James Sibley Watson’s The Fall of The House of Usher: Surrealism—improvisation—complementary serendipities

Sholl, Robert (2020) James Sibley Watson’s The Fall of The House of Usher: Surrealism—improvisation—complementary serendipities. Perspectives of New Music, 58 (1). pp. 23-69. ISSN 0031–6016

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This study embraces music’s continuing role in the Surrealist movement through improvisation to a silent film. It presents extracts from the first recorded organ improvisation (recorded in Arundel Cathedral, UK) to James Sibley Watson’s experimental silent film: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story which was a siren song for the surrealists). Research on this film (around 12 minutes long) has focused on the cinematic context and modernism (Cartwright, 1995) and the reconstruction of Alec Wilder’s original score for the work (Brewer, 2015), but has not explored the surrealist context or potential of the film. This improvisation is published at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5tFr2iFrUw

In a commentary (1928), Sibley Watson states: “the importance of the piece lies in its mood – in a development of emotional tone almost without action. We decided to make a picture with a mood rather than a story.” I argue therefore that the images create a dépaysement or disorientation (Calvin, 1982: xvii) through fading, dissolving, and prismatic images. The film therefore provides rich grounds for improvisation that employs a “systematic hybridity” (Sholl, 2015) in which structures (whole-tone, octatonic for example) are distorted. Improvisation therefore sustains and defamiliarizes and provides a complementary serendipity in which a new “image” is created that is a “rapprochement of two more or less distant realities.” (Pierre Reverdy, 1975: 73)

I use organ improvisation treatises from the 1920s (the film was shown all over America (Horak, 2008: 35)) to differentiate my practice. I present an interpretation of an improvisation, understood through the previous contexts, which deliberately attempts to create a flat, terse and dream-like (Breton, 1980: 328) interior choreography. This “mood,” I propose, is performative of an “unarticulated language” (Stravinsky, 1942: 128) that provides a surrealist counterpoint to the film.

Item Type: Article
Identifier: 10.1353/pnm.2020.0001
Additional Information: Copyright (2020) Perspectives of New Music. Used by permission. This article first appeared in Perspectives of New Music vol (58) number (1), (2020).
Subjects: Music > Musicology > French organ music
Media > Media history and theory
Music > Music performance
Music > Musicology
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Robert Sholl
Date Deposited: 07 Feb 2019 17:21
Last Modified: 06 Feb 2024 15:58
URI: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/5503


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