When Andrew Earle Simpson arrived in Washington to become head of Catholic University of America's Division of Theory and Composition, the music librarian, Maurice Saylor, soon introduced him to silent films. At the turn of the century, the stories on screen were propelled by theater pianists and organists who often chose classical excerpts to illustrate drama, comedy and suspense. Because many films were not scored, Simpson saw the need to compose appropriate music for them.
His latest accomplishment is an original score for "The Wind," a classic silent film starring Lillian Gish presented Saturday at the American Film Institute. The world premiere commission from the Cantate Chamber Singers incorporates a chorus of 30 singers, an instrumental ensemble and Simpson at the organ.
"I chose this film to orchestrate because it has a lot of elements that affected people in 1928," Simpson said. "Set in west Texas, it's about Letty Mason, a young girl who moves there from Virginia. The wind blows so constantly it becomes a character in the story and moves her toward madness. I illustrate the story of people against nature with music for the chorus, strings, winds, percussion and theater organ that reflects many different moods."
|If you go|
|» Where: American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring|
|» When: 3 p.m. Saturday|
|» Info: $15, $12 AFI members; 301-495-6720; afi.com/silver|
Simpson wrote the vocal lines from quotations or poems based on the wind. His search for appropriate texts eventually took him to the Cherokee language and the use of certain words and phrases for wind and horse sung in Cherokee.
In addition to scores for silent films starring comedians Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and other stars of the era, he composes works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles and opera. Segments of his opera "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" were performed for the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival earlier this season. In July, the 70-minute work will be performed in its entirety at the Capital Fringe Festival.
"Based on the story by Bret Harte, it's similar to 'The Wind' in that it's about human beings against nature," Simpson said. "Six characters, all in flight, are stuck in a snowstorm, and each reacts differently in the face of death. It's an interesting glimpse into western justice with all its rough edges."
"Music allows people to be moved by the story on the screen," he said. "With the success of 'The Artist,' people not familiar with silent films are learning that live music can show humor and the power of drama despite the silence. I want those in the audience who have never seen a silent film to be moved by the story of 'The Wind' and come away having had a powerful experience."