And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Composition & Instrumentation


The thing about influence is that any composer worth anything will give you the same names.

Despite age and background, I remain an inexperienced composer and without a refined style or ideology.  Usher is my first meaningful project in years, and the largest I've attempted.  In truth, it's probably best described as an experiment.  It will certainly be a valuable learning experience, regardless of the outcome.
 In terms of musical influences, the reference to Lygeti is a bit misleading.  I admire him quite a lot, but don't expect to emulate him.  Other would-be influences include Stravinsky, Ives, Antheil, and Varèse.  I wouldn't mind if one detected touches of Boulez, Birtwhistle, or Crumb.  (Despite what some of those names may suggest, Usher will be largely tonal, but this is subject to change during development.)  I've also been shaped by composers for film, including Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, and Ennio Morricone, not to mention the stable at Hammer.
 My primary concerns in Usher are expressing Roderick's character in melodic contouring, and in creating timbres and textures to enhance the mood, acting as an additional "voice" in storytelling, not unlike a Greek chorus.  Harmony and rhythm should evolve naturally from these concerns.  I'm melding the needs of scoring for film with those of a traditional opera; these aren't incongruous, but there are differences: for example, the role and duration of instrumental sections and breaks.
 Motifs as such will be few, and not necessarily melodic.  Roderick Usher could be summed up with one word (fear), Madeline Usher hardly appears, and the narrator is barely a character at all.  One might argue that the House itself is a character — I would not.  Thus there's no need for explicit character motifs, nor is the story sufficiently varied in environment or mood to need these personified.  There will be a few constructs to hold things together, but the emphasis is less on structure than on impact and arc.


The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self.  And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

I would love to write Usher for full orchestra.  But the scale of the project — a single act, just two voices — doesn't justify it.  I'll be striving instead to maximize options with a chamber orchestra.  I've long been an admirer of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, and what was achieved with but seven instruments.  Alas, I'm not Stravinsky, and won't allow myself to be quite so penned in.  But I am starting with a few self-imposed requirements:
  • The orchestra will be fully acoustic — no electronica or electronic effects (with the possible exception of the novachord, due to its usage in Hammer Film's "The Gorgon");
  • Employ some instruments of familiar type, but not from the standard orchestral complement, to increase the range and novelty of timbres available;
  • Incorporate a few instruments and combinations common to Poe's time, or, when possible, mentioned specifically in Usher or Poe's other works

The vision includes a nod to the scores of mid-20th Century horror film.  That demands the odd "eerie" effect, which will be achieved in part through some under-used percussion.  That nod also means including instruments commonly exploited in these films but not known or especially popular in Poe's time, like harpsichord and bass clarinet.
 Poe is generous enough to provide very specific help to the composer, mentioning a particular piece (the apocryphally titled Last Waltz of Von Weber) and instrument (guitar), as well as guidelines on music Roderick Usher can tolerate (inflicted as he is with hyperesthesia).  These are immensely helpful in imposing limits and encouraging ideas.

Traditionally, a composition written for a number of instruments includes all those instruments throughout the work.  Not continually, of course, but each makes multiple appearances.  Exceptions are most often in the percussion section, instruments of extreme range or timbre that are "doubled" (such as a flute being asked to play piccolo for a passage), or in the use of chorus.  Because the end game for Usher is a movie, I'm free to incorporate instruments briefly, never to be heard again, even if that means performers dedicated to but one or two passages.  That's not my intention at the outset, but it may happen.  (I learned recently that Dvorak's New World Symphony features all of 14 notes for tuba.  Sounds like a dare to do worse!)
 I'll be updating the instrumentation as the work develops.  As of November 2017, the proposed ensemble includes:
  • violin, with mute
  • viola, with mute
  • cellos, with mute
  • double-bass, with mute
  • flute, doubling piccolo and alto flute
  • clarinet, doubling E-flat clarinet, basset horn, and bass clarinet
  • oboe, doubling oboe d'amore and/or english horn
  • bassoon, doubling contrabassoon
  • trumpet (in C?), doubling flugelhorn, with mutes
  • horn in F, with mutes
  • tenor trombone, doubling bass trombone, with mutes
  • F tuba, possibly doubling euphonium, with mutes (still not sure this will appear)
  • guitar
  • harp (perhaps celtic harp?)
  • keyboard (various, including piano, harpsichord, celeste, and possibly novachord)
  • 3-5 percussionists, instruments to include musical saw, flexatone, tubular bells, vibraphone (struck and bowed), waterphone (struck and bowed), xylophone, side drum, singing bowls, crotales (struck and bowed), gongs, etc.

Players may be asked to hum, sing, etc.  A full chorus isn't justified, but I may want vocalizations.
 This scoring is a bit "bottom heavy" in the strings.  I admit I'm partial to viola and cello.  But I'll need the extra weight; the winds, violins (and sometimes violas), upper brass, and melodic percussion are heavy in the upper and middle registers, as will be much of Roderick's more maniacal vocals, so the extra bass will help the balance (in places where balance is desired).  And the low registers will be exploited to emphasize the sensations of gloom, foreboding, death, the tarn, etc.