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.

Neither Predator nor Prey – from the new album

The new album, Empire and Dust, will be released on 28 May 2012. I’m excited about this one. I’ve been working on these tracks for two years now. These tracks were all produced with my current music-making setup of Ableton Live plus Ableton’s orchestral instrument samples and Tobias Marberger’s G-Town Church Sampling Project sounds (about which I might write another blog post some day). I’m excited because I think the quality of these tracks is greater than anything I’ve released before.

By the way, my mailing list subscribers will have access to a free bonus track that didn’t make it onto the album, so go ahead and sign up.

Here’s a track from the album, Neither Predator nor Prey:

SoundCloud

I’ve been having some fun over on SoundCloud lately. It’s great for hearing new music and keeping up with good musicians, and it’s pleasant to use (as opposed the pit of horror that is MySpace). I’m using it as a place to share some of the more work-in-progress type pieces as well as the material that’s too techno-ish for Hands of Ruin. But here are a couple of tracks that will get a more formal Hands of Ruin release at some point (and titles too, with luck):

Untitled [2010-07-31] – Draft 2011-05-19 by czrobertson

Untitled [2011-02-04] – Draft 2011-04-03 by czrobertson

The lyrics I love

At the weekend my cousin Tam posted his selection of favourite lyrics over at Where’s Runnicles. Damn him for doing so, because it inspired me to stay up way past my bedtime last night drafting the list of my favourites. Like Tam, I’m restricting myself to one song per artist, and also I gave myself a limit of ten songs (more for the sake of my sanity than anything else).

I’ll start where Tam ended, with Nick Cave. He is of course a brilliant songwriter and I’m spoilt for choice here. I considered the economical storytelling in the first verse of We Came Along This Road, and the wordplay in Easy Money, but my favourite is this description of a graveyard in Gates to the Garden:

Fugitive fathers, sickly infants, decent mothers
Runaways and suicidal lovers
Assorted boxes of ordinary bones
Of aborted plans and sudden shattered hopes
In unlucky rows
In unhappy rows
In unlucky rows
Up to the gates of the garden

Luke Haines is always eloquent. While I’m no expert on his music, I do have a couple of Auteurs albums in my collection. New Wave has some wonderful poetry throughout. In particular, Valet Parking paints a wonderful picture from the first lines:

Never saw your driver’s eyes
Or me on parking street
We were planning your demise
Your chauffeur’s tired
But you’re still on heat.

Through to the last verse:

Never thought I’d see the day
When your pale face turned grey
Got no guts, got no fame
Your epitaph
Sorely missed
Your unfaithful slave

It seems to me that all ROME songs contain some wonderful turn of phrase within them. Jerome Reuter’s skills seem to get sharper with every album and I think that perhaps their two strongest songs lyrically are La Rose et la Hache and Les Isles Noires, both from their most recent album, Nos Chants Perdus. My absolute favourite though is this metaphor from We Who Fell in Love with the Sea which often gets stuck in my head:

You say „why weep over what?“
We say weep until the weeping’s done
And we shall weep for another day
For what binds us to our grief
Binds the sculptor to his clay

From the sublime to the ridiculous, perhaps, but no less sublime for it: Freezepop. They’ve always struck me as being on the intellectual side of synthpop, whether it’s with mischevious songs like Bike Thief or Do You Like My Wang™? or with the quirky romance of Duct Tape My Heart. But for sheer lyrical joy, it’s hard to beat these lines from Chess King:

You’re looking sassy and you know it cause you sport the Benetton
You walk right past me and don’t show it but you wanna get it on
Hiding in the food court I know that I may not get a second chance
I’ve got a car, I’ve got Drakkar and now I’m looking for romance

And then from joy back into misery again with Arab Strap. They spent ten years writing eloquently about relationships gone wrong and I was hard pressed to choose between some of my favourites such as Don’t Ask Me to Dance and The Shy Retirer. But I think one of their great lyrical moments comes near the end of Fucking Little Bastards:

They’ve scrutinized the mistakes I’ve been makin’
They know who I’ve fucked, they know what I’ve taken
They’ve seen me in the shower with shit down my legs
They’ve seen me searching a stranger’s house for dregs

I used to think they loved me but now I know it’s pity
Because they know that they can always flee this fucking city
They even said they’d help me out and give me a head start
But they know that these days my cock’s as numb as my heart

Tam chose One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong from Leonard Cohen’s large catalogue of extraordinary songwriting. It’s one of my favourites too, but for my absolute favourite I’ll have to go with these two lines from Sisters of Mercy:

Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family but soon it comes round to your soul

I can barely think of those two lines and remain dry-eyed.

