Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Berberian Sound Studio and Cathy Berberian

Cathy Berberian reads the score

The premiere of Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland’s follow up to his debut film Katalin Varga, has been announced for the Edinburgh film festival. It stars Toby Jones, so nobly affecting as the firm moral spokesman for reason and good in the beleaguered supermarket community of The Mist, and so creepily sinister as the game-playing dream master toying with the Doctor, Amy and Rory in the Doctor Who episode Amy’s Choice. Here, he plays an English sound engineer plunged into the world of 70s Italian exploitation film-making and slowly getting lost in the sonic worlds he’s creating, and in the feuding and personal politics of the cheap studio in which he’s working. All of which makes it seem like Strickland is putting his youthful experiences of travelling from Reading to the Scala Cinema in London, where the films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and other Italian exploitation directors were a core part of the repertory, to good use. Strickland talks about his Scala experiences in a Sight and Sound interview (in the November ’09 issue) from the time of Katalin Varga’s release, recalling how ‘the cinema smelled of cats, dope and beer. The Northern Line ran underneath. It was a huge epiphany’. In the same interview, he talks about how important sound design and music was to his film, and to his enjoyment of cinema in general. He’d originally wanted the Popul Vuh music which Werner Herzog had used to such sublime effect in Nosferatu for Katalin Varga, although it’s perhaps a good thing that he couldn’t afford it, since it would have sparked unhelpful associations in the minds of some viewers. He remembers seeing Eraserhead at the Scala, and being particularly struck by Alan Splet’s creation of an unsettling sonic backdrop. Katalin Varga has similarly ominous and haunting music and sound, with the buzzing, swarming and throbbing electronica of Stephen Stapleton and Geoff Cox, and of Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound creating a sense of dread anticipation, and acting both as a projection of the dark emotions driving the characters and as an evocation of the landscape through which they move and which to a great degree shapes them. Strickland himself plays in an electronic music trio, The Sonic Catering Band, alongside Colin Fletcher and Tim Kirby, who make a kind of modern musique concrete using the sounds of cookery as source material. You can hear what this tasty culinary fusion sounds like from the extract of Live from the Canteens of Atlantis which plays over the end credits of Katalin Varga. Strickland also supplements his film-making work with the odd spot of DJ-ing, and the extent to which music and cinema hold equal weight for him can be found in his comment (again in the Sight and Sound interview) that Scott Walker’s song The Seventh Seal (whose opening trumpet flourish, which seems to relocate the knight’s quest from Sweden to Spain, ushers in the peerless Scott 4 album) ‘was more important to me than Bergman’s The Seventh Seal’. Much as I love Scott, and his soaring ballad interpretation of the film, I’d have to veer the other way and pledge my loyalty to Ingmar and his timeless film. With his love of music and care for the sonic elements of a film, it is appropriate that Berberian Film Studio is to be released by Warp Films, the cinematic offshoot of the Warp record label. It’s long been known that James Cargill, half of the partnership that was Broadcast, was to provide the soundtrack. But it has now been announced that this will be credited to Broadcast, and a soundtrack record subsequently released as such. This is incredibly exciting, and presumably means that the music will incorporate recordings of the late Trish Keenan’s vocals.

All of which brings me to the title. I’m assuming that Berberian makes reference to the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, a remarkable singer who pushed the boundaries of vocal music and performance from her first recordings in the 50s through to her sudden and unexpected death in 1983 at the age of 57. Brian Morton, in his piece on Berio’s Sequenza III in his book The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Contemporary Music, describes her as being ‘one of the most significant musical performers and collaborators of the (twentieth) century’. Some people might now her through her album of Beatles covers, Beatles Arias, which is often cited as the height of the classical music establishment’s embarrassing efforts to appropriate the group’s songs as examples of contemporary ‘composition’ in the 60s (and which was almost certainly the source of the French and Saunders sketch in which they played operatic divas making a recording of Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky). In fact, as the hilarious film of her singing Ticket to Ride makes quite clear, Berberian was well aware of the absurdity of some aspects of the whole endeavour, and there were definite elements of pastiche and comical role-playing involved (unsurprisingly given the arrangements by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who has always shown a resolutely disrespectful regard for classical norms). These indicated the degree to which performance was a key part of her art, which married the concert with the theatre stage. She had studied mime, drama and dance (and stage writing) at Columbia University in addition to her music activities (which travelled to Milan to explore further), and combined all of these disciplines to mesmerising effect in performance. This can be heard in the piece Recital I for Cathy by Luciano Berio from 1971, although hearing it on a recording (you can find it on the Recital for Cathy CD on RCA) you lose a significant dimension, as the staging is integral to its impact. She gets to sing in a variety of styles, Berio putting together a musical collage which could almost act as a sampler of her diverse range. There are moments of ‘legitimate’ classical recital (passages from two Monteverdi pieces), of atonal modernism, comical circus brass and louche Berlin cabaret (a snatch of Marlene from The Blue Angel, demonstrating Berberian’s talent for pastiche and imitation). The tensions between these warring styles occasionally threatens to tear the whole piece apart, with the orchestra intruding with noisy eruptions. In between these musical scraps, Berberian carries on a stream of muttering verbiage, an expression of the mental chatter circling the mind of the projected singer whose role she is inhabiting. This stream of consciousness occasionally burbles over into a dramatic version of the Sprechstimme which Schoenberg used for his 1912 expressionist horror fantasy Pierrot Lunaire, an amalgamation of spoken and sung text. For stage performances of the piece, Berberian was draped in steadily accumulating layers of costume, increasingly burdened by the multiple personae she was obliged to put on. She ends up in an ominous pose, with a rope noosed around her neck and a vividly bloodstained veil draped over her head.

