andrew e simpson

composer and pianist

Cinema and the Great War: August and September 2014

August 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I – the Great War – which transformed the history and culture of the world.  The war is the perpetual background for the 1920’s, and its influence lies behind so many films of the late silent era.  For the next four years, films which are set in the Great War (or on which the War had an impact) will appear on screens around the world: and America’s capital is no exception.
AFI Silver and the National Gallery of Art are presenting films on the Great War as part of a “Cinema and the Great War” series, starting in August.  For these screenings, I will be providing completely new scores, carefully tailored to track the emotional and dramatic action of the events on screen.  In some cases, it’s a new score; in others, I reprise previously-created scores.  And, for this series, I’m also adding in musical extras: each screening will feature pre-show music of the Great War period (and a few surprises, as well).

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is one of my favorite books: it’s a compelling, thrilling account of the first weeks of the Great War, when the world’s nations were pulled into a horrendous whirpool, almost against their will.  During that first month, German forces marched through Belgium, wreaking incredible destruction, then marched into France, marching (seemingly) unstoppably towards Paris.

Sunday, August 3, 2:00 PM, AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD

August 3, 1914 is the date on which Germany declared war on France.  The 100th anniversary of that event marks the first film, FOUR SONS (dir. John Ford, 1928).  This late silent epic tracks four sons of a German family, one of whom emigrates to America and fights for the Allies.  If you know SUNRISE (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1927, a film I accompanied at AFI a couple of years ago), you will recognize a set from that earlier film, which Ford used also: a fantastical, foggy, swampy landscape.

Saturday, August 23, 2:00 PM, Warner Brothers Theatre, Smithsonian Museum of American History, Washington, DC (with National Gallery of Art)

King Vidor’s 1925 film, starring screen idol John Gilbert (without mustache) and Renee Adoree, screens at the Warner Bros. Theater in cooperation with the National Gallery of Art.   Vidor, as a director, placed a high priority on musicality in the motion and action of his scenes, often using musicians on the set to inspire the actors (actually a fairly common practice).  This often plays out in clear, regular rhythmic movements among the actors in a scene: one particularly clear example is a scene in which American soldiers move through a forest in “attack formation,” long lines separated by a few hundred feet, one behind the other.  Vidor used a bass drum on the set to help the actors to keep in step.  And so, while one is free while watching this scene to ponder the insanity of such military tactics as walking upright and exposed through a wood while fired upon by concealed snipers and machine gunners, the remorseless tide of the advancing lines of soldiers is powerful and hard to resist.  This is my first performance at the new Warner Theater at SMAH, and I’m looking forward to playing in this space.  The National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium is now closed for renovation, and so we can expect NGA silent screenings to take place in many venues around the city.

Some period music will precede this program, as well.  Since the film focuses on American soldiers, I’ll play arrangements of some Great War tunes as well known to the doughboys as to us.

WINGS Monday, Sept. 1, 5:00 PM, AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD

This is one of my favorite silent films, and it is a pleasure to be revisiting it this Labor Day (an organ version of a piano score I have performed twice previously).  This 1927 film, directed by William Wellman, a former WW I aviator, won the first Academy Award for Best Picture (Production).   Clara Bow is the most famous actor in the cast, although her role is comparatively small: still, she is wonderfully appealing as a volunteer going to France as an Ambulance Corps driver.  Gary Cooper also makes a small but memorable appearance.  Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen (the latter an actual WW I aviator, as well) are the stars, two romantic rivals turned buddies who share the perils of aerial combat together.  One of the best features of this film is that it shows the cost of war at home, and is rather unflinching about the terrible nature of war.

There will be some very special music preceding this screening, so make a point to come early!

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT Saturday, Sept. 6, 4:00 PM, AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD

Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, set many times, this is the silent version of the 1930 film.  An alternate sound version won the 1930 Academy Award for Best Picture.  Directed by Lewis Milestone, this story is told from the German side of the war.
German music will be the focus of the pre-show performance this time.

There will be more performances throughout the coming season, and more information will be posted here.






Fri, August 1 2014 » Silent Film » No Comments

Chaplin Mutuals and Music by the Snark Ensemble

On Sunday, June 29, at 4:00 PM, AFI Silver Theater presents another in its series of events celebrating Chaplin and the 100th anniversary of the creation of his “Tramp” character.  The films this weekend are three from the classic set of 12 short comedies Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Co., sometimes called simply “The Mutuals.”  The three Mutuals this weekend are BEHIND THE SCREEN, THE RINK, and EASY STREET.  Each film runs between 20-25 minutes.