Sometimes lyrics don’t have to be perfect to be superb. In the case of Spiritual Front, their great ideas often shine through despite the errors of grammar and pronunciation (English not being their first language). But I think this from Song for the Old Man shows them at their best:

Twenty years in the tropics
One hundred years of regrets
Life is to long to repent and too short to deify the bitterness
Your ironed shirt, your brushed hair, your perfect dye go beyond
Every political conviction and against every classfight
I loved your style and your hatred for, your hatred for mediocrity
God will not give you an honoured place but he will envy your shined shoes

I will sing my worst South American song at your funeral, my old man.

Back to the ridiculous for a second time, this time with Bal-Sagoth. Their 1996 album, Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule, tells an epic tale of bloodthirsty, Tolkien-esque sword and sorcery. It’s not so much that there’s a particular moment of lyric brilliance in it, more that it’s just such a singular work and I wanted to pick something here that would be representative of the whole. I’ll go with these lines from To Dethrone the Witch-Queen of Mytos K’Unn (The Legend Of the Battle of Blackhelm Vale):

A staggering sea of crimson, a towering mountain of ravaged flesh,
All enraptured by the searing kiss of steel,
All surfeit from supping deep of the grim chalice of battle…

Brooding gods of the north, display to these outlander thralls thine ire,
Envenom our blades with the death-kiss of a thousand serpents,
Unfetter the dread war-wolves within us,
That their claws may rend, and their jaws may be reddened.

And then back into this world again, Tam picked Seven Signs of Ageing by Phillip Jeays. I’ll take the opportunity to pick another of Phillip Jeays’ songs, October, which is neither humorous nor political, but contains this violently romantic image:

I will love you like a hooligan
I will smash the windows of your heart
And steal your days away from him

(Incidentally, it’s Tam who introduced me to the music of Phillip Jeays via his non-blogging brother.)

And I’ll end with someone who I think is an extraordinary songwriter, Joanna Newsom. Her album Ys is a sprawling mass of poetic beauty. I was leaning towards picking Emily for its wonderful cosmic imagery, but then I read these lines from Only Skin and the tears in my eyes made the decision for me:

All my bones they are gone, gone, gone
Take my bones, I don’t need none
Cold, cold cupboard, Lord, nothing to chew on!
Suck all day on a cherry stone

Dig a little hole, not three inches round
Spit your pit in the hole in the ground
Weep upon the spot for the starving of me!
Till up grew a fine young cherry tree

Well when the bough breaks, what’ll you make for me?
A little willow cabin to rest on your knee
Well what will I do with a trinket such as this?
Think of your woman, who’s gone to the west

But I’m starving and freezing in my measly old bed!
Then I’ll crawl across the salt flats to stroke your sweet head
Come across the desert with no shoes on!
I love you truly, or I love no-one

TEDx Aldeburgh

Last weekend I was at TEDx Aldeburgh. It’s a TEDx conference devoted to music and it fits into the Aldeburgh Festival. The organiser, Thomas Dolby, explains the origins of the event. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that grabbed my attention:

Tim Exile was part of the reason that I went to conference in the first place. I find the tools that he’s built for live music-making fascinating. See this video explaining his live setup. One of the points he made that I found interesting was that he’d had difficulty making live music in the sorts of clubs where he usually ends up playing because, while his music was impressive as live music, it wasn’t so perfectly engineered as the studio-recorded dance tunes that the DJs would be playing before and after his set.

