Lot in Sodom

Some time ago I announced that I was working on a soundtrack for Lot in Sodom, a 1933 avant-garde silent film. After slightly longer than I’d expected, it’s here.

James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s silent film, Lot in Sodom, tells the biblical story of Lot, who is visited by angels and instructed to leave Sodom before it is destroyed by God for the sins of the Sodomites. Watson and Webber were pioneers of avant-garde film-making, much influenced by German expressionism. Lot in Sodom takes an experimental approach to telling the story and makes use of a variety of innovative visual effects, including superimposed shots and shooting through prisms.

The soundtrack was written in 2014 and 2015. I wanted to create something that would support and emphasize the mood of the film. And it seemed fitting to write a soundtrack for this film in particular, having previously made one for their 1928 film, The Fall of the House of Usher.

The soundtrack is available to buy on Bandcamp.

Lot in Sodom: a new soundtrack for an avant-garde silent film

And they called unto Lot: “Where is the man which came in unto thee this night? Bring him out that we may know him.”

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James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s avant-garde silent film, Lot in Sodom, tells the biblical story of Lot, who is visited by angels and instructed to leave Sodom before it is destroyed by God for the sins of the Sodomites. Watson and Webber take an experimental approach to telling the story and make use of a variety of visual effects, including many superimposed shots.

One of my projects for 2014 was to write another soundtrack. The soundtrack that I created for Watson and Webber’s first film, The Fall of the House of Usher, has been one of the more successful things that I’ve done, plus it was just a lot of fun to work on, so I very much wanted to do another. So which film to choose? Well, Lot in Sodom was an obvious choice.

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The transition from silent films to talkies happened very rapidly at the end of the twenties, so that by 1933 making a silent film was an anachronism. Watson and Webber didn’t have the budget to make a sound film, but they did commission Louis Siegel to write a score which they recorded. Siegel’s score is as avant-garde as the film is, if not more so. Though I understand that Watson and Webber were happy with it, in my opinion it’s not very effective at supporting the story. My version is somewhat less experimental, but hopefully it creates the right mood and fits the events on screen a little better.

Compared to The Fall of the House of Usher, this film was a little more challenging to write music for. It’s just under half an hour, so there’s twice as much to write. Furthermore, there are a lot of changes in mood and tempo that are difficult to compose around. And some sections call for more energetic music than I’m used to writing. So working on this project has pushed me outside of my usual styles and techniques, with the result that I’m prouder of this music than I am of The Fall of the House of Usher.

The soundtrack itself is now complete, but I’m still thinking about how it will be released. My current plan is to put the video on YouTube but also create a release on Bandcamp of the music only. I’m also planning to put The Fall of the House of Usher on Bandcamp as well. So there are still a few things to do. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the soundtrack to whet your appetite.

It should all be ready within the next couple of months. If you’d like to be the first to know when you can see it, please subscribe to my newsletter.

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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.