The Snark Ensemble is premiering two new scores (BEHIND THE  SCREEN, music by Maurice Saylor, and EASY STREET, my score) and performing Phil Carluzzo’s score for THE RINK which was premiered last year at AFI.

This is the next installment in my film preview guides, providing brief descriptions of the films’ stories and some insight on musical approaches (where known!).

BEHIND THE SCREEN (1916) features Chaplin as a stagehand’s assistant in a film production company.  As with THE CURE, much of the humor revolves around ringing the changes on a single prop or item: a large scenery column is used to great effect, Chaplin puts on a medieval helmet (with lifting visor) to escape the odor of his lunchmate’s onions, a lever which opens and closes a trap door, and pies upon pies being hurled.  Chaplin, as usual, provides some lovely touches, giving a full barber treatment to a bearskin rug, playing small plates with leftover bones from lunch, and – most famously – ogling Edna Purviance, dressed as a boy stagehand to find work.  This classic scene, celebrated as one of the earliest “gay” scenes in cinema, was based on a misunderstanding: Chaplin is attracted to what he thinks is a boy.  The scene continues its impact once the true gender of the “boy” has been discovered, and Chaplin’s boss (Eric Campbell) discovers them kissing.  This leads to some fey walking and gentle tsk-tsking on Campbell’s part – but no condemnation.  Many of the gags in this film pop up again later, or  were seen in earlier films: Chaplin continually blocks the camera, reminiscent of KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, and his barber routine would be repeated to even better effect years later in THE GREAT DICTATOR.  Saylor’s score will be a premiere, and I look forward to seeing how his usual whimsical, light textures fit this slapstick romp.

THE RINK (1916) shows another inimitable Chaplin talent: roller skating.  It seems that there is little which this actor could not do, and he actually skates with whimsy and daring (again, this theme is repeated in his MODERN TIMES of 1935).  The first half of the film, set in a restaurant, shows Chaplin as waiter and bartender (again, some fancy work mixing drinks), but he ends up at the roller rink.  Edna Purviance and Eric Campbell are there again, and the romantic angle falls out into – you guessed it – a chase.  On wheels.  Phil Carluzzo has revised his score from last year, and so we can expect the premiere of a new version of his music.

EASY STREET (1917) is, in my opinion, the greatest of the Mutuals: I say this not because it is the one for which my score is set.  But it is the film for which I wanted to create a score.  Alone among the three films on this program, EASY STREET combines pathos with comedy.   The other two are more or less continual comedy.  EASY STREET alternates hilarious comic chases and the usual well-timed shtick with scenes of poverty, domestic violence, hopelessness, and drug addiction.  How these elements combine to make an effective whole is one of the miracles of Chaplin’s style.  Chaplin is first seen hunched down on the ground outside the door of an urban mission; he hears Edna Purviance’s voice (we infer) singing above the hymn while she accompanies on the organ.  Chaplin shuffles inside to join the service.  Seeing Edna full on at the end of the service, he is instantly smitten: where a moment before he brushed aside the importunities of the preachers who wish to save him, he puts himself fully into their service (that is, at her service), and decides to reform.

Which, it appears, he does.  He gets a job as a cop; and so, in one of the classic turnarounds from the cliches of early comedy, this time it is the comic clown who is the cop, not the one chased by them.  Chaplin’s beat is “Easy Street,” the toughest street (we are led to believe) in the city.  Its first view is of a full-blown brawl taking place in the middle of the street.  Eric Campbell is the giant bully, tossing the others about – cops and bad guys – and having his way with the lot: the “returns” from Easy Street come back to the police station in stretchers.

Chaplin now enters the scene, “Where Ignorance is Bliss,” as the intertitle tells us.  The ensuing events make for classic and ingenious comedy: suffice it to say that Chaplin wins Round 1.  The film’s finale combines a long chase with some powerful violence: Chaplin finally drops a stove on his pursuer.  In the meantime, Edna is hauled off and dropped into a dope fiend’s den, only to be rescued.  Along the way, scenes of the hungry stealing food and the plight of an immense family (handled with great humor, somehow, by Chaplin) intervene.

A happy ending – not universal in Chaplin – rounds out this comedy with a particularly sharp intertitle (“Love Backed by Force”).

My score follows the lead of the alternations of scene: written for 5 players, I take advantage of the growling bari sax to evoke the Bully, and the high E-flat clarinet to be Chaplin’s pipsqueak.  Accordion serves nicely as organ in the first scene and for punctuation and support throughout, and percussion and piano round out the ensemble.  Faster chase/fight music flies along, but there is also melancholy sweetness – because Chaplin’s film has it.  The music serves the story, and ideally blends with it to help it tell its story more powerfully.  In this case, Chaplin’s film is so good that there are times when the music simply can just roll along underneath and let it do its magic: provided the music fits the context.

