Upcoming Cineconcert: Andrew E. Simpson and The Wind
May 16, 2013
On May 19th, composer and pianist Andrew E. Simpson will perform his original score for the 1928 silent film The Wind at a special afternoon screening at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Lillian Gish, the "First Lady of American Cinema", plays an innocent girl who moves from her Virginia home to the western prairies and is haunted by the ever-present wind. Joint Programs Coordinator Alli Jessing spoke to composer Andrew Simpson about his process for connecting his music to the history of silent film.
Eye Level: When did you start composing scores for silent film, and what was the first film you worked with?
Andrew Simpson: I first started composing silent film scores in 2005, and began accompanying them as a piano soloist in 2006. The first score I wrote was for Liberty, a 1929 Laurel and Hardy comedy short directed by Leo McCarey. This is a very funny film, which features the usual high-class slapstick pranks: the boys make a successful prison break, but end up wearing each others' pants in their haste to put on civilian clothing. Eventually, a crab falls into Stan's pants, with predictable results, and they destroy phonograph machines and records in front of a store, attract the attention of the cops, and wind up on the high girders of a construction site. The film is very high-energy, with lots of suspenseful moments on the girders (which lasts for about half of the 22-minute film). Its energetic activity fits well with my own musical style.
I wrote Liberty for the Snark Ensemble, the silent film group which I founded with composer/performer Maurice Saylor. My score is fully composed and notated, scored originally for two woodwinds (clarinets and saxophones), piano, and percussion. The score draws strongly on jazz styles, from the Dixieland-inspired title theme to the Benny-Goodman-esque and sound in the faster girder section. The Snark Ensemble has performed Liberty many times; in fact, I believe that it is the group's most-performed score. The ensemble makes its AFI Silver Theatre debut in late April 2013, and this film is on the program.
EL: What scene in The Wind was the most fun to score? Which one was the most challenging?
AS: The most fun was a scene early in the film when Letty (Lillian Gish) arrives from Virginia at her cousin Beverly's (male) ranch in west Texas, and the two cowboys who pick her up at the train station and bring her to Beverly's place are vying with each other to impress her. The Wind, as a powerful drama, has only a few truly comic scenes, and this one needs underscoring which captures the humor but also the underlying seriousness (at one point, in the midst of the funnier stuff, Letty catches sight of sand blown against the window by the wind, something which frightens her greatly: this ominous image recurs throughout the film). Because my score for The Wind is for chorus and instruments, there is text (I compiled the text and wrote original lyrics). The music in this scene is based on a melody like a fiddle tune with a bright, easy feel, to which the chorus adds whimsical words, such as:
Sopranos/altos (to the tenors/basses):
I don't want to dance, I don't want to play you; I just want a little home And little ones to stay you.
Tenors/basses (to the sopranos/altos):
I ain't the best, But sure I ain't the worst, neither.
In a way, the words here stand for Letty's amused but standoffish attitude towards the cowboys and the men's invitations to her to dance.
The most challenging scene was the big storm scene (the "norther"). For one thing, it's quite long—several minutes—and so the pacing must be careful (don't peak too soon or for too long, in other words). The music must rise to the power of the film's visual climax, which is always a great challenge. Musically, the melodic and harmonic material should build steadily while not becoming redundant, and it should closely track the developing emotions of the characters. EL: What interests you about the relationship between music and cinema? AS: Music and cinema share a fundamental trait: both unfold in time. You can't listen to a piece of music or see a film without seeing it front to back. Even if the order of the film or the music is deliberately reversed, you still experience that order from front to back when listening or watching, and so it is still linear. Composers think in terms of filling time, and questions of proportion and pacing in music parallel what directors think about, as well. What I try to do in my silent film scores is to track the emotional and dramatic essence of a film as closely as possible while honoring music's own special rhetoric.
Secondly, I have always found that most of my musical ideas and pieces spring from a visual stimulus - a painting, sculpture, photograph, or even a remembered image - and so the visual appearance of silent films also suggest musical analogues to me. Video stimulates audio, you might say, although the resulting audio feeds back into and informs the video. This two-way street, this mutual influence, fascinates me.
EL: Who is your favorite classical musician, and who is your favorite contemporary musician?
AS: If you're talking about "old" composers, it's Beethoven. Among "new" composers, I don't really have a single favorite, although I admire such composers as John Adams, Thomas Ades, Kaija Saariaho, and Chen Yi. I also have an ongoing research interest in Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. He is best known to American audiences as the composer for the film Zorba the Greek. But he is also a classical composer, with operas, chamber music, and orchestral pieces. There are many, many others working in all areas of music who produce exceptionally fine work: it's an exciting time to be in the field!
EL: If you won the lottery tomorrow and could fund your dream project, writing a new score for any film, what would it be?
AS: Well, I'd like to do a big historical epic for an equally big orchestra, something such as Ben-Hur or Abel Gance's multi-hour Napoleon. I'd also like the chance to conduct the orchestra. I'll be conducting the National Gallery of Art Chamber Orchestra in two new short Civil War film scores of mine on October 20, and this will be a great challenge!
The Wind cineconcert is on Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 3pm in American Art's McEvoy Auditorium. This program is jointly presented with the National Portrait Gallery. Free tickets distributed in the G Street lobby 30 minutes before the start of the program (limit two per person).
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