Background & photos


Alive with electricity

– background to the music

At the start of a gathering thunder storm in Jean Epstein’s historic film, an intertitle announces that the night seems to be ‘alive with electricity’. The impression is echoed in Poe’s original story where a whirlwind like ‘the breath of a rising tempest’ accompanies the resurrection of Madeleine Usher.

A different kind of electricity, that produced by the synergy of live music and silent cinema, lies at the heart of the creative vision for this production. The concept of ‘live cinema’ – the juxtaposition in live performance of two art forms – can provide a unique, stimulating and illuminating experience. The present production explores the atmosphere, emotion and terror of the Usher story through the resulting synergy of the ‘alive’ (music) and the ‘unchangeable’ (celluloid); between a present-day aural experience and vintage dramatic imagery.

Taking two near contemporaneous works – Debussy’s music sketches composed between 1908 and 1917, and Epstein’s film, produced in 1928 – Charlie Barber’s score aims to create an entirely new audio-visual experience for a contemporary audience.

Barber has worked on two previous versions of the score. The first, composed in 2002, was written for Entr’acte, an ensemble of soprano saxophone and string quartet; whilst the second version, commissioned by Ty Cerdd for the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales, toured to Welsh venues in April 2012. This latest version has been re-written for a chamber orchestra of 16 musicians: four woodwind, four brass, percussion (one player) and seven strings.

In creating the score, Barber took as a starting point Claude Debussy’s sketches for his uncompleted opera, La chute de la maison Usher, also based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, and transformed the fragments into a completely new work. The four fragments that Barber employs are: 1) the distinctive oboe motive in the opening bars; 2) a C major chord with augmented fourth interval (F sharp) superimposed; 3) a musical phrase associated with the character of the Doctor; 4) and a short passage of recitative which describes Madeleine’s decline.

Barber’s fascination in working on this score lies in bringing a historic artefact to life by “taking a fragment and creating something new from it.” By re-working, re-assembling and manipulating these miniature fragments into a completely new mosaic, the composer aims to expand on the atmosphere and drama of the material.

In this production, the company of performers are trapped in two different eras: the actors permanently locked in the early 19th century, whilst the musicians, nearly a hundred years later, live in the contemporary world. In spite of the distance between them, a flash of electricity is generated which we hope will bring the atmosphere, terror and emotion of the story to fresh life.


Stills from the film