With the beginning of the talkies in the 1930’s cinema changed forever. Suddenly the path to the emotions was more direct, as sound had three levels to contend with, the dialogue, the score and the foley. What we’ve learnt since is that it’s often how these layers intersect that can define your cinematic experience. Good directors know this, auteurs like David Lynch and Sergio Leone have transformed it into an art form, a deep sonic experience that can be as playful as it is affecting and elevates film exponentially.
Berberian Sound Studio (Madman) is fascinating, simultaneously a homage to the sound design of the past and a claustrophobic, somewhat surrealistic psychological thriller.
“Come this way, don’t be afraid, a new world of sound awaits you,” offers the mysterious producer Francesco when the cherubic faced English sound designer Gilderoy arrives in Rome to work on a sadistic horror film.
“Strike a light man,” what’s he doing to her,” Gilderoy says on his first screening, as the assistants provide the sound effects by smashing watermelons with sledgehammers.
If ever a film delighted in sound design, fetishised it’s construction and used sound for narrative development, it’s Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a love letter to the Italian slasher films and Giallo’s of the 70’s, where Dario Argento was the undisputed king. It’s a bygone era populated by analogue tape based approaches and chunky fx boxes. Directed by UK’s Peter Strickland, Gilderoy is ostensibly creating sound for an unseen film, yet the results of his labors and manipulative sonic techniques are still profoundly unsettling to both the audience and even himself – to the point where he is driven to the brink of madness by his own dark sonic creations.
The soundtrack comes from UK outfit Broadcast, one of the last projects before Trish Keenan’s tragic passing. Like the film itself it’s self aware, a pastiche of the spookier elements of Goblin, dark keys of Fabio Frizzi, a reference here a reference there. Yet it’s also unmistakably Broadcast, forging their own identity over sleazy and cheeky sonic gestures, and you get the sense they had a ball.
“I listen to film music today and even these composers that are fantastic, every sound is so completely rounded off, and smooth and over compressed, and has the same kind of reverb that sounds the same,” offers US based film composer William Ryan Fritch. “They’re recording in million dollar sound stages for a film that’s nasty, where you need real grit and real bite. They could learn so much from seeing what these lofi recording studios can do, like early dub recordings. You just don’t get that at these high-end studios, because they think that a piano should sound like an open grand piano, I get sick of that. I get sick of the perfect sound.”
You might know Fritch from his role as bandleader in Anticon stalwart Sole’s Skyrider Band, or for his fourth world excursions under his Vieo Abiungo moniker. Yet his score for the Oscar nominated (no it didn’t win) The Waiting Room (Lost Tribe Sound) is nothing short of remarkable, The Waiting Room is a documentary about one 24-hour period in the waiting room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital. The film touches on how the patients (many of whom are uninsured), staff and caregivers deal with the injuries, disease, frustration and bureaucracy.
Fritch’s score is sparse, recorded of course in his home studio, and imbued with an uplifting feeling of hope, a certain dignity, despite the dire situation of many of the films participants. The music is deceptively minimal, modern classical music, pretending to be film music, with some intricate gestures that posses an almost pop sensibility. Without having seen the film it’s difficult to judge its effectiveness, however as a separate suite of music it’s awe inspiring, offering a complexity of emotion that is all too rare in contemporary scoring. Utilising strings, piano, cello, electric bass, electric guitar and various other percussive instruments, it’s clear that Fritch isn’t simply following conventions, pandering to the masses. This is score as a work of art, complex and emotive music that elevates the form.