Berberian and Berio

Berberian met the composer Luciano Berio in Milan in 1949, whilst she was studying in Italy. She’d been born and brought up in the Bronx and Queens districts of New York by her Armenian parents and become involved in numerous musical and artistic pursuits in the area. She attended Columbia University, from which she travelled over the Atlantic to France and thence to Milan. Berio and Berberian, whose complementary surnames seemed to presage their personal compatibility, married the year after their first meeting, and embarked upon a fruitful musical relationship which would endure beyond their separation in 1964. Brian Morton rightly asserts that she has to be regarded as a co-composer of the works which Berio wrote for her, so completely do they rely on her unique vocabulary of extended vocal sounds. In 1955, Berio helped to set up and became the co-director of the Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan as a part of the Italian National Radio (RAI) station. This was one of a number of experimental electronic music ‘laboratories’ in Europe and the US, usually connected to state-funded public broadcasting networks or the research departments of technological corporations (The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre was one of the few associated with a university, and was established in 1952, a few years after Berberian had left for the continent). The first of these had been the Groupe de Recherches Musicale in Paris, set up in 1951 by the two Pierres, Schaeffer and Henry in conjunction with the Office of French National Radio-Television (ORTF). This was followed shortly afterwards by the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, where Stockhausen constructed his early tape pieces; the Centre for Electronic Music in Eindhoven (set up in 1956), associated with the Philips Research Labs, where Edgar Varese composed his Poeme Electronique (blasted through hundreds of speakers inside Xenakis’ Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussells World’s Fair); and, of course, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, established, after much lobbying by Daphne Oram, in 1956. Amongst the pieces created at the Milan studios was John Cage’s Fontana Mix (1959), one of his indeterminate works, whose broad instructions read ‘to be prepared from the score for the production of any number of tracks of magnetic tape, or for any number of players, any kind and number of instruments’. The score to which Cage referred was a series of transparent sheets, dotted, gridded and contour-lined with graphic notation resembling a map of sound. These suggested a dense, sedimentary layering of elements, a sonic geology. Berberian incorporated Cage’s own Aria (1958), another indeterminate piece using a graphic score which is little more than a series of coloured, subheaded squiggles with such helpful guidance as ‘not as a birth but as love’ and ‘will you give me to tell you?’. The colours indicate different singing styles, such as contralto (red), Sprechstimme (black with a parallel dotted line), jazz (dark blue), folk (green), and Marlene Dietrich (a category all to herself and, naturally, purple). Berberian’s considerable input into the shaping of the piece means that, once more, she can effectively be considered a co-composer, no matter what Cage himself might have claimed.

Musical cartography - part of John Cage's score for Fontana Mix

Her introduction of a vocal element into Cage’s electro-acoustic collision of sounds brought it under the overarching aesthetic of the Milan studios, which favoured the human voice as a source sound. Luciano Berio shared Cage’s fascination with the work of James Joyce, and with the musical quality of his language. His piece Chamber Music from 1953 uses poems from Joyce’s early collection which Berberian sings to clarinet, cello and harp accompaniment, the harp descending in single, steadily paced, deliquescent notes. Her US-Armenian accent, flavoured by years living in Italy, seems almost to take on a pleasing Irish lilt in places to fit in with the setting. The ‘Strings in the earth and air’ poem which is one of the ones Berio sets is also familiar from Incredible String Band singer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson’s bardic interpretation on his first solo LP Myrrh. Joyce’s words were also the starting point for Berio’s 1958 tape piece Thema: Omaggio a Joyce, this time taken from the opening of the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, a passage in which the writer breaks down customary linguistic form and sense. The first line, ‘bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing imperthnthn, thnthnthn’, makes it clear that Joyce was seeking sense from sound more than meaning deriving from logically constructed grammar. Open-ended ow, oo and ee sounds are contrasted with closed ings, lisping th’s and sibilant ss’s (evoking the hiss of retreating waves). It’s a challenge to declaim it aloud, but Berberian’s initial sonorous and sensual reading (did Kate Bush hear this, I wonder?) is a thing of unadorned beauty in itself. Berio takes elements of sentences, words, and fragments of words from her interpretation of Joyce’s prose, isolating their different sound qualities and manipulating and superimposing them. The music inherent in Joyce’s language is released by all the splicing, multiplication, speeding up or slowing down and spatial filtering of the sounds articulated by Berberian. It really is like a language laboratory, investigating the fundamental matter of language, its affective nature. The elements of speech are transformed into pure sound, devoid of overt meaning but possessed of a musical quality which communicates on its own level. They also thus reflect back on the elements of pure sound in the original ‘nonsense’ text. The song of the siren bears its own meaning, bypassing the distancing logic of language and speaking directly to the heart.

