Like the hole at the centre of a tape spool, Gilderoy occupies the absent fulcrum of an auditory mystery, a mystery made more mysterious by its transparency, its bathos. That cutting into flesh, that red-hot torment; nothing but violence inflicted on vegetables. Does the hole stay still within the fervency of the centrifuge or is the most intense point of the whirling mechanism its silent core?
Gilderoy is a hobbyist, a technician of the sacred (to borrow poet Jerome Rothenberg’s term). His specialism is sound. In quiet moments he reads either Terence Dwyer’s 1971 book, Composing With Tape Recorders, or letters from his mother. He is at home everywhere except in the world and his own body. A possible scene might show him poring over the Wildlife Sound Recording Society journal, Wildlife Sound, nodding with pleasure as he reads Margaret Redfern Smith’s article on the art of a tree wasp: “The artist realised now, after two days seeing a wasp behave like a bird, she was recording this and could listen with the help of the microphone to the work of one of nature’s greatest artists.” He reflected on this, thinking about tape hiss.
Gilderoy is not a ‘real’ person, of course; he is a haunted creation, the central character in Peter Strickland’s film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012), within which fiction he is haunted to himself. As played by Toby Jones, what he learns is that sound, like any object in a garden, can be turned over to reveal, beneath its attractive, seductive externality, a seething world, visceral, appalling, as putrid as the worst stench, as repulsive as a gaping wound. As an act of self-centering within the maelstrom of auditory torture he refers to his notebook of recorded sounds: Mum’s footsteps, the doorbell, Len’s poultry. In private, he records steam. A letter from Mum informs him that chiffchaffs are nesting by his shed. Every male hobbyist owns a shed. Sound is a carapace within which he shelters, his recessive personality unravelling within its depths, much as the narrator of Franz Kafka’s 1931 short story, The Burrow, descends into a maelstrom of paranoia and hyperacusis as he digs deeper into silence.
Mum’s letters bring unwelcome news of Gilderoy’s work on the Dorking Heritage Association’s short film, Local Perspectives No. 6: Box Hill – a surfeit of church bells, pre-echoes of auditory ecclesiastical nightmares to come. We see a fragment of this film in Berberian Sound Studio, a shot of Adam and Jonathan Bohman, otherwise known as improvising duo The Bohman Brothers, gazing out over the prospect of Box Hill.1 Preceding Berberian Sound Studio, a short film by Peter Strickland shows The Bohman Brothers at work on Foley for an unseen film requiring audio cues such as ‘Vincent escapes the sinking mud’ and ‘Vincent fights the robot.’
A life of transforming, disguising, enhancing and looping phenomena carries its own dangers. A spider is ejected, again and again, returns, as if some notion of the wild insists, insists. What exactly is Gilderoy’s profession and how in the world did he come to the attention of an Italian studio specialising in dubbing and Foley for violent gialli? “They told me what kind of films you normally do,” says the Sylvia character, “You never stopped to ask why Santini and Francesco hired you?” Mysteriously then, he is flown to Italy to work as a sound magician on The Equestrian Vortex, directed by the handsome, philandering Giancarlo Santini. We never see the film other than its flickering colour motion in projector beams and a title sequence that acts for the title sequence of Berberian Sound Studio, film within film. Auditory information suffices: this is not, as Gilderoy assumes, a film about horses. Instead, satanic rites, goblins, witchcraft, torture, putrefaction, maiming, extreme violence against women, a poultry tunnel.
Numerous sly references to poultry indicate the importance of Giulio Questi’s stylish film, La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid An Egg, 1967), not for its absurdist setting of a hi-tech poultry farm breeding boneless chickens or the misogynistic theme but for its uncompromisingly febrile score by Bruno Maderna, otherwise known for the seriousness of his work as a composer and conductor of contemporary music. As Strickland says, this unusual meeting of avant garde composing and horror films was typical of Italian cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s: “Atonal, dissonant music lends itself to the nightmarish and fantastical and what fascinates me is how a listener can be irritated by such sounds on record, yet enthralled when those same sounds are put to images.” 2
In this respect, Ennio Morricone’s score for the murderous madness of Elio Petri’s Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, 1968) is exemplary, a convergence of Morricone’s participation in experimental free improvisation with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and the prolific brilliance of his career as a film composer. Strickland’s hommage to this tendency is buried within the title of Berberian Sound Studio, a tribute to Visage, a composition for voice and electronics by Luciano Berio, performed by mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. Berio described this work, produced in 1961, as “almost a sound track for a play that has never been written.”3 Strickland encountered the recording in 2001:
I wrote to (electronic musician/composer) Michael Prime as a fan in the late ‘90s and we became friends. I stayed over one night with Adam Bohman and Michael played Visage . . . The anguish of Visage bled the lines between tape composition and exploitation, which led to Studio di Fonologia and its denizens – Luigi Nono, Marino Zuccheri and Bruno Maderna, who scored Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg, which connected to Dorking since its chicken emblem hailed from Milan where the score was done . . . It was that wonderfully strange no-man’s land between academia and exploitation and finding connections there. Berberian Sound Studio only scratched the surface. It’s a whole world in which countless films could exist.
