sexta-feira, 15 de fevereiro de 2013

Soundtracking The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) by Colin Z. Robertson



When I first heard Colin’s soundtrack for the silent Watson and Weber`s classic on Poe`s masterpiece, I remembered a performance of the German composer Asmus Tietchens at the Goethe Institute in São Paulo in 1986 about the Battle of Jutland called “Water and Steel”, an atmospheric sequence on the “Materialschlacht” (“Battle of Material”) of the elements in the modern technological warfare, where the human is just a phantasmagoria in the landscape, as Ernst Jünger immortalized in his novels. At the epicenter of this sequence there was a hammer pulsating as a “mechanical heart”, announcing the coming of the anonymous death, a kind of savage rebellion of the elements against the human realm. Colin has managed to reshape in his composition two distinct layers from Poe’s original: First, re-translating the internal kaleidoscopic architecture of the short story as a pulsating and also mechanical heart, fracturing for material fatigue all parts of the text in a hellish crack, but, second, he also managed to maintain a virtual dramatic unity when the image of the house falls apart in  an reverberating and endless fading effect as the word “ussssher” suggests . After all, who is the virtual witness of this utter, ushering, virtual destruction? He is nor outside nor inside the house, because “Usher” is a metaphor for the creative process itself of Edgar Allan Poe, an ironic specular image of the narrative verisimilitude unraveling before our eyes. In other words, an allegory of that internal beating heart, the spiritual “hammer” of the composition. In this sense, this soundtrack is a little masterpiece in its intensity. I asked Colin to write on your blog a sort of “phenomenology” of his composition and I would like to thank him also deeply for that.  



Watson and Webber’s 1928 version of The Fall of the House of Usher is a landmark in American avant-garde film. I discovered it in 2011 while looking for a silent film that would be a suitable subject for my first attempts in writing a soundtrack. The following is a short discussion of the film and of how I approached writing the soundtrack.

James Sibley Watson Jr and Melville Webber made the film between 1926 and 1928. Their aim was to recreate the mood of the story rather than to faithfully follow the plot, and Watson has been quoted as saying that they chose The Fall of the House of Usher because they “had not read it in a while and would be free of its influence”. Watson handled the photography, while Webber wrote the scenario and directed the actors, as well as working on sets and make-up. Herbert Stern played the part of Roderick Usher, Hildergarde Watson played Madeline, and Webber himself played the visitor.



The film features many intriguing visual effects, shots through prisms and other distortions, super-imposed images, and so on. The film lacks dialogue or any other intertitles, so the story will be somewhat obscure if you are unfamiliar with Edgar Allan Poe’s original. However, if you have read the story then you will see that Watson and Webber have been surprisingly faithful to the text.

The style owes much to German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, particularly in the design of the crazily-angled sets. Watson has also mentioned his admiration for F.W. Murnau, and for The Last Laugh in particular. The visual effects can also be compared to Ballet Mécanique, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s abstract, Dadaist film. However, unlike in Ballet Mécanique, the effects are in the service of a story, and the character of the film is entirely different.

The film was made in barn at the back of Watson’s father’s property in Rochester, New York. It was very much an amateur affair. By the late 1920’s, Hollywood had developed its studio system and its own set of templates for how films should be made. It had its own budgets too. Watson and Webber, lacking both the budgets and the experience of the professionals, were forced to develop their own techniques. Watson wrote:  “At first we hoped to take the picture in a perfectly straight manner, using painted scenery, but we immediately ran into so much trouble that trick work had to be resorted to. After the first six months our motto became ‘hundreds (several) for film, and not one cent for settings.’”



The “trick work” that Watson referred to included much use of distorting lenses, prisms and kaleidoscope effects, as well double exposures. It is in the imaginativeness of this trick work that the film is at its most impressive. Early in the film, stairs are superimposed on stairs, creating arch-like patterns that suggest the architecture of the gothic house. In one scene a cylindrical lens is rotated in front of the camera, alternately stretching and compressing the image, and giving it a slow rhythmic effect. In another, the use of prisms allows Roderick to disappear in the centre of the image while the dead Madeline walks past him.

