No Sound Is Innocent: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio

By Jason Anderson

A cunningly crafted, slyly satirical, and deeply unsettling tale of a movie sound engineer losing his grasp on reality amid the obsolete tools of cinema’s analogue age, Berberian Sound Studio immediately takes a place near the top of a very short list of feature films that prioritize matters (and mysteries) of sound above all else. Indeed, even such headphone-friendly touchstones as The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981) are comparatively skimpy when it comes to shots of characters fussing over microphone placements and scrawling on boxes of quarter-inch tape. The second feature by Peter Strickland, a British-bred, Budapest-based filmmaker and musician, Berberian Sound Studio flaunts its aural orientation with a brazenness rarely encountered since Fritz Lang demonstrated the most villainous applications of the phonograph in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).

The lack of the kind of conspiracy plot that serves an organizing principle in those three predecessors seems another telling point of difference. Instead, the causes for the mental deterioration of poor Gilderoy (Toby Jones at his meekest and twitchiest) remain stubbornly cryptic, though chances are it has something to do with the horror-movie-within-the-movie whose plausibly diabolical soundtrack he’s been enlisted to create in the dimly lit confines of the titular studio, which Strickland cheekily has named in honour of avant-garde opera singer Cathy Berberian.

“A brave new world of sound awaits you,” says the producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) to Gilderoy as he arrives at the studio, having left his quiet home in Dorking for this alien culture. This English wallflower is understandably unsure how his CV of nature documentaries and public information films could prepare him for this task. Nevertheless, he is clearly determined to explore that world to the fullest despite such further impediments as the language barrier and the incessant hostility directed toward him by his bosses, including the film’s director Santini (Antonio Mancino), a blowhard who delivers lofty defenses for his film’s most outrageous atrocities yet displays more enthusiasm for bedding the actresses.

Gilderoy clearly doesn’t share the director’s taste for violence. Nor, for that matter, does Strickland—the film’s most perverse move might be the omission of the luridly violent imagery that was closely associated with the period to which Berberian pays homage.

This was the ’70s boom of Italian giallo and horror films, a notoriously sleazy epoch when audiences’ age-old hunger for new sensations was answered by an unprecedented—and, for better or worse, largely unrepeated—orgy of prog-gothic ostentation, psychosexual extremity and psychedelic excess. The fictional film that goes unseen—The Equestrian Vortex—would seem to fit the bill very well with its story of students at a riding academy terrorized by resurrected witches. But whereas Strickland provides plenty of opportunities for aficionados to play spot-the-reference—one especially rich running gag involves the menacing black-gloved hands so beloved by Dario Argento—they won’t find the gleefully sadistic imagery that dominated his movie’s blood-drenched forebears. Indeed, the acts of savagery here are almost entirely performed upon pieces of produce as Gilderoy and two poker-faced Foley artists (played by artists Pal Toth and Josef Czeres) concoct the aural accompaniments they need for The Equestrian Vortex’s most horrific scenes.

Bustling between the various audio oscillators, mixers, reel-to-reel machines, and other contraptions that now seem not only arcane but downright medieval, Gilderoy builds up the soundtrack piece by piece. Berberian’slack of non-diegetic sound allows the movie’s own sonic subtleties to get the attention they deserve. (Heard in all its eerie and histrionic splendour elsewhere in Strickland’s film, the score for The Equestrian Vortex was composed by the British group Broadcast before member Trish Keenan died of an H1N1-induced bout with pneumonia in early 2011.) But with each meticulously recorded scream and howl—many of them supplied in suitably terrifying fashion by Belgian vocal improviser Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg and Hungarian actress/sound poet Katalin Ladik—Gilderoy seems to take a step further into the darkest corner of his psyche. The narrative starts to erode, creating more elisions. As Gilderoy is bewildered and tormented by strange events occurring both inside the studio and the grubby apartment where he’s staying, it’s strongly suggested that the images he is compelled to see and serve are acting as a catalyst. He seems particularly sensitive to a scene involving a witch and a red-hot poker, a torture method that Gilderoy represents aurally by water sizzling on a frying pan.

All this would seem eminently Lynchian even if there weren’t repeated shots of a flashing red sign demanding “Silenzio.” But what Berberian shares with Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001) is not only the quality of an especially sensuous nightmare that continues to intensify even after it’s begun to dismantle itself. It’s Lynch’s fundamental understanding of how sound can force a viewer into the simulated environment of a film even when it’s the last place they want to be—think of the inside of the radiator or Bill Pullman’s seemingly infinite hallway.