Visage (1960-1), another electronic piece constructed through painstaking tape-editing and built around Berberian’s voice, dispenses with words altogether, apart from an ironic ‘parole’ (words or speech in Italian) clearly articulated in a breathy, ghostlike whisper towards the middle, as if to remind us of the language of a former existence. This really brings Berberian’s extended vocal techniques to the fore, as the piece relies entirely on her extra-linguistic palette of sounds for its colouration and expressive power. It’s a quite astonishing work, built upon an absolutely fearless performance. As with Omaggio a Joyce, the voice is subject to the electronic manipulation of tape edits and effects, but here they are much more extensive and sustained (the piece lasts about 21 minutes). The opening minutes are genuinely disturbing, all the more so for the use of identifiably human sounds which have gone beyond the normal range of human expression. They have been transported into the realm of the uncanny, of supernatural voices sounding from the beyond. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was this piece in particular which inspired the title of Strickland’s new film. It begins with a hissing exhalation of breath which expands like fog to create a chill, all-encompassing atmosphere. Sibilant, floating spirit chatter flitters through this mist, approaching from and receding into the depthless obscurity. A distressed voice makes stuttering attempts at speech, but gets caught on hard, jagged consonants, and is unable to articulate a single word. There is a sudden burst of jarring laughter, tinged with hysteria, and a voice muttering to itself in a nonsense language comprehensible to nobody else, perhaps not even to itself. It sounds like it is reciting a story, or swiftly recounting the fading recollections of a life before they all fragment and dissipate again. The moods of the piece shift and reconfigure themselves, often with disorientating alacrity or suddenness. Laughter morphs into weeping, which them modulates seamlessly back into laughter. These recognisably human sounds then undergo a transformation into staccato insect stridulation and the buzzing of swarming flies – sounds which could easily have been used on the soundtrack of Katalin Varga. At one point, an electronic space of glitter and sparkle is created through filter and echo effects, within which the moaning sounds of pleasure reverberate, a passage which caused the prudish Italian Radio Corporation to ban a broadcast of the piece. This spatial dimension of pleasure is all too soon torn apart by a violent, abrasive sound, as if some external force were also intent on crushing any trace of sensual delight. As a whole, Visage gives us the sense of being privy to the turbulent tides of a psyche which is either being assailed by an external force, or is tearing itself apart from within. It is a wholly remarkable work of immense power, giving the lie to the impression that the music of the post-war avant-garde was all bloodless, over-intellectualised serialism.

Berberaian repeated the vocal pyrotechnics of Visage in the 1965-6 piece Sequenza III, one in a series of compositions in which Berio explored the full range of a particular instrument. Here, she sings without the transformative magic of studio tape editing techniques. The piece allows Berberian to unleash the full expressive power of her extended vocal armoury. We are taken on an exhilarating, emotional and exhausting thrill-ride, which takes in the highs and lows of tongue clicks and rolls, mutterings, laughter, shivers, ecstatic sighs, trills, humming, coughs, neighs, croons, operatic outbursts, ululations, Indian whoops, screams, gasps, gibberings, full-throated declamations and a short passage in which she seems to become possessed and start speaking in tongues (although the piece as a whole could be regarded in this light). It demonstrates the huge variety of sounds which the human mouth and vocal chords are capable of producing, and comparisons with other pieces in the Sequenza series demonstrate that it is an instrument of far greater flexibility than anything else to be found in the music shop. Berberian’s performance is heroic, outlining a whole new vocabulary of musical sound, and also demonstrating how to use it in a directly affecting manner. Berio continued to write for Berberian after their marriage had ended (indeed, Sequenza III comes from this period), most notably in Folk Songs which, probably because it is quite straightforwardly tonal, is one of his best known pieces. It’s a suite of arrangements of songs from around the world with a traditional or folkish flavour. A good many of them, however, are actually composed or at least adapted from traditional material. For example, Kentucky-born John Jacob Niles’ Irish-style ballad Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair (also sung by Nina Simone and by Patty Waters, who turns into an extended Visage-style psychodrama) and the two pieces from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Other songs take us to France, to Azerbaijan (via a love song unearthed by Berberian from a cracked Russian 78), Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. Berberian also gets a chance to reconnect with her Armenian roots (she had sung in an Armenian folk group when she was at high school in New York) in the song Loosin Yelav. Folk songs may be more conventional in form than the electronic pieces or Sequentia, but it shares, in a more stately fashion, their collage structure. The contrasting juxtaposition of divergent national styles takes the listener on a virtual global tour of Western songforms. There’s a utopian element too, with the drawing together of international songs through unified arrangements (and the inclusion of songs written by composers using material and styles from beyond their borders) highlighting their similarities rather than their differences, and pointing to the universal nature of the essential human concerns and emotions which they convey.