Mon, June 23 2014 » Silent Film » No Comments


On Saturday, June 14 at 3:30 PM, I will be performing one new score and two existing (i.e., previously-played) score for three Charles Chaplin silent comedies at the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD.  As a preview to this performance, I’m giving some brief comments below about each film and a note about the music.

The “Mutuals” are 12 comedies (each roughly 25-30 minutes) made for the Mutual Film Corporation: all the films were written, directed by, and starred Chaplin and a stock company of actors including Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, and Albert Austin.

THE IMMIGRANT (1917) Chaplin’s comedies frequently combine slapstick and pathos, and this film does it to great effect.  The film’s narrative divides into two halves: “Act 1” is on the ship coming to America (Chaplin as an immigrant on a ship full of them), “Act 2” takes place mostly in a restaurant in America.  Act 1 in particular shows the suffering of some immigrants and the depravity of others; Chaplin’s tramp wanders on the ship with apparent unwitting mastery.  Social commentary is not absent, either: in one of the film’s most striking moments, the ship enters New York harbor, with the Statue of Liberty seen: we next see a rope being put up in front of the immigrants waiting to disembark, containing them like so many animals.

Act 2 sets up like a more traditional slapstick scene, with much business being made, for example, about a coin (Charlie finds himself unable to pay the bill and tries to trick the waiter).  It’s a delightful film with an unusually happy ending.

Music notes: this will be an organ score (and is the only score of mine on this performance which will not be a premiere).  The twofold nature of the film gives itself to two movements, one per act.  Act 1 will take both the comedy and the pathos into account; Act 2 will be more frankly comic, but will also dialogue with actual screened music (a violinist and pianist playing in the restaurant).

THE CURE (1917)
This film is really outright comedy: there is no pathos here.  The setting is a sanitarium where well-heeled people (including alcoholics such as Chaplin’s character) go to recover.  And, as David Shepard notes, Chaplin is not the Tramp in this film: the cane, the shoes, and the shuffling walk are there, but he is well-dressed, with a boater hat, tie, and jacket.  In short, this Chaplin is a man of means.  This insulates the film from seeming insensitive, because it seems more funny to observe a “rich drunk” than a poor one.  Opportunities for pathos are passed over in favor of comic business.  As with Act 2 of THE IMMIGRANT, certain ideas or props become fixations, such as the revolving glass door at the front of the sanitarium, and a circular pool (downstage center, in theater terms), the “spring” of healing waters into which Charlie frequently almost falls.  Add in Eric Campbell as wealthy gout sufferer with bandaged foot, have he and Chaplin both get caught int he revolving door, and stir.

THE CURE contains many wonderful Chaplin acrobatics: he does some remarkable dancing in a segment in the gymnasium to avoid a brutal massage.

Music notes: THE CURE is a more straightforward film, and more fast-paced than THE IMMIGRANT.  Much of my approach with this score is to provide steady support and let the story and the events tell themselves. They don’t require much help (although the music must still fit the mood of the film).

This final Mutual film is pure slapstick: Chaplin is an escaped convict pursued by numerous prison guards.  He manages to escape and pass himself off as a wealthy yacht-owner.  The balance of the film takes place at a house party at which Charlie is a guest.  The tone of this film is very much slapstick, complete with innumerable butt-kicks and even the classic seltzer bottle.  The film ends rather abruptly as well; we are not sure if Charlie actually eludes his guards at the end, or will be caught later.  There is no real love interest here, either, unlike the other two films.

Music notes: There are several “hit point” opportunities in a film like this.  Some are obligatory: an opened champagne bottle which Charlie mistakes for a rifle shot.  Some are optional, such as the (frequent) butt kicks.  The first part of the film is a chase, the second a party into which a second chase intrudes.  There is also a dancing sequence (with musicians visible in the background).  The party guests are dancing in specific tempi, and so part of the challenge and fun is to match the dancer’s tempo and guess the likely meter in which the music moved.  A fun film to play.

Sun, June 8 2014 » Silent Film » No Comments

Music and Abstract Animation: A Cine-Concert at the National Gallery

This month, I am taking time to work on three big projects, each of which will get time in this blog.

For this post, my main purpose is to introduce the first of these (chronologically), coming up Sunday, Sept. 8 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The event, entitled “Cine-Concert: Abstract Animation Since 1970,” features 14 short abstract animations by 14 artists widely separated by style, geography, and working methodology.  Taken as a whole, the program promises to give a full glimpse of the diversity and vitality of animation (I should stress that these are not animations in the sense of “cartoons:” rather, these are pieces which simply emphasize motion.)  And, since most (but  not all) of the images in these 14 films are non-representational, the moniker “abstract” fits well.