By making the recording process (albeit that of a pre-digital age) the very subject of his second feature, Strickland is able to demonstrate his sensitivity in that regard far more starkly than he was able to in Katalin Varga (2009), a grim, Transylvania-set rape-revenge drama that still owed much of its force to its sound design. (Strickland’s continuing endeavours in music and sound art includes performing in an experimental group called the Sonic Catering Band and overseeing the record label Peripheral Conserve.) He’s also wise to highlight the fundamental absurdity of Gilderoy’s cabbage-stabbing toils, as well as the petty power struggles and deadline-abusing dithering that are the filmmaking process regardless of whether the circumstances of creation are much less charged than the ones that surround The Equestrian Vortex. Berberian Sound Studio’s recreation of these visual and aural worlds is so rich that it’s almost a shame that Gilderoy’s disintegration prevents him (and us) from completing a fuller investigation of the terrain. But one thing that Strickland’s film most definitely demonstrates is a willingness to explore a side of the medium that may be even more poorly appreciated by audiences now than it was in Dr. Mabuse’s day, all while leaving its most beguiling mysteries intact.

Cinema Scope: Along with paying homage to the giallo and horror films of Italy in the ’70s, Berberian Sound Studio celebrates an intense period of experimentation in music and sound. Was it inevitable that the composers and sound artists of the era would cross over into the film world, even if for what were exploitation movies?

Peter Strickland: Definitely, and you could find links between them at somewhere like the Studio di Fonologia, which was Luciano Berio’s studio in Milan. He was also the husband of Cathy Berberian, and part of what sparked all the whole film was my listening to “Visage,” a track they did together in 1961. It’s about 20 minutes of howling and just sounds very possessed. It was never in a horror film, but I got to thinking, what if it was? I was also thinking of people like Bruno Maderna, who was hanging out with John Cage and Luigi Nono but also doing soundtracks to things like Death Laid an Egg (1968). Or even Ennio Morricone, who was part of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, which was like the Italian version of AMM [long-lived British free improvisation group]. So you had this weird connection between the high art, academic or experimental music, and exploitation soundtracks. You felt that maybe these composers did their freer stuff for these soundtracks because they felt like their peers in academia weren’t listening. Some of the most advanced work went on there. They were using free jazz, musique concrète, and drone: it was just absolutely phenomenal. And it wasn’t just the methods they used but the beauty and the atmosphere they put into this music.

Scope: Do you think it’s also true that genre cinema has long accommodated a wider variety of approaches to music and sound, especially in regards to horror? Dissonance and atonality have long been part of that arsenal of shock tactics, as those composers must have well understood.

Strickland: It is weird, isn’t it? I remember Tim Gane of Stereolab talking about that to the New Musical Express back in the ’90s. He said that horror was a genre that warms people up to musical ideas they wouldn’t normally find acceptable in a recorded medium. There’s something about the psychedelic nature of horror that allows that music to breathe and go off into these reveries that you wouldn’t find in social-realist films, for instance. That’s definitely what I found really exciting. It can work the other way around, too. Some horror soundtracks could be presented in an avant-garde context and it wouldn’t seem alien to those people. Wouldn’t it be amazing to play Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s soundtrack for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in a concert hall? If you listen to that soundtrack, it’s an incredibly meticulous, really advanced piece of musique concrète—it’s very skuzzy, greasy dirty musique concrète, but it’s still that. Part of my interest in all this stems from the fact that the horror movies I’ve watched tend to be from the ’70s. I’m not really a fan of the genre, and many of the modern ones I’ve seen have very generic soundtracks—arranged orchestral scores or very simple synthesizer drones which are very dull. It does seem like that kind of willingness to explore somehow has died out. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing and we’re just getting nostalgic for the ’70s and there really are people out there who are still doing this stuff. But I do think mainstream films today tend to get over-scored. The markers are laid down so heavily. I loved the games those composers played. They would sometimes create this very melodic music for scenes that were very sadistic. One example is Riz Ortolani’s theme for Cannibal Holocaust (1980)—it’s brutal in a way because the melody is so full of yearning.

Scope: You present the sound studio itself in such a loving, almost fetishistic manner, it’s easy to detect a nostalgia for those sorts of spaces as well, with their bulky, arcane equipment and long, undulating tape loops running everywhere.

Strickland: It’s so beautiful, too. I wanted to make a visual film about sound and the idea of structuring the film like a loop was so attractive. In retrospect, I wish we had done more because there’s only one scene with a tape loop. I remember watching a documentary about the Studio di Fonologia and another about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and I just loved watching them turn dials. It’s actually better if you don’t know what these machines do—it makes it more mysterious. The idea of alchemy comes through that way as well, as if the machines were these mediums between everyday sounds and something extraordinary. Just the look of them is so strange. In the edit for Berberian, we made connections to electrocution—you see them turning up the juice on these oscillator dials and you hear the screaming going on and you feel as if they’re connected somehow, that these machines are causing pain. But the whole irony is that you could fit the machines in the film into one laptop quite easily now with all of its processing power. And while I did love that period, I worked in it during my first films and it was a pain in the arse. There was a lot of hassle and work.