The founder of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, composer Franco Evangelisti, described the group’s signature method of coaxing and compelling unusual sounds from their instruments as ‘traumatic’, as if to persuade instruments to produce such sounds was a form of torture. Invasive, penetrative, enveloping: is sound intrinsically violent? A history of violent Foley has yet to be written. Think of the attention given to gun shots and arrows in countless westerns, futuristic weaponry in sci-fi, grisly scenes in horror films, zombie cannibalism, kicks and punches in Hong Kong wuxia or kung fu cinema, the sword slashes of the Japanese chambara genre. In his 2002 dual biography of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune – The Emperor and the Wolf – Stuart Galbraith IV gives credit to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as a milestone in this history. He quotes Kurosawa’s script supervisor, Teruyo Nogami:
(In chambara films), you used to hear only the sound of the sword or the samurai’s yell. But our director, Kurosawa, asked the experienced sound mixer Ichiro Minawa, ‘Don’t you think there would be some kind of sound when somebody is cut with a sword?’…Anyway, Mr. Minawa thought about it, and made more than ten sound effects. I remember him hitting and stabbing cuts of pork and beef that he bought from a butcher…According to Mr. Minawa, beef and pork were too soft to make a sound. He needed something bony. Finally, he put some chopsticks in a whole chicken and then attacked it with a sword…On TV or in movies, they always use this kind of sound effect now, but Yojimbo was the first.4
Not to be overlooked in this anecdote is the profound influence of Yojimbo on the Italian genre of spaghetti westerns, specifically Sergio Leone’s Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), scored by Ennio Morricone.
“Do they like music, or are they in love with equipment?” asks John Schlesinger’s 1959 television documentary about hi-fi buffs, Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum. Gilderoy falls into a state of entrancement while at work with his beloved Nagra tape machine, his tape echo, the knobs and faders on the mixing desk. Through his entrancement in the labyrinth of sonic technology, the world falls into enchantment. “This guy can turn a light bulb into a UFO,” somebody says. The sleek aesthetic of recording studio technology stands in stark contrast to the materials to be transformed – roots torn from spring onions, water sizzling in a pan, watermelons hacked with cleavers – and the traumatic injuries that they represent. Gilderoy frets over moisture in a condenser microphone; meanwhile, vegetables lie rotting on the studio floor like discarded internal organs. The veins of cabbage. As the artifice overwhelms him, his moral dilemma presents itself as dishevelment, a derangement of hair, clothing, temper and sleep in anticipation of psychic collapse. With exquisite hypocrisy, Santini reassures him, this is not an ‘orror film, not a brutalisation of women; he loves women, this is a story of historical authenticity, a story that needs to be told. Gilderoy’s anguished face tells another story, the unhappy realisation that through his technical expertise and passivity he has come to be implicated in representations of violence that open out into the void of a parallel world. With the disintegration comes Mum’s latest message: the chiffchaff chicks, murdered by magpies. Blood on the shed. No escape from ‘orror.
Steeped in allusions to the giallo genre, the music for Berberian Sound Studio was created by Broadcast, at that time a Birmingham-based duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill. Active in recording between 1996 and 2011 (ending with the death of Keenan in January 2011), Broadcast’s early sound was a hybrid of contemporary production values combined with resonances of the 1960s, among them Jefferson Airplane, United States of America and Joe Meek. Their 2009 album collaboration with Julian House (of the Ghost Box label) – Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age – is both a pre-echo of Berberian Sound Studio and the apotheosis of a musical trend known as hauntology. Retrospectively, hauntology can be partially understood as a reaction to the exponential growth of digital technology in the new millennium, a studied obsession with obsolete futurology, along with the uncanny and occult potential of analogue and its archives. Peter Strickland’s 2015 radio recreation of The Stone Tape, originally a play for television written by Nigel Kneale and broadcast on BBC Two in 1972, was a conscious identification with this hauntological mood.
At the centre of Kneale’s play was the speculative theory of residual haunting, the idea that matter, such as a stone wall, can act as a recording device by absorbing sounds and events into its substance, later replaying them as emanations. This spookiness of sound, its dangerously haunted nature, was also evident in his 1958 BBC television series, Quatermass and the Pit, in which electronic music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, then in its infancy, evoked the chilling malevolence of a world which conflated aliens, ghosts and devils. Kneale’s work was complex, not easily reducible to a single theme; his plays considered otherness, trauma, the creation of monsters, nostalgia and longing, the tenacity of transitory phenomena, the liveliness of matter.
Traces of sound haunt places, objects and atmospheres – a metaphor for the way in which sound imprints on memory even as loss strips away all the apparently stable materiality of life. Taunted throughout by his Italian employers for his quiet professionalism, his shy, unreachable ‘English’ identity – “You English, always hiding” – Gilderoy finally becomes just another character to be dubbed into Italian, no more real than the lecherous goblin or resurrected witch of The Equestrian Vortex. With every flicker of a VU meter he is recording his own existence, thereby reducing it to a memory subject to replay, transformation and erasure. Sound is ambiguous, fleeting, illusory; perhaps Gilderoy was never there.
- Bohman appears fleetingly, Hitchcock cameo style, in Strickland’s most recent film, In Fabric. ↩
- Quote is taken from personal correspondence with Peter Strickland, as are all quotes unless otherwise stated. ↩
- See Berio’s note on Visage at http://www.lucianoberio.org/node/1505?2019623839=1. ↩
- Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshio Mifune, Faber & Faber, New York, 2002, pp. 302-303. ↩