Robertson Thacher, also known as Bobby Matador, is a member of the musical organization and performance ensemble Oneida, founded in 1997. In addition to making unseemly noise, he teaches literature, writing, and art at a Boston-area middle school.
Berberian Sound Studio begins with a memory. Broadcast’s 2005 album Tender Buttons opened with a repeated eight-note descending major scale played on an electric harpsichord; Berberian Sound Studio repeats this device, opening with a slower, truncated version of the same motif — this time, only four notes descending in the same scale on what sounds like the same electric harpsichord — but the motif repeats only four times, overlaid with additional sound: the rattle of a film projector and the wind cited in the opening track’s title (“A Breeze Through the Burford Spur”).
This melodic reference resonates with a listener attuned to Broadcast’s music, recalling the rich emotional complexity of that earlier album and inviting contemplation of singer Trish Keenan’s unexpected death in early 2011. Keenan’s passing struck me with a power that surprised me at the time and still does. I’m a Broadcast fan and I cherish Tender Buttons in particular as a near-perfect album in my own personal canon. But I have never met any members of the band, and so when I learned of Keenan’s death I was startled at how shaken I found myself. Musicians die – people die – and none of us is a stranger to this. I’ve come over the past couple of years to accept that Broadcast’s music (and again, Tender Buttons in particular) occupies a deeper, more architectural space in my musical life than I knew previously, and my grief at Keenan’s death — which must pale in comparison to the loss felt by those who knew her and loved her — is a signal of the depths to which her music has penetrated me.
So: I bring to Berberian Sound Studio an emotional weight that is immediately conjured by the incantatory harpsichord motif at the beginning of the record. However, what that motif invokes it simultaneously distorts – by the change in speed, by the overlay of external sound, and by the truncation of the melody — and this process of summoning, juxtaposed with distancing, is at the heart of the album.
Berberian Sound Studio is the soundtrack to the film of the same name written and directed by Peter Strickland (who also directed 2009’s Katalin Varga). The film, which I haven’t seen, is described by Warp Records as a “haunting psychological thriller” which follows a sound engineer working on an Italian horror film titled The Equestrian Vortex. But the Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack stands on its own, invoking the corrupting effects of memory and the processes by which we isolate ourselves and distort external reality through the filters of consciousness.
The second track (“The Equestrian Vortex”) more closely resembles previous Broadcast music than any other piece on the record, with loose drumming underpinning a repetitive waltz-time of rising electric harpsichord arpeggios. The harpsichord melody is sprightly as it dances in unison, then counterpoint, with the bass rank of what sounds like a pipe organ. Despite the bright energy the drums bring, they’re deeply phased and actively panned through the audio spectrum, creating a sonic distance that stands in opposition to the sweetness and drive that drums and drum machines have brought to earlier Broadcast work; 50 seconds into the song all instruments disappear but the pipe organ, leaving it to introduce a new descending melodic motif. (Drums do not reappear until the 29th track on the album, “The Sacred Marriage.”) The pipe organ is revealed here to contain a warbling, irregular timbre that suggests it is in fact a motor-driven instrument, likely a mellotron, an Optigan, or an organ processed through a tape echo or tape loop. The effect is again one of distance, of a full, rich sonic experience that has been separated from an original purity and tainted by what begins to reveal itself here as the dismantling process, the dissolution brought by memory, the frailties of human psychology.
The harpsichord triad arpeggios of “The Equestrian Vortex” and the subsequent organ melody serve as two of the three essential melodic building blocks of the entire album. The third track, “Beautiful Hair,” introduces the third: again, arpeggiated triads on the harpsichord open the song in ¾ time, this time outlining a harmony reliant on a cadence that calls to mind a baroque tradition whose details are beyond my remit. If there are explicit references in this motif (Bach? Scarlatti? A late 20th century recontextualizing? I truly don’t know), or if it is merely a signifier for, or reflection of, a European consciousness, I won’t presume to say. A pulsing, wordless vocal ostinato that sounds heavily tape-processed (much like the organ in the prior track) joins this arpeggiated harpsichord, followed by a lyrical, melodic counterpoint played in the high register of what sounds like mellotron strings, harmonized with vibraphone accents at the beginning of alternate measures.
The elements of “Beautiful Hair” added to the two significant motifs from “The Equestrian Vortex” comprise a near-totality of the melodic and harmonic palette of Berberian Sound Studio. Motifs appear backgrounded to murmured dialogue (in Italian); overlaid with immense canyons of tape echo and phase effects; punctuated by screams and sound effects; brutalized by blasts of noise or synth-filtered pulses; and occasionally embellished or expanded upon with melodic extensions; but the vocabulary remains consistent, and as the 39 individual tracks of the album unfold, the result is unsettling and fascinating. The listener’s act of contemplation becomes molded by sound: as each new track opens, our expectation of familiar motifs is tempered by a growing understanding that we cannot reclaim what we heard before. A sense of doubt grows: were these melodies actually present in a pure, sweet form at all, or have they been corrupt from the beginning? This doubt turns to a kind of dread: as the film’s sounds interrupt, plunging from background to foreground and then disappearing, there is a sense of irresistible demolition.
Late in the record, “Valeria’s Burial” and “Edda’s Burial” each offer a solo pipe organ, again warped in timbre and tone by what sounds increasingly like a dying tape echo. These two short ruminations present extensions of earlier melodic elements, avoiding direct reference, and registering almost as attempts to force a broadening of the melodic toolbox; this momentary departure is firmly rejected, however, by “The Game’s Up” – a bed of white noise and reverberant thunderstorm effects over which a whispered, echoed prayer or incantation is superimposed. Following this erasure, we return to the original library of sound and melody until the final track, titled “Our Darkest Sabbath.”
Here, in the final minutes of the album, is a new set of figures, building on the foundations laid in the opening minutes and maintaining the timbral and instrumental character of the entire work. Despite the ominous title, the closing chapter of the record does appear to present the possibility of new beginnings, even as it remains bound by the limitations of its past.
Sonic limitations — melodic, harmonic, timbral — are essential to the record, and in some ways to Broadcast’s music as a whole. The band, which now consists solely of bassist James Cargill, has always worked within a specific set of parameters and reference points, whether through choice of instruments, choice of effects and sonic strategies: for instance, the use of sudden, dramatic foreground-to-background juxtaposition in Berberian Sound Studio can easily be linked to similar effects in “Corporeal” from Tender Buttons. This restricted vocabulary allows the musicians (or, now, musician) to use processes of variation and recombination, rather than focus solely on innovation. In the case of Berberian Sound Studio, traditional signifiers of Broadcast’s music both instrumental (mellotron, harpsichord, organ) and sonic (tape delay, tape distortion, dramatic foregrounding) remain, but are more limited than in previous efforts, resulting in a more intensely concentrated, ruminative quality that suggests ways in which our consciousness frays: gradually, over time – or suddenly, through obsession and catastrophe.
The act of beginning this work with a direct, mutated reference to Broadcast’s previous work suggests that Cargill intends his audience to bear an experience that shares or recalls what I envision the protagonist of The Equestrian Vortex undergoes: an absorption into the unyielding grasp of ideas that our minds refuse to relinquish. While Cargill may be offering a promise of renewal at the record’s end, we can never unsee, or unhear, what has come before.