The Fall of the House of Usher

Jean Hasse’s silent film score (for violin, trumpet, saxophone, piano) to accompany the 1928 American film

Counterpoise ensemble rehearing  The Fall of the House of Usher  in Luton, Feb 2017

Counterpoise ensemble rehearing The Fall of the House of Usher in Luton, Feb 2017

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THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1926-28) Director and Cinematography, James Sibley Watson, Jr; Set Designer, Melville Webber; Scriptwriter (partial), E. E. Cummings; Original Composer, Alec Wilder. Premiere screening date: 1 Feb 1929, NYC. The film utilises a range of experimental camera techniques including double and multiple exposures, reverse photography, dissolves and rotating prisms and distorting lenses. It is considered one of the most important early avant-garde American films, and during its first few years it had considerable success, shown primarily in small theaters across the U.S., many organised by the Amateur Cinema League, established in July 1926. 

My score has some built-in flexibility, to allow for varying tempi occurring in live performances. There is also some flexibility in the instrumentation. - JH

PRESS REVIEWS  2 October 2013 / Jonathan Russell
Counterpoise offered a tasteful and well-crafted concert at Kings Place on Sunday (29 Sept 2013) of recent works accompanied by film and still photographs. The unusual instrumentation of the ensemble (violin, saxophone, trumpet, piano) was surprisingly effective. Works for smaller subsets of the ensemble gave individual performers a chance to shine as well.
Jean Hasse’s The Fall of the House of Usher displayed a much more literal relationship to film. It was essentially a live soundtrack to the experimental 1928 short film by James Watson and Melville Weber, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the same title. The music brilliantly fit the mood and quality of this mysterious and dreamlike film. Dark and lyrical, it was somewhat reminiscent of early twentieth century composers like Prokofiev or early Stravinsky, as well as of the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. I could imagine that in some circles it might be considered in-artful for music to follow film so literally, but in this case it was highly effective, amplifying and deepening the film’s moods and gestures.
2 October 2013 / Hilary Glover
.. At Kings Place, today’s performances, which were all acoustic, began with The Fall of the House of Usher (premiered in 2010) by Jean Hasse. The music was composed as a score for the 1928 silent short film by James Watson and Melville Webber (starring Melville Webber) with an ambiguous script by e. e. cummings. 

The film itself is very avant garde and relies heavily on symbolism and, what must have been at the time, experimental cinematic effects, such as multiple exposure and superimposition. Jean has brought some order to the film by using different instrumentation to signify the protagonists, whilst enhancing the atmosphere, using effects including the haunting ghostly stroking of piano strings for the flying coffins, and percussive effects for the nails being hammered into the coffin of the still alive Madeline. 

By its very nature the ensemble required careful and sympathetic blending of sounds so that no one instrument outshone the others. Counterpoise were very good at managing this, letting each instrument take its place within the music, but also to reach out or recede where necessary.

London Evening Standard
  30 March 2010 / Nick Kimberley
Today, “melodrama” suggests overheated emotion but the word originally denoted something cool and measured: in effect, spoken opera, with speech delivered over music. The ensemble Counterpoise has boldly revived the idiom, challenging composers to strike the tricky balance that allows neither speech nor music to dominate.

Melodrama’s natural home is the cinema, and the premiere of Jean Hasse’s The Fall of  the House of Usher made the connection explicit, Hasse’s music serving as the soundtrack for an extraordinary 1928 film of Poe’s story. Hasse wasn’t afraid to sound, precisely, like a silent movie score, with the piano providing the sound of falling rain or clanging bells, but there was clearly an original musical colourist at work.
______________________________  30 March 2010 / Peter Reed
I doubt whether the melodrama genre is likely to catch on again, more’s the pity. It was hugely popular in the 19th-century, the frisson of passionate speech delivered over music often just as overheated, and it seemed inevitable that it should flip over into sprechgesangin the 20th-century, that weird and wonderful device, half-speech, half-song, all hyper-emotion, worked to great effect by Schoenberg in “Pierrot Lunaire” and “Gurrelieder”.

There were two such melodramas in this gripping, off-beat programme devised (or, as we must say these days, “curated”) by Barry Millington, the Wagner scholar and chief music critic of the Evening Standard.

Jean Hasse’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” uses the 1928 silent short film by James Watson and Melville Webber – an expressionist/surreal masterpiece, with some astonishing camera effects bringing Poe’s lurid fantasy of incest, death and decay to juddering life – for some very powerful mood music, finely played by Counterpoise.

This is the sort of evening you can imagine going down a storm at a summer festival. It manages to be familiar while at the same time being really out of the ordinary.
______________________________  31 March 2010 / Stephen Graham
Counterpoise — a violin, piano, trumpet and saxophone quartet dedicated to the cultivation of a reinvigorated and mixed-media-infused genre of melodrama — this evening attracted the largest audience I've yet seen to Hall Two of King's Place. The inclusion of world and London premieres amidst a macabre themed programme of spoken word, film music, and music theatre seems to have paid off; the crowd was replete and rapt.

Narrator Johanna Lonsky effortlessly engaged in her prelude to the group's confident performance of Jean Hasse's music to accompany the mesmerising cinematic expressionism of Watson and Webber's 1928 short The Fall of the House of Usher, the visual superimpositions and glissades of which Hasse matched with suitably inventive, kaleidoscopic sonic expressionism of her own.

A fine concert enriched by a tightly woven contrast of extra-musical media and poetry.

The Guardian  1 April 2010 / George Hall 
This unusual programme by an unconventional ensemble of violin, trumpet, saxophone and piano brought together film, music and speech and featured two world premieres.
Jean Hasse's new score for Watson and Webber's 1928 avant-garde short The Fall of the House of Usher took a more interventionist approach, aligning its spiky poetry neatly with dreamlike imagery. 

The Independent on Sunday 4 April 2010 / Anna Picard 
Gothic horror was the main course in Counterpoise's Kings Place recital, with a side-dish of tongue-in-cheek. Loved to Death contrasted two treatments of Edgar Allen Poe: Ross Lorraine's bone-china setting of "The Oval Portrait" for narrator, violin, saxophone, piano and trumpet, and Jean Hasse's shivery, brushed-metal accompaniment to Watson and Webber's 1928 surrealist film, The Fall of the House of Usher.