Tod Machover spoke about the crazy projects that they work on at the MIT Media Lab. Most interesting to me was a piece called Spheres & Splinters that he’s doing with the cellist Peter Gregson. In this work, while Gregson plays the cello, there’s also a computer system running which interprets the movement of the bow and uses that information to generate an accompaniment. I was so impressed that I went along to a full performance of this piece last night at Kings Place.

Ashraf Nehru from United Visual Artists told us about the work that they do with light and visuals, often working with musicians. Indeed, they were also involved in Spheres & Splinters and contributed beautiful lighting to the performance using many thin pillars with LEDs surrounding the cellist. I hadn’t realised it, but I’d also seen their work before, including the sculpture, ‘Volume’, and the backdrop they made for a live performance of the Blade Runner soundtrack a few years ago.

William Orbit’s segment was conducted as an interview, with Thomas Dolby as interviewer. He spoke about being a producer and remixer of pop stars. He also spoke about the pressures of the industry, and how, despite the pressure to continually keep pushing out music, it actually was perfectly fine to take the time to create the best music that you can. Your fans don’t forget about you.

Felix Thorn’s Machine is a wonderful piece of engineering. It’s a collection of drums, melodic percussive instruments and a harmonium, all activated with servomotors and connected to a sequencer over MIDI. He was playing music that sounded like the sort of thing that Plaid or Aphex Twin would make. The quality of the engineering is impressive in itself. There are countless moving parts and it all worked seemingly flawlessly. (By contrast, most artists tend to be poor engineers, in my experience.)

Sarah Nicolls seems to think about pianos in the same way that I do: They can make so many interesting sounds if you just bypass the keys. She was also, in my opinion, one of the best speakers at the event. That’s perhaps what comes of being a university lecturer.

Sadly, one of the problems with getting musicians to talk about what they do is that they are often far better at making music than they are at speaking about it. Imogen Heap was very much in that category: under-prepared, wrestling with an uncooperative PowerPoint presentation, and lacking a clear message or structure. Which is a pity because she had some interesting things to say. She interacts with her fans via Twitter, YouTube and a forum on her website to an extraordinary degree, involving them intimately in her work. To someone like me who works very much in private it was astounding to see how much she involves her fans. I wonder whether the effect on motivation that it might have should make me try to break my hermit-like habits.

All in all, I had a great time at TEDx Aldeburgh. I hope that it becomes a regular event.

#musicilove

Back in August, inspired by @mayttvw on Twitter, I listed the music I love. The rule was that I would go through the alphabet, one letter per day, and for each letter I would pick my favourite albums or EPs by three artists whose names started with that letter. It gave me a good excuse to spend time thinking about what I appreciate in music and rediscover some albums that I hadn’t listened to much lately. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter (@czrobertson), this is the list I came up with:

  • Autechre: Envane
  • Aphex Twin: I Care Because You Do
  • Arab Strap: Monday at the Hug and Pint
  • Bal-Sagoth: Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule
  • Black Tape for a Blue Girl: As One Aflame, Laid Bare by Desire
  • Bright Eyes: Fevers and Mirrors
  • C17H19NO3: Terra Damnata
  • Coil: Gold is the Metal with the Broadest Shoulders
  • The Cure: Disintegration
  • David Sylvian: Secrets of the Beehive
  • Depeche Mode: Violator
  • Desiderii Marginis: That Which is Tragic and Timeless
  • Elhaz: The Black Flame
  • Emperor: In the Nightside Eclipse
  • Enduser: Form Without Function
  • Faith No More: Angel Dust
  • Forma Tadre: Navigator
  • Freezepop: Fancy Ultra-Fresh
  • Godspeed You Black Emperor: F♯ A♯ ∞
  • Gridlock: Formless
  • Gescom: Key Nell
  • Haujobb: Solutions for a Small Planet
  • Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary
  • Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions: Bavarian Fruit Bread
  • In Slaughter Natives: Enter Now The World
  • Inanna: Day ov Torment
  • Insomnis: various tracks I downloaded from the old mp3.com

For those who want to look it up, the Insomnis I’m referring to is Eric Paul Lyman—not the other band with that name.