These effects were all achieved in the camera since Watson and Webber did not have access to an optical printer. This meant that effects had to be tested live, and if the effect did not work out then the scene would have to be re-shot.

There are many visual symbols that are repeated throughout the film: the coffins that float across the screen, the hammer (the shadow of which falls on Madeline) and the endless stairs. And while there are no intertitles, there are a handful of points where individual words appear superimposed on the image to suggest sounds.



Identifying and interpreting these symbols can require a few viewings. Indeed, this has been one of the points of criticism of the film. J.H. Ahern and G.H. Sewell (themselves both UK-based amateur film-makers who had made the experimental film, The Gaiety of Nations) observed that “sometimes one was so puzzled by a particular scene that several others had passed before its meaning was extracted”. Despite their criticisms, they were nonetheless very positive about the film. “It has rhythmic power such as we have seen in hardly any other film,” they wrote.

The film was received with praise not only among the amateur film-makers. Wilton Barrett, then secretary of the National Board of Review, said:

“Mr Watson has formed his cinematic language with his prisms, his bits of this and that, his barn—and with the blessing of his imagination. He has produced a beautiful and a wondrous thing with a decorous wand of curious shadows and melting movement that gives loveliness to symbols of madness and death, after the intention of the author, but with the device of another medium. Not since ‘caligari’ did it, in another sense and with a manner more dependent on older arts, has this been so importantly done for the screen.”



Watson and Webber made only a handful of other films. The Fall of the House of Usher was the first that they completed. They had started and then abandoned a film called The Dinner Party. In 1931 they made an “industrial”, The Eyes of Science for the Bausch & Lomb optical company (who had also supplied many of the lenses and prisms that Watson and Webber used in Usher). This was an illustration of the principals of optics and received much praise for its cinematography. In 1933 they made Lot in Sodom, based on the biblical story. In this film they built on and refined the camera effects that they had used for The Fall of the House of Usher, and also added a score, composed by Louis Siegel. The story is perhaps a little more clearly demonstrated than in Usher, but nonetheless, prior knowledge will certainly help in following the film.

Webber applied his experience of camera effects to a collaboration with Mary Ellen Bute and Theodore Nemeth called Rhythm in Light (1934), which was a short abstract animation set to Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. Watson made another “industrial”, Highlights and Shadows, in 1937, and also made some experiments in x-ray filming in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Writing the Soundtrack

At only 13 minutes, The Fall of the House of Usher is a manageable length for a first attempt at a soundtrack. Obviously, writing for film sets up an interesting set of constraints for a musician. The first step was choosing how to divide the film into musical segments, and it seemed to me that there were three distinct sections. Reading about the film later, it became clear that Watson and Webber also saw this structure as they created the film. The drama and intensity slowly builds within each section, and I mirrored this in the way that I built up the music.



The scene of the visitor approaching the house at the start of the film is slow and lugubrious. It seemed to call for a long droning sound. Once I had created that electronic droning sound, I used it to underpin much of the soundtrack. As the film ends with the reflection of the moon on the tarn, that same sound is heard on its own again.

I used a mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds throughout the soundtrack. The film has one foot in the gothic world of Poe and one in the modern and abstract world of experimental cinema. The mixture of old and modern sounds therefore seemed appropriate.

I had to set up the tempos so that events on screen would fall at useful musical boundaries. I cannot say that I used any sophisticated maths here. Just a mixture of trial and error and serendipity. The choices of some of the sounds, particularly in the second section, were inspired by events on the screen, but I did not want to be too literal about creating sound effects for the film. It was mostly good luck and only a small amount of careful tweaking that allowed the bells and the hammer clangs to fall on the same musical boundaries and that allowed me to set up almost a call and answer pattern with them.

