Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Broadcast’s soundtrack to director Peter Strickland’s movie Berberian Sound Studio came out this week — it’s the first music they’ve released since the death of singer Trish Keenan in 2011. The album is mostly instrumental (although there are a few bits of Keenan’s voice audible in the mix), and made up of brief, foreboding tracks, 39 of them in roughly as many minutes. Here’s “The Equestrian Vortex,” the title sequence for Berberian Sound Studio’s horror-film-within-a-horror-film.
When Broadcast first started releasing records in the mid-’90s, they wore their inspirations on their sleeve — chief among them The United States of America, the hard-to-Google band who released a solitary self-titled album in 1968. Led by multi-instrumentalist Joseph Byrd and vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz, the United States of America made a point of not using guitars, and built their arrangements around electronic effects and wobbly, bent keyboard tones. Here’s their album’s opening track, “The American Metaphysical Circus.”
Broadcast’s 2000 song “Papercuts,” whose video is below, is a very different kind of song, but you can hear something of Moskowitz’s vocal technique in Keenan’s.
The sort of haunted electronics-and-voice music The United States of America were creating in Los Angeles was being echoed in the U.K., around the same time, by artists like Delia Derbyshire (of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). Derbyshire was part of the electronic trio White Noise, who recorded the gorgeous, unsettling 1969 album An Electric Storm; here’s its opening track, “Love Without Sound.”
The title of Berberian Sound Studio suggests another point of reference for Broadcast’s music (and for their label Warp’s aesthetic — Warp apparently also funded the making of the movie itself). The late composer and singer Cathy Berberian was one of the prominent performers of avant-garde vocal music in the ’60s and ’70s; one of the performances that made her reputation was this 1958 voice-and-electronics piece composed by John Cage, “Aria with Fontana Mix.”
Berberian also wrote some notable pieces herself. The remarkable video below shows her performing part of “Stripsody” — a composition consisting entirely of sound effects and dialogue from newspaper comic strips — as well as a bit of the score. If anybody ever tries to tell you that avant-garde music doesn’t have a sense of humor, show them this.
One of Broadcast’s brief pieces on the Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack is called “A Goblin,” which is another breadcrumb trail. The plot of the film concerns the giallo horror and crime movies that came out of Italy in the mid-1970s; one of the classics of that genre is Dario Argento’s 1975 movie Profondo Rosso (a.k.a. Deep Red). Argento enlisted the prog-rock band Cherry Five to record its soundtrack, for which they changed their name to Goblin. The soundtrack was wildly successful, and they remained Goblin for the next eight years’ worth of soundtrack recordings. Here’s their theme music from Profondo Rosso.
Broadcast’s multi-instrumentalist James Cargill noted in this interview The Outer Church that other giallo soundtracks inspired the Berberian music, too — notably the opening theme Nicola Piovani composed for the 1975 film Le Orme (“Footprints on the Moon”). Here’s the title sequence of that movie.
(Cargill also included Piovani’s Le Orme music in a 34-minute mix he put together for The Outer Church.)
Another soundtrack Cargill excerpts in that mix comes from Argento’s first film, released in 1970: L’uccello dalle piume de cristallo, or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The score to that film was by Ennio Morricone, one of the most prolific and inventive composers of Italian movie soundtracks; here’s his theme for L’uccello.
One more classic from that era of Italian crime-movie soundtracks: Stelvio Cipriani’s urgent harpsichord-and-funk-horns theme for 1973’s La polizia sta a guardare, which Quentin Tarantino re-used a few years ago for Death Proof.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland is an experimental musician himself: For the past 15 years or so, he’s been a member of the Sonic Catering Band, whose recordings are made from the sounds of cooking. Here’s “Lactic Sugar Dream,” from their 2003 album Seven Transdanubian Recipes. It’s not exactly the stuff of movie soundtracks, but like some of the best giallo soundtracks — and like Broadcast’s music — it’s built on the way electronic processing can make even commonplace sounds deeply unnerving.