  • Joanna Newsom: Ys
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue
  • Joy Division: Closer
  • Kate Bush: Hounds of Love
  • Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine
  • Kryptic Minds & Leon Switch: Lost All Faith
  • Labradford: A Stable Reference
  • Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
  • Lisa Gerrard: The Mirror Pool
  • Mazzy Star: Among My Swan
  • mind.in.a.box: Crossroads
  • Miranda Sex Garden: Fairytales of Slavery
  • NEWT: 37°C
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: No More Shall We Part
  • Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral
  • Ordo Equilibrio: Conquest, Love & Self-Perseverance
  • Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio: Apocalips
  • Orplid: Nächtliche Jünger
  • Philip Jeays: October
  • The Protagonist: A Rebours
  • Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

I cheated by replacing Q with compilations:

  • The Tyranny Off the Beat, Vol. 2
  • Ambient 4: Isolationism
  • Kompilation (Kranky/Southern, 1998)
  • Raison d’être: The Empty Hollow Unfolds
  • Rome: Confessions d’un voleur d’ames
  • Ryoji Ikeda: Test Pattern
  • Satyricon: Nemesis Divina
  • The Smiths: Meat is Murder
  • Sophia: Sigillum Militum
  • Tarmvred: Subfusc
  • Triarii: Pièce Héroique
  • Twentysixfeet: No Signal
  • Ulver: Nattens Madrigal
  • Ultre: All the Darkness Has Gone to Details
  • Underworld: Second Toughest in the Infants
  • Venetian Snares: My Downfall
  • The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico
  • Von Thronstahl: Sacrificare

I cheated some more by combining W and X:

  • Wumpscut: Böses Junges Fleisch
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem
  • Xanopticon: Liminal Space

And I replaced Y and Z with soundtracks:

  • Yann Tiersen: Amélie
  • Howard Shore: Lord of the Rings
  • Wendy Carlos: A Clockwork Orange

A Reminiscence

Around this time last year, I made a track specifically for a Dark Ambient Radio compilation. This was a good exercise for me, since I don’t have much experience with writing ambient music, so I got to learn a bit more about how that style works. In the end my track got rejected for the compilation. (We had about twice as much material as we could fit on a CD, so we voted for the best tracks.) I wasn’t surprised, since it’s not as good as a lot of what went onto the CD. But in case anyone is curious and might enjoy it, here it is:

Architecture

Hands of Ruin - Architecture

Today is my 30th birthday, so please permit me to be a little self-indulgent and present my latest release: Architecture. I say self-indulgent because I have a feeling that these four short tunes are more interesting to me than they are to anyone else. They are essentially my experiments done after listening to various classical music (my favourites are Arvo Pärt and J.S. Bach) and trying to find a little bit of that magic in my own music. I can’t claim any great success, but I hope that this little collection is of some interest to my listeners.

As with Subterranean, I’m making it available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. Listen here or download (24Mb zip file).

(By the way, the last piece in this collection was originally released as Built of Pale Stone and included in the Interface Volume 1 compilation. The first is titled Between High Columns but hasn’t been released before. The other two are as yet untitled and have not been previously released.)

Creative Commons License

John Bergin, C17H19NO3 and From Inside

Many years ago, when Boing Boing was still printed on dead trees rather than being the hyperactive blog that it is now, they printed a review of some releases by C17H19NO3. That review caught my eye and when I found a copy of Terra Damnata in a record store in Berkeley I was thrilled.

That CD was a big influence on my early experiments in electronic music. While it wasn’t my introduction to martial industrial music, it was one of the first albums I owned in that genre. I was amazed by the stirring grandeur of Carrier of Shadows, and the mournful beauty of The Lords of Bone and Machinery. Without that album, I might have been making quite different music today.

Since then, John Bergin, the man behind C17H19NO3, has made a film version of his bleak and visually stunning graphic novel, From Inside. (I still haven’t seen the film. I’m desperately waiting for a London screening or a DVD release.) And he’s put his entire musical archive, including Terra Damnata, up on the web for free. Very highly recommended.