes, I buy records from Trunk and Ghost Box and they do great stuff.

The sound plays a leading role with its synesthetic and suggestive capabilities. Can you describe your relationship with sound and music in general—as a musician and filmmaker, and in particular in film and in the context of Berberian Sound Studio.

I was interested in how we contextualize ‘difficult’ music or sound. On record, many people wouldn’t respond to Berio or Pendericki, but in the context of horror, it is accessible. I love the fact that genre cinema and avant-garde music are worlds apart, yet there are links to be found. Since avant-garde is so reliant on texture, dissonance and atmospherics, it makes sense that it works so effectively in horror films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Death Laid an Egg and The Shining are the best examples of avant-garde music in horror. Structurally too, avant-garde music is so inspiring and Berberian‘s structure with its repetitions and absurdist portals comes directly from some of the music I listened to.

Overall, the film and the music and sounds conjure a certain psychedelic effect, and despite being a horror, remains subtle and steers clear of the more obvious visual gore.

My favorite horror films have an element of psychedelia to them. I’m more interested in that and atmosphere than gore. Horror seems the perfect genre to allow both sonic and visual psychedelic elements to come to the foreground. Giallo and Italian Gothic Horror always that had dreamy, ethereal quality to it and it’s great that Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani took it a step further with [2009 Belgian-French thriller] Amer.

How did Broadcast become involved in the film and why did you choose them in particular?

Broadcast’s former keyboardist Roj did quite a few sounds for Katalin Varga. He put me in touch with Trish Keenan and James Cargill around 2009. Warp Films became involved in the film by coincidence, so it seemed quite natural that a band on Warp Records should align with a film by Warp. That was the easy part. I chose Broadcast purely because there was no one else I was aware of doing this kind of thing. Since they signed to do the film, there have been quite a few bands explicitly paying reference to giallo soundtracks, but I approached Broadcast purely because they were never explicit. They had so much going on in their sound. On one level, their music opens up a portal to Italian and Czech soundtracks, but also British eccentrics such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Basil Kirchin and also West Coast psychedelia. But on another level, the music works on its own as something very emotive and darkly beautiful.

 

How did their involvement in the film’s soundtrack—in cooperation with Joakim Sundstrom—work in practice?

It was a back and forth process. James sent Chris Dickens (the editor) and me sound files during the edit. We’d roughly edit to the music, send it back to him and he’d make adjustments. Trish and James sent over a few things before the film. Most of the music was done by the time we went to the sound mix with Joakim. There were plenty of other things to do in the sound mix.

The soundtrack to the film has just been released. What sort of memories does listening to it conjure now?

It wasn’t the best time for us.

What’s next on your horizon?

The Duke of Burgundy. A love story.

Finally, are there any unforgettable experiences from the shooting?

The Goblin—Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. I don’t think the cast and crew will ever forget him. ~

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“I’m not nostalgic, I’m not bleary eyed. It’s done, it’s gone” – An interview with Lee Gamble

As a founding member of the unashamedly academic Cyrk Collective, Lee Gamble built up a reputation as a composer of computer music fascinated by decomposition, abstraction and digital synthesis and resynthesis.

He has curated a number of events featuring the likes of Mark Fell, Luke Fowler, collaborated with visual artist Bryan Lewis Saunders on a work entitled “Stream of Unconscious”—a piece of tape music that dealt directly with sleep processes and dreams. Therefore, it’s no real stretch to infer that two of Gamble’s most recent releases, the forthcoming ten track Dutch Tvashar Plumes and Diversions 1994-1996 have conceptual frameworks which deal, in two divergent ways, with curation, memory, recollection and experiences which have come before.