Other major twentieth century composers also wrote pieces specifically for Berberian, tailoring them to her musical persona, or simply trusting her to understand and communicate their particular artistic intentions. Stravinsky entrusted her to deliver his serialist Elegy for JFK in 1964, and William Walton wrote a ‘sequel’ to his famous piece Façade for her in 1979. This was cheekily titled Façade 2, perhaps in recognition of the dawn of the blockbuster sequel. Façade was initially written in 1921-2, and was a suite of light music with jazzy flavours wrapping around a recital of semi-abstract poems by Edith Sitwell. These poems, with their playful experimentation with sound and sense, and Walton’s musical evocation of them are an earlier example of a composer hearing music in the sounds of language, presaging the later Joycean text-based pieces of Cage and Berio. Walton’s Façade 2 was in fact a revision, replacing some of Sitwell’s texts and adding new numbers. Sitwell’s work also caught the ear of Trish Keenan of Broadcast (who mentioned her in a Wire interview in the context of the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP track Seancing Song). Keenan was beginning her own explorations into ‘nonsense’ lyrics, associative meanings, word sounds and the electronic manipulation of the human voice on the Broadcast albums Tender Buttons (with its Gertrude Stein referencing title) and the Witch Cults LP (made with Ghost Box audio collagist The Focus Group), as well as in increasingly experimental live performances. These later trends in the band which had by this point been whittled down to the central creative and personal partnership of Keenan and James Cargill, seem very much in line with the work of Berberian and Berio. I wonder if she’d heard much of her work. There is a definite affinity with some of Berberian’s work, and immersion in a sound world which always remains rooted in the reality of the human voice. This makes Broadcast the ideal choice to soundtrack Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Berberian also composed music herself. The 1966 piece Stripsody is a hugely enjoyable four minutes or so in which she vocalises the sounds of a comic strip, drawn for her by the artist Roberto Zamarin (the strip ideally projected during the performance). The strip effectively becomes a highly colourful graphic score, with Berberian voicing the noisy vitality straining against the boundaries of the frames in the best comics (and she was an avowed fan). It’s a mini-symphony of comic-strip sound effects, its quick-cut edits marking the jump from frame to frame, and from comic to comic (we get samples of hard-boiled gangster strips, westerns, superheroes, romances, animal comics and more). It echoes the rapid shifts and musical pratfalls of the Warner Brothers cartoon music of Carl Stalling (never was a composer less aptly named). There are kerplunks and the bang bang of pistols; the budda budda of machine gun fire and the sirens of police cars; the mewing of cats and the barking of dogs; stomping and thudding (as in ‘stomp, stomp, thud, thud’); the high-speed gallop of cowboys’ horses and the whistle of Indians’ arrows; the sucking and smacking of kisses and the revving of souped-up motors. At one point, there is a Charlie Brownish ‘good grief’, and a brief snatch of Ticket to Ride, pointedly not sung in the operatic style, a burst of which it unexpectedly emerges from. Towards the end, Cathy utters the immortal (if slightly altered) words ‘it’s a plane…no. It’s a bird…no. It’s Superman!’ The piece finishes with snores and zzzzs turning into the whining, whimpering buzz of a fly silenced by a terminal ‘bang’. A whimper and a bang to end. She certainly pulls it all off with a lot more conviction than Brigitte Bardot mustered for Serge Gainsbourg's Comic Strip.

A small frame of the Stripsody score

An audio version of Stripsody can be found on the Cathy Berberian site, as can her beautiful rendition of La Flute de Pan, from Debussy’s sublime Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Berberian died of a heart attack in 1983 on her way to a performance in Rome. She was going to sing The Internationale at a celebration of the centennial of Karl Marx’s birth in the style of Marilyn Monroe. It would have been a gesture which simultaneously celebrated Marx’s legacy and lightly mocked the humourless, ascetic earnestness of some of his acolytes. Now that would really have been something to hear.

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