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Broadcast: Berberian Sound Studio (39 fragments)

January 15, 2013


  1. I do like this kind of thing.
  2. Berberian Sound Studio, the new album by Broadcast, has more tracks than minutes.
  3. That’s 39 in 37, if you’re interested.
  4. The album is a soundtrack, and a soundtrack-within-a-soundtrack.
  5. (Eerie, atmospheric electronic sound is often remarked on as sounding vaguely “like” a film soundtrack, but there’s something more definite going on here.)
  6. Berberian Sound Studio is tied in with Peter Strickland’s film of the same name, about an English radiophonic sound-maker.
  7. The composer or bruiteur, Gilderoy, goes to Italy to make a score for an Italian horror film.
  8. This leads to disquiet and derangement.
  9. Here is a still from the film:        Image
  10. The movie within the movie, The Equestrian Vortex, is not actually seen in Strickland’s film, but plenty of it is heard.
  11. Some of the music here, then, is the music of Broadcast;
  12. Some of it is the music of an implied or imagined composer from the past.
  13. This recording was conceived before the sad death of Trish Keenan, almost exactly two years ago.
  14. Trish’s voice appears here and there, thinly, beautifully.
  15. This comes from Dictaphone recordings made when material was being sketched, apparently.
  16. I probably don’t need to tell you that the effect is haunting.
  17. In many respects this album is a joy; it reminds me of the pleasure of miniaturization.
  18. Even leaving aside the connection to the film, you can choose to simply take this album as a nice old cabinet of curiosities.
  19. There are some lovely, some spooky, some grotesque treasures extracted from a fanciful library.
  20. The closeness to “library music” is meant to add up to something studious, like scholars finding horrors under dusty calf-skin.
  21. I mean, common to both the biblioteque and the discoteque is a sense of rising unease:
  22. That is, the menace of the archive, the dubiousness of reviving the past.
  23. Here is a preview of the album:
  24. What’s new? For one, a gorgeous horror-organ sound that keeps booming, at points, throughout the album.
  25. This album sits very nicely alongside Broadcast’s earlier, similarly fragmentful collaboration with The Focus Group, … Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age.
  26. It’s all quite a way from the songs on The Noise Made by People (dreamy, yet nightmarish;
  27. A distance, too, from the clipped stripped style on Tender Buttons.
  28. The fact that this is both soundtrack and meta-soundtrack might have opened up too many chances for self-parody.
  29. In fact, there are some movie-kitsch moments with screams and demonic babbling
  30. (then again, why shouldn’t there be?)
  31. These are balanced, though, by sweet pastoral airs, in particular a magnificent recurring theme.
  32. A proper hard modernist composer would have put the whole thing as one track, I reckon.
  33. Presenting the piece as thirty-nine tracks is the work of someone with a pop sensibility.
  34. Is there any difference?
  35. The film deals with the process of composing sounds (the point where everything’s still in bits and pieces, yet to be fully formed);
  36. Collecting these sounds leads to derangement.
  37. The bitty nature appeals to the listener as collector, and the collector as madman.
  38. Our collections are probably a good indication of the individual manner in which we will all, inevitably, become deranged.
  39. This soundtrack is a thing worth having.

What’s going on…

January 13, 2013

… with Frank Sidebottom’s head? And why is he standing next to Maggie Gyllenhaal and a lad who was in the Harry Potter films? These are the questions in everyone’s gobs after the emergence of this picture:


This is the photograph that’s being parade as the “first look at Michael Fassbender as Frank Sidebottom”, from an upcoming film that is to some degree (there’s some mystery here) “about” the late Chris Sievey’s comic alter-ego. Of course, we have to accept it’s true that it’s Fassbender under the papier mache head; it could be Ed Miliband for all I know. But what about that head?

As fans will know, this is what Frank Sidebottom really looks like:


The version played by Fassbender is eerily “off”, to the extent that I reckon the wrongness must be intentional. My favourite suggestion is that an actor playing a role in a biopic never looks exactly like the film’s subject, and a Michael Sheen-ish almostness is being created. The gormless, lipless mouth and untwinkling eyes are certainly unsettling. In the real Sidebottom’s eyes, of course, there’s a light that never…

Digital degradation

January 7, 2013


An update on my recent post where I was going on about how Holly Herndon’s Movement might be an intelligent response to the non-living and “non-degradable”problem of digital music: here’s a piece showing a way in which digital files might be made to degrade — an album made by copying and recopying an mp3 of Beethoven’s Große Fuge by Har$, who asks:

what would happen if I fed the output of an mp3 encoder back into itself, and then continued to do so? Make an mp3 of the mp3, then an mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3, an mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3, and so on…?

Here’s the resulting album on a bandcamp page, and here’s a detailed description of the process from the SoundBlog site. “The result,” writes the composer, “is a dense flow of digital artifacts. But if you listen carefully, within this bubbling electronic stream, you can still make out the outlines of the fugue. It is floating in the depths, like a ghost.”

Wrong artwork, clown

January 4, 2013

I’m not sure how usual these particular mistakes are, but here are some cases of [famous digital media library] trying to be clever and guess the right artwork for some fairly canonical albums I own, and not getting it right.

1) Roxy Music’s eponymous first album:


This one’s strange, in that they’ve got the colours kind of right.

2) The Velvet Underground and Nico:


Naughty failure to find one of the most recognisable album covers ever.


3) Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom:



Holly Herndon: Movement

January 3, 2013


I suppose a common prejudice against computer music – proper, fully digitally made electronic music – is that it’s not made to move, in any sense of the word: see the clichés about laptop performances as profoundly unbodily experiences; about the unfeeling, unmoved logic of unsentimental software; about the non-living, not-live character of the computer. Add to this the sense that digital sound is unmovable, non-degradable: while hauntologists, cassette-cults, dusty stylus lovers prize analog electronic sound for its ability to decay over time, digital sound becomes conversely a matter of ecological crisis, refusing to molder or delight with its dying.

Holly Herndon’s album Movement is, I think, a hugely important record, responding to the question of the relationship between body and software, rightly showing up these prejudices as antiquated. More importantly still, the album is a real delight, its pleasures visceral as well as intellectual.

Herndon’s music insists on the human form, whether that be the body in movement (the rhythmic, beat-based, fully danceable title track, for example) or the body in crisis – this is the sense I get from the more abstract, voice-and-breath based compositions like Breathe and Dilato, which seem to unsettle with their microscopic intrusion into anatomical pulses, interrupted or strained or stretched bodily rhythms.

Admittedly, Herndon claimed in a recent Quietus interview that Breathe, with its drawn-out gasps and magnificent long pause just a few seconds in, isn’t necessarily intended to be an unsettling piece, but there’s surely an ambiguity here which in itself is stimulating (and ultimately more challenging than unremittingly dystopian, doom-bellowing electronic music). What are we hearing? Relaxation (and breathe…) or panic (breathlessly)? Claustrophobia (breathing down your neck) or an erotic thrill (breathing on your neck) or a turning inside-out (breathing down your own neck)? I hear the closeness of these sensations, all cased in the same flesh.

Above all, I take Breathe and Dilato as abstract songs; the former is especially welcome after a couple of years where the signature sound of TV advertising has been a faux-ksy strum of string and a standard-issue “breathy” female vocal. This is what a breathy vocal really sounds like.

Christmas Number One

December 20, 2012

If you don’t play this to your children on Christmas morning then you are a bad parent.

Stills from Radio On

December 18, 2012

(Christopher Petit, 1979)