 

Diversions’ ambient, heavily processed sketches are teased from jungle’s ghostly, ghastly corners represents the first time that Gamble, whose musical epiphanies occurred during the the ’90s jungle scene, has revisited his extensive collections of mixes, tracks and tapes from an era that is, undoubtedly, significant to him. Dutch Tvashar Plumes is perhaps the more evasive, difficult release; a record that further breaks with Gamble’s methodology of computer music and sees him constructing his own take on the music of the club, albeit with the emphasis on the corroded, drug-fucked memory that wafts around your head long ever you’ve got your coat.

In Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania, Reynolds discusses the origin of the etymology of the word “nostalgia”, its origins as a pseudo-physiological condition readable as an “ache of displacement”. This ache springing from temporal displacement is perhaps felt keener now more than ever with the ever shrinking present under siege from future. In response we look to past to find validation. While Gamble’s work is categorically neither retro nor nostalgic—it’s far too subjective to appeal to a collective memory—there is an ache within his music. But where this ache originates from is hard to define, and perhaps this is why these records hold such sway over modern, over-stimulated ears. We caught up with him to talk about memory, jungle’s ugly bits and, yes, to reminisce about the early 90s scene.

 

Firstly, what was the conceptual genesis of Diversions? It feels like a hugely subjective piece of work.

Diversions was borne out of a DJ set I was asked to do for a radio program. They didn’t want a straight DJ mix, they wanted to take it a stage further. I guess my background in processual work made them think oh, Lee DJs and deconstructs so maybe we could do something with that. Also, I’ve been looking back at my old records and tapes for a few years, now. I was into that whole scene  but then I got so bored and didn’t touch it for a long time. It just sat in the loft or at my dad’s house in crates. Then, about four years ago, I started dipping back into stuff and thinking yeah, this really sounds alright again. I just had the idea that I’d go and sample my old synths off tape, the mixes I’d made, my mates’ mixes, the radio… All those tapes from that era, the ones which had no names on. As soon as I went in there I found myself immediately drawn to the chords and the bits in between the percussion. I did the radio thing and did it quite quickly, and then Bill [Kouligas] from PAN listened to it before it went on radio and said he we should release this as an EP.

How did you know Bill?

I have known Bill for years, he asked me to do a record for PAN years ago!

Critics have talked at length about how Diversions is a record about dance music, about recollection and about the imperfection of memory. Obviously, this has been a topic which has held endless fascination over the last few years with Burial and Mark Fell. Was this your contribution to the discussion? 

I wasn’t unaware of it resurfacing and these things happen in cycles anyway, you don’t have to be a fortune teller to work out that everything will have its little resurgence. It’s like me and acid; I was too young for acid but I really dig it, I’ve hammered some of those records so I’m not outside of it either. Nowadays YouTube is such an archive, in fact that’s the best place to go for jungle and drum and bass—the internet. Weird. I remember looking up tracks four years ago and there was a few, but now there’s tons. I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg, if it’s there because people have an interest in it, or if the interest comes from people having access to it.

I’m part of the generation that spent their early adolescence surrounded by exotic looking flyers, hardcore bomber jackets and the general imagery of jungle yet I never, ever was allowed to go to a jungle night. Yet it’s this generation who seem to cite jungle most forcefully. Lone is an example, he never went raving, so his music is this idealised image, divorced from reality… Of what it might have been.

Sure. I remember hearing a Ben UFO mix—and Ben does some amazing stuff, don’t get me wrong, I mean him the biggest respect—it’s this Blue Note mix and he was like I never went there! But he had done this mix how he imagined it would have been. I find that really interesting as someone who I went there a few times—the mix is amazing”

Is it something to do with 1994 really the final throes of the pre-internet era, the last place where we can have an imperfect or idealized recall. The “misremembered ’90s.” 