Scope: Maybe that’s why the knob-twiddling doesn’t look half as much fun as the scenes of Gilderoy and the Foley artists creating the sound effects for The Equestrian Vortex. Given the influence of David Lynch on various elements of Berberian, it’s hard not to be reminded of Lynch’s months-long quest to amass the sounds for Eraserhead with Alan Splet.

Strickland: And it wasn’t just Splet doing that kind of work in that period, but Ben Burtt [sound designer for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, among many other credits]. He was doing mainstream stuff, but they were using the same methods and they were both very highly experimental. It’s so generic now: Splet’s rumbles and roars are all over the shop. Back then, you could really enter those depths of sound but nobody does that anymore, they just have hard drives full of sound-library CDs. What people don’t understand is it’s not the sound but the process you go through to get that sound. I remember Martin Scorsese talking about Raging Bull (1980) and how every single punch was composed of quite a few different sounds so each combination was unique. I think there’s a laziness at the moment which you do feel; it seeps all the way down from the organizing of the production schedule to the sound people, and it’s quite concerning, really. We were lucky. We were given a lot of time but I would’ve had more time if possible. It was generous for us but sound is so vital and a lot of directors don’t even attend these mixes. How can you not attend a sound mix?

Scope: Yet as violent as the film may sound, we see none of the outrages that Santini presents in The Equestrian Vortex. Why was it so important to leave the violence in the film almost entirely offscreen?

Strickland: Things would be different if I were doing violence as entertainment. I love it in certain contexts: I think it really works in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it can really work in Tarantino’s movies. But because this movie is not presenting my personal take but the character’s apprehension about what he’s going through, it would feel like we were defeating ourselves by showing the violence—we would be no better than Santini. And I think that had Santini been the same as Fulci or Argento and not apologized for his work or tried to defend it, if he just did it as entertainment, it would be more valid to show. But as soon as you try to defend violence, as soon as you try to make it something reflexive, you get into very dangerous territory because you don’t know your audience. That’s what’s so scary about it and so beautiful about making films: you can’t predict how someone is going to interpret it. No matter how responsibly you portray violence, you can’t stop someone from sensationalizing it. Even the sound of violence, someone out there might be getting off on it. I’m not saying we are immune from that as well! But the film is saying that no matter whether you’re presenting violence for the sake of entertainment or commenting on the horror of it all, it’s basically out of your hands as to how it will be appropriated and interpreted.

Scope: The visceral impact of the violence of the film is still very strong, even if it does happen to be mostly perpetrated on a few unlucky cabbages and watermelons.

Strickland: I’m reminded of the title of a book written by Eddie Prevost of AMM: No Sound Is Innocent. Hearing that noise of cutting a cabbage, it’s something we generally associate with the kitchen and having a good meal. And we’re not changing that sound. We’re giving a different context for it and hopefully that messes with your head. Berberian is partly concerned with these ideas about association and context. There’s also the notion of violence by proxy, which many of us are guilty of to various degrees, especially now with mobile phones recording daily violence and even the most mainstream websites tempting us to click to watch the footage. There’s an urge to consume violence. It may be ridiculous to associate this idea of violence by proxy with the cabbage, but if you take it to its logical extreme, you get the Stanford prison experiment, which is how the film ends in a way. If you’re removed from that person and there’s something between you, like a sheet of glass or a cinema screen, you can just turn up that dial in terms of things you would normally not do because you’re too much of a coward or a decent person.

Scope: Whatever the attitude toward the content of the giallo and horror films it references, Berberian Sound Studio certainly demonstrates the enduring vitality of many of the formal and stylistic qualities that distinguished these movies. In that respect, the film has a kinship with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer (2009), which also devised a modern context for this vocabulary.

Strickland: Definitely. I hate to keep coming back to Stereolab, but they were the band that made it acceptable to openly steal things whereas before that I think there was some reluctance. It’s almost like a badge of honour to steal things now—it’s weird how much it’s changed in the last 20 years. But Stereolab were so good at making all that stuff sound new and making it sound like them even though they were taking things left, right, and centre. They did it in a really exciting way, finding these links between sources and making them work together. I think it was the same with Amer—I thought it was like if Kenneth Anger made a giallo film. They made it incredibly new and psychedelic. They kind of distilled what giallo was: they stripped away plot and all of that and went with atmosphere. When giallo works for me, it’s when it becomes more ethereal and atmospheric. When I watch those films, I don’t go into it for the narrative or for the sadism, just to experience that atmosphere. It’s the same with a Jordan Belson film or a Stan Brakhage film. Berberian was constructed to be the same way.