C3LA’s ‘House of Usher’ bridges a 90-year gap

This post has been corrected since its original version.  Please see the note after the program listings toward the end.  Thanks!

 

The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles (aka C3LA) brought us the second of two spooky performances on Friday night, October 26th, as they sang original a cappella music over a screening of the 1928 film, La chute de la maison Usher, or “The Fall of the House of Usher”.  The movie is, as you might guess, based on Edgar Allen Poe‘s classic story about a cursed family and the house they live in. The film actually also incorporates plot points from another Poe story, The Oval Portrait,  in which the protagonist goes mad painting his wife’s portrait, inadvertently killing her as he completes the work.  The combination is intriguing if an unnecessary mashup, but the film is rightfully considered a masterpiece.

This film was made at the tail end of the silent era and on the cusp of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood in the 1930s.  It’s fascinating to see where cinema was in the late ’20s, when such immense advances in visual quality, sound, color, storytelling, and special effects were on the horizon.

 

Filmmakers and Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel used a range of effects and techniques to create this, his most famous feature, crafting a visual atmosphere that was just as creepy and ominous as one can imagine. He used a hefty dose of slow-motion photography, careful and dramatic lighting, multiple-exposure effects, scale models, and excellent use of both cavernous sets and intimate spaces. The astonishing technological accomplishments showcased by Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both just over a decade later, put this work into rather stark visual contrast with what was to come.  For purely historical value, this film was an intriguing choice for C3LA’s very-LA project, and a chance for their numerous composer/singer members to bring that history into the present, with fresh eyes.

Visual drama is maintained throughout the film, with forced perspective, dramatic lighting and theatrical direction.

So let’s make this clear: trying to review this event comes with some difficulties. I am not a film expert, although I’ve been a bona fide cinema junkie for at least the last twenty years. I am not a Poe expert, although I’ve been a fan since I was a child. The logistics of the event itself also made this process a little extra-tricky, as the very dark lighting in the theater was great for viewing, but not for following along in the program, making it difficult to differentiate whose piece was whose, or even to take as many notes as usual.  So this will be more of an overview than a detailed account. To illustrate the complexity of this ambitious project, let’s start with the numbers:

  • 1 silent film
  • 13 scenes
  • 26 singers
  • 13 soloists
  • 12 composers
  • 6 conductors
  • 1 project coordinator
  • 3 creators of the necessary click-track
  • 2 venues
  • numerous donors and volunteers
  • 160 or so audience members (my estimate, just this performance)

That’s a lot of facets.  Elaborate endeavors like this are downright fun, and can bring us out of not only our daily lives, but also out of artistic ruts.  This concert absolutely did that. But I wish this hadn’t been my first time hearing the choir.  I’ve been hearing so many good things about C3LA since they came into being a couple of years ago, and as about two-thirds of the group has been connected with Lauri’s List in some way, I feared I might be far too biased to write this review.  In reality, that bias makes me appreciate the additional, inherent challenges. There are a lot of good voices in there, and the score put them through their paces with many different sound techniques and atmospheric vocal effects. Several of the members mentioned that they found the music especially demanding — and that’s quite a statement, considering the amount of difficult contemporary group has already tackled with aplomb, as many other reports have stated.

Epstein used multiple exposures and other early special effects with eerie results.

All those things considered, I must admit that the choral sound has room to grow. The demands of the score were apparent at several points during the show, when the sound came across as many people singing at the same time, rather than offering up a more cohesive blend. But for an event as unusual and otherwise fascinating, this is probably forgivable. I hope, and strongly suspect, the result will be more consistent under other circumstances, and look forward to hearing C3LA again. The choir did an admirable job, and the composers each showed a genuine emotional connection to the film, and even with so many creators involved, the overall effect flowed together surprisingly well. In the necessary darkness, it was difficult to watch the film, listen to the music, and still be fully aware of which piece was playing at any given time. So while I can’t comment effectively on individual sections, the overall performance just worked.

This was clearly evidenced by the cacophony of applause that erupted as soon as the film was over. The crowd absolutely loved it, and while Los Angeles crowds are probably more predisposed to this sort of project (vintage film + new music = Yay!), it was clear that there is broad appreciation for multi-genre creativity in this town. I hope, and it’s fairly safe to suppose that the rest agree, that we’ll see more collaborations of this sort. Nicely done.


To make sure all creators and performers get the recognition they deserve, here’s the complete program list:

Scene 1 — Opening Credits, Sickness, Journey to the House

Composer:  Saunder Choi
Conductor:  Jaco Wong
Soloists:  Drew Corey, Diana Woolner, Morgan Woolsey, Saunder Choi, Fahad Siadat

Scene 2 — Roderick and Madeline, Entering the House

Composer:  Drew Corey
Conductor:  Jaco Wong
Soloists:  Fahad Siadat, Diana Woolner

Scene 3 — The Portrait of Madeline Usher

Composer:  Allen W. Menton
Conductor:  Saunder Choi

Scene 4 — Roderick’s Guitar

Composer:  Morgan Woolsey
Conductor:  Saunder Choi
Speaking soloists:  Allen Menton, David Harris, Alice Dryden, Diana Woolner

Scene 5 — Stroll Before Bed

Composer:  KC Daugirdas
Conductor:  Saunder Choi
Soloist:  Tiffany Ho

Scene 6 — Madeline’s Death

Composer:  Saunder Choi
Conductor:  Fahad Siadat

Scene 7 — theories of magnetism – the coffin

Composer:  Molly Pease
Conductor:  Fahad Siadat
Soloist:  Heather Ogilvy

Scene 8 — The Funeral March

Composer:  David Harris
Conductor:  David Conley

Scene 9 — Nails in the Coffin

Composer:  Nilo Alcala
Conductor:  David Conley
Soloist:  Tiffany Ho

Scene 10 — Frightening Monotony

Composer:  Joseph Thel
Conductor:  Diana Woolner
Soloists:  Heather Ogilvy, Vera Lugo, Saunder Choi, Kevin Dalbey, David Harris

Scene 11 — Reading the Book

Composer:  Matthew Brown
Conductor:  Diana Woolner
Soloist:  Molly Pease

Scene 12 — Ethelred

Composer:  David Conley
Conductor:  David Harris

Scene 13 — The Fall (Usher Pastiche)

Composer:  Drew Corey
Conductor:  David Harris

 

[UPDATE:  With help from C3LA, the program listings above have been corrected.  We apologize for the typos that slipped through in our original version. Thanks, presenters, for your help!  L]


About the Ensemble

C3LA is a unique chorus that is operated collectively by its singing members and is dedicated to performing outstanding new choral music, providing a venue for multi-talented singer-composers and singer-conductors to collaborate, and challenging the traditional hierarchical model of our choruses and orchestras.  C3LA exclusively performs music written within the last twenty-five years, with a focus on local composers.

Members:
Adam Goins, Alice Dryden, Allen W. Menton, Amy Gordon, David Avshalomov, David Conley, David Harris, David Saldana, Derek Berger, Diana Woolner, Drew Corey, Elias Berezin, Fahad Siadat, Gavin Thrasher, Heather Ogilvy, Jaco Wong, KC Daugirdas, Kevin Dalbey, Lucy McKnight, Marja Kay, Molly Pease, Morgan Woolsey, Saunder Choi, Tiffany Ho, Vera Lugo, and William Reeder.

To learn more about C3LA’s members, visit: C3LA.org/members


Watch a short rehearsal video from the group’s Facebook page (and Like them while you’re there!)

Check out their website

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