It is the last cultural movement—particularly in the UK—that happened before the internet because the next one was grime which is a movement which existed primarily on YouTube. However, when I was making this record it wasn’t calculated like that; I’m not nostalgic, I’m not bleary eyed about it in any way at all, it’s done, it’s gone. This isn’t a hauntological document. As soon as my mate heard it he said, “you know this will get you bunged in with that [movement]?” To be honest I’m of the mindset that if you make anything, doesn’t matter what it is, as soon as it’s out forget it, it’s done. You’ve no control over how its received. I see some tweets and I’m like, “Oh man, you listen to it like that?” Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to listen to it. It was an important part of my life, I was a young teenager, those are big years for people, especially fashion, music, meeting people. Jungle was the first thing I found, it wasn’t just the music, it was the scene. I had a great Naf-Naf bomber and these pink Wallaby shoes…

I had a plain petrol-coloured bomber so I’m jealous. Returning to the idea of subjectivity, it’s always important that while we can reminisce about concrete aspects of that culture our memories are always inherently unreliable.

That’s what makes it so trippy and hypnotic. The whole idea of nostalgia is ridiculous. Someone asked if I would do another Diversions but what’s the point in that? What would make sense would be go at it from another angle. Nostalgia is always about looking back and seeing the good bits, but what if we concentrated on the aspects of the culture that didn’t work? Those aspects haven’t been brought up, they haven’t been featured in any writing or anything—and neither should they really because we should concentrate on the good. But if I was to make the record again I could just make it about the really, really ugly aspects. As a conceptual idea that’s actually way more interesting.

What aspects do you mean exactly?

I was in clubs at the end, I wasn’t CS gassed in the face but there was gas happening and a police horse got shot when I was in a club. I’m not trying to make it sound bad, it wasn’t, most of the time it was great. But at the end… It got big, don’t forget. If you were paying £20 to get in a club and drugs were £25 then people were making a lot of money and it wasn’t anyone’s, it was a business there for whoever. A lot of football hooligan firms were involved, gangsters too and inevitably it got worse. The bouncers were a nightmare, they’d steal people’s drugs and sell them on. I’m not trying to put a really dark slant on it, but this was part of it, it was part of the scene. There’s an edge to this music, it’s working class kids in there at the end of the day. And I was intrigued by that, I was one of those kids. It wasn’t something I didn’t want. In a sense that would be an interesting angle, it would be hard to listen to but it would be about exactly the same era of music.

What I find interesting about Diversions is that the methodology you’ve applied is one of stripping away the percussion, the breaks, the element that many people might automatically think of as being the heart of a jungle record. I know you said that this isn’t a hauntological document but there is something deeply uncanny about those sounds. Were you surprised with the result of your deconstructions? 

I did play around with some percussion. The one track that does have a break on is actually a break from a really early record that I made—I’m not going to tell you which. So it has significance and I wanted to play with it, but I didn’t include it until the very last moment. Then I just put it on, I didn’t know if I needed to signify it in such an obvious way. The record’s been received as being about jungle but I was never that explicit about it. I’ve always, always liked the pad sounds and these weird sounds. I never used to sample anything so this is the first time I’ve allowed myself to delve so I thought I’d delve into my first musical love. As soon as I started putting these pad sounds in a sampler I thought these are rich. Also, there’s a real skill in putting together jungle breaks…

The act of creating these tracks in the 1990s was actually quite arduous and difficult, right?

The thing is, why a lot of that stuff sounds fucking amazing is because of the equipment. It was a proper standard setup: you had one of three samplers, lots of people had the same sort of monitors, in the beginning you’d have an Amiga… It was very much like if you wanted to make the music this was your set up and that was it. You can remake the music now of course, but something about the fact it was very difficult to make because you’ve got several options: you’d be right, I’ve got ten seconds of sampling, I need a kick, a snare or a loop, a voice sound meant you had to pick the elements carefully. It’s an utterly different way of making music. It feels so weird to be talking about it, it feels so antiquated when really it wasn’t very long ago. Now I could make a jungle record while talking to you—you can make a house record on your iPhone now.

When the cycle comes round do you think that there will be this impulse to approach contemporary music with a scalpel in the way people have approached jungle?

