The Fall of the House of Usher

I have long been interested in writing a soundtrack. Last year I set about looking for a suitable film to write for. I considered some of the silent film classics that I love, such as Nosferatu or Metropolis. I did a bit of research, filled up my Lovefilm queue with silent films, and learnt quite a bit about that era in the process. But when I found Webber and Watson’s 1928 film of The Fall of the House of Usher I knew I’d found the one.

James Sibley Watson Jr and Melville Webber made the film between 1926 and 1928. The style owes something to German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, particularly in the design of the crazily-angled sets. The film also 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’re unfamiliar with Edgar Allan Poe’s original. However, if you have read the story then you will see that Webber and Watson have been surprisingly faithful to the text.

At only 13 minutes, it’s a manageable length for a first attempt at a soundtrack. Obviously, writing for a 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. Then I had to set up the tempos so that events on screen would fall at useful musical boundaries. I can’t 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 didn’t want to be too literal about creating sound effects for the film. I’ve also been distinctly modern in writing this music. I haven’t made the slightest attempt to emulate the music of the period. Ultimately, the style of the music is simply my own style. The purpose of the exercise was only to write a soundtrack. I thought that would be a sufficient challenge for me at this stage.

There are a number of other soundtracks. Alec Wilder wrote one score when the film was first made, and another in 1959. I don’t suppose the first was ever recorded, but I don’t know about the second. I haven’t been able to find it. The version on Treasures From American Film Archives has an accompaniment by Martin Marks. And while uploading my own version to YouTube I discovered Scott Keever’s score.

I’ve watched the film countless times in the course of writing this soundtrack. The wonderful thing is that this film rewards many viewings. I’m still noticing details and symbolism that would have escaped me if I’d only seen the film once.

Comments

  1. Diego

    I came. Are you planning to do another one?

  2. Colin Z. Robertson

    Diego: That’s high praise indeed. :) As it happens, I’ve just started work on a soundtrack for Watson & Webber’s Lot in Sodom. At the moment I only have initial sketches for the first two sections (out of maybe six or seven), so it’s early days, but I’ll be sure to post updates on this site when I have more to show.

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