One trick that I used, particularly in the first section, was to avoid having musical events falling too heavily on bar boundaries. This makes the rhythm more complex and acts both to break the expectation that the film will exactly follow the music and also creates more points in which events can occur on screen in synchronisation with the music. I stole this idea from Koyaanisqatsi: I seem to recall that Godfrey Reggio was once asked whether he had cut the film in time with Philip Glass’s music, and he replied that no, he had not, but that with Glass’s polyrhythms any point where you make a cut will fall on some musical event.



Alec Wilder, a friend of Watson and Webber, wrote two soundtracks for The Fall of the House of Usher. Describing the first, he wrote of the difficulty of having many synchronisation points with the film. One of the luxuries that I had from working electronically is that, having set up the tempos, I did not have to worry about playing in time. The computer did that for me.

The third part has a mixture of tempos: it starts slowly with wipes of kaleidoscope images of Madeline’s face and Roderick wandering forlornly around the distorted architecture of the house, but by the end, with Madeline rising from her tomb and the visitor fleeing the house as it collapses into the tarn, the pace is much faster. Visually this is done through faster movement and cuts, and it must also be represented through the music. Rather than change the tempo, which would have been hard to do without it feeling awkward and forced, I gradually brought in double-time elements. I went from just a single drum beat on each bar at the start of the section to sixteenth and thirty-second notes with a hi-hat at the end.


The melodies, as you would expect, are in a minor key. There is no great originality here, but it supports the sombre tone.

In terms of style, I have been distinctly modern in writing this music. I have not made the slightest attempt to emulate the music of the period. The purpose of the exercise was only to write a soundtrack. I thought that would be a sufficient challenge for me at that stage.

After making both The Fall of the House of Usher and Lot in Sodom, Watson wrote articles in Movie Makers magazine describing the effects that he and Webber had created. In each article, Watson sticks to the facts and the technical details, expending few words on artistic ideas or inspirations. I see him as similar to myself in this respect: he comes across as a craftsman or an engineer rather than fitting the romantic image of what an artist should be. Indeed, one sometimes sees the same thing in Poe: in essays such as The Philosophy of Composition, Poe presents himself as an engineer of language. This technical approach is one that I have much sympathy with, and I feel much more comfortable being thought of as a technician than an artist when it comes to my music.



There are a number of other soundtracks. Alec Wilder, mentioned above, wrote one score when the film was first made, and another in 1959. I do not suppose that the first was ever recorded, but I believe the second was, though I have not been able to find it. The version of the film on Treasures From American Film Archives has an accompaniment by Martin Marks which tries to be faithful to the style of the period. And while uploading my own version to YouTube I discovered Scott Keever’s recent score.

As far as I know, though copyrights on 1920’s films are a distinctly murky area, the film is now in the public domain (though the more recent soundtracks probably are not). The copy that I used is from the DVD collection Treasures From American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films. It also appears on Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941.

The Fall of the House of Usher rewards many viewings. I watched the film countless times in the course of writing the soundtrack, and I never got tired of it. The film is so rich in details and symbolism that there are always new things to notice. It also captures the mood of Poe’s story very well. I hope that my  soundtrack supports that.



Bibliography and Resources


Colin Z. Robertson’s 2012 score
http://handsofruin.com/2012/04/30/the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher

Scrapbook of correspondence and clippings related to the films of Dr. James Sibley Watson, Jr.
http://nyheritage.nnyln.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p277601coll5/id/2778

The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (I)
James Sibley Watson, Jr.
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3507

The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (II)
Herbert Stern
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3506

The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (III)
Alec Wilder
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3509

The Films of J. S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: Some Retrospective Views (IV)
Lewis Whitbeck, Jr.
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3508

Film and Video Art: Watson & Webber
Hugh McCarney, Tara Travisano
http://people.wcsu.edu/mccarneyh/fva/W/Watson_Weber.html

Scott Keever’s 2009 score
http://vimeo.com/10082444
http://vimeo.com/10082550

Treasures From American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasures_from_American_Film_Archives

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unseen_Cinema:_Early_American_Avant_Garde_Film_1894-1941

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