I think it’s a really interesting question. What will be the significant aspects of music now that people will pick up on? There won’t be the same lack or scarcity of the material, such a fetishization of 12 inches because of the availability of music now is much greater. And because everyone is making music on a certain way on a certain machine does it have a particular sound to it? The difference is how you hear music. A grime 12 inch doesn’t sound like Wiley in a bottom of a stairwell as it might sound on YouTube, the actual 12inch, once you buy it, doesn’t sound like that at all. But I liked the fact that it’s coming out of my computer, from YouTube… Maybe that’s something? Maybe you’ll get an MP3 plug-in that makes it sound like it’s 32k.

A filter that makes music that sounds like it’s coming out of laptop speakers…

Exactly. It’s a really interesting time. A couple of years ago I was like oh man, this is crazy, there’s too much, but now I’m the opposite. I’m like fuck it, we’re part of it now. If you want to make anything you’ve got to be a filter. Deal with it, everyone wanted it all and now we’ve got it. Let’s do something with it!

You did a collaboration with Bryan Lewis Saunders called Stream of Unconscious, what was that?

He’s an artist, a really interesting dude who does some quite extreme work. We got in touch over the internet. He recorded himself sleep talking and then he turned all these sections into an audiobook with like 20 tapes or something. Each one of these texts, these recordings of subconscious chatter, were given to an artist, me being one of them, to rework and do whatever we wanted to do with it.

It seems so very apt in light of these records. Are you drawn into the world of dream or memory processes? 

I have an interest in memory; I have several books on memory and amnesia. It’s just something I have an interest in, like I have an interest in voices and programming. That’s what I did with Bryan’s recordings, I tried to work with the computer software to get it to speak, not Mac Talk, but to really vocalize. I’m drawn to reinterpretations, processual chains, I guess those are some things which are present in my work. Dutch Tvashar Plumes is not a conceptual work in the Diversions sense—I don’t feel like I need to explain it in the sleeve notes or anything—but it was absolutely about my idea of dance music as a hallucination. I didn’t want to go in there and think I’m making this for Fabric, I didn’t think that for a second, I needed to make something that was a hallucination of a dance track. I was thinking a lot about synaesthesia and these things called release hallucinations: when you can hear something in your head. It’s normal, some people have them so that they can’t get rid of them and this can make them mentally ill but these kind of hallucinations are usually perfectly normal. But you can often get them when you come home from a rave and you can hear something, a track. I wanted to use that as the idea for making a track. I want to make that version. The photocopy of the one from the club, the one you’ve taken out of the club, processed it with whatever’s in your system, legal or non legal chemicals… That’s your tripped out version. That’s why a lot of these track on Dutch Tvashar Plumes sound fucked. I don’t want them to sound like Roska tracks, that’s not the aim, I wasn’t trying to make a Mike Dennhardt techno track, I wanted to make the one you come back with in your skull.

As humans this is the ultimate goal, to somehow recreate human perception. Ever since artists responded to the violence of a technologised life with Modernism.

Absolutely. I have a background in art and I read a lot, I read more science books than I do music. I have an interest in reading this stuff, whether or not I have any fucking clue! I like thinking about these things so it’s normal for me to not just make a track but, yeah, if I do it like this it’ll be weird. There’s tons of good stuff out there, a lot of straight music that’s really good, which I couldn’t do as well, but because I have these weird backgrounds I think if I collide them together maybe something else, something interesting will happen. Some people will get it, some won’t. Some will hear the record and think “why’s the fuck has he done it like that?” and that’s fine, but the people who get it will hopefully be like “Ok, that’s something different.” At the end of the day you just have to try and make sense of it all—that’s the difficulty now. You have to be an engineer, producer, writer, learn the software, do a bit of musicianship and in addition to that you have to be a cultural filter of it all. Unless you shut yourself off in a room and don’t hear it, that’s fine, I know some people who are like that. I can’t be like that. I’m way too nosey. If it’s there of course I’m going to click play! ~

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