The program is curated by NY-based artist Sharon Louden, who spearheaded, along with NGA’s director of film programs Peggy Parsons, the first iteration of this program in 2011, called “Art in Motion”.  The 2013 version, unlike its predecessor, limits the scope of its pieces to the post-197o years.  As pianist and composer, I am returning to Art in Motion’s 2nd version, joined by percussionist Barry Dove.

As was the case two years ago, I am creating new scores for those animations which are silent (several have soundtracks), and providing commentary between each film.  This time, I will be creating new piano-percussion music for 4 animations: Clone, by Phil Docken; Kayuputih, by Adriano Abbado; Mickey Mousing, by Amelia Winger-Bearskin; and the premiere of Sharon Louden’s newest animation, Community.  Since many of these animations suggest, or even call out, for electronic accompaniment, at least two of them will have extensive electronic sounds – new to this year’s event.  And, as a special feature, the program will open with a graphic-notation piece by Philip Corner, Every Day and Every Night Music, for an unspecified number of instruments.  This short piece, drawn entirely on improvised materials, sets up the following Stan Brakhage film beatifulluy.

In the 2011 program, each film was followed by a short musical reflection and reaction: that will be the case this time, as well.

As I have an abiding interest in Humanistic Music – how music interacts with, and is influenced by, other arts – the present program is going to be anther great chance to explore extra-musical connections and how the audio serves the visual.

More details on the project and its preparation as the event gets closer.

Fri, July 19 2013 » Humanistic Music » No Comments

“The Artist” – Silent Film Resurgent

As 2011 draws to a close, holiday greetings and a wish for happy 2012.  The time since my last post has been long, in part because of software issues, and bots which keep infiltrating the blog posts…those creatures with names such as “AOIHET(@*$%&SDOIYUVSBDV  has a comment on your post…”  We’ll see whether or not the bot gremlins have been expurgated.

As a silent film musician, I typically think that my colleagues and I work in a niche genre, yet one with potential for wider audiences.   While it is almost certain that silent film will never enjoy the kinds of audiences which sound films enjoy, I’m particularly pleased to note two major releases in the past month which deal with silent film history – “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s film in which a small boy meets French film-maker George Melies – and, in the case of this film, “The Artist,” an honest-to-goodness new silent film (with one or two places in which sound is heard). 

Director Michel Hazanavicius’ film begins in 1927, nearing the end of the silent film era, and tells the story of George Valentin, a dashing actor at the top of his fame.  Something of a cross between Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, and Clark Gable, we see him as an applause hog in the cinema after the rousing successful premiere of his latest adventure flick…his leading lady (also his wife), is denied the same on-stage time…only a glimpse of troubles to come.  The opening scenes present a wonderful picture of a big movie palace experience in the 1920’s – full orchestra, full house with well-dressed movie-goers, plenty of authentic-looking 1920’s action seen on screen…a delight in an of itself.  And, of course, silent. 

Well, silent with an important exception: the splendid score by Ludovic Bourse, which captures with wit, beauty, and elegance all the moods of the film.  Clever, diverse in style, fresh in sound, his score is a great model of silent accompaniment…his non-mickey mousing approach underscores many scenes very well, and he captures the entire emotional essence of a scene without losing his way in too much musical description.   His Golden Globe nonimation for Best Score is well deserved, as is the director’s.

Valentin’s fortunes decline as he resists the coming of sound; an ingenue who begins to benefit from this, Peppy Miller (I think of Peggy Pepper becoming Patricia Pepoire in King Vidor’s 1928 Show People), tries to help Valentin as he one helped her break into the business.  One of the nice meta-theatrical touches in this film is that it becomes the sort of film it evokes – there is a chase scene, a rescue from a fire, complete with trained dog, and an utterly wonderful nightmare sequence in which the hero interacts with his own silence vs. sound. 

Many echoes of film history appear here; John Gilbert’s own troubles with Louis B. Mayer find an echo in Valentin’s clashes with his studio head, the final montage is Astaire and Rogers (in this case, Bourse falls back – perhaps at the director’s suggestion, but still quite effectively – on an ersatz Sing Sing Sing), and small winks to silent film practice appear throughout. 

Throughout, the film has a warmth and wit which make this a winner…I would venture that most audiences do not miss the dialogue (and, indeed, there are comparatively few intertitles in the  film).  It does present the genre as pleasingly, engagingly, and effectively as could be imagined, and I hope that it enjoys great success.  One could several more such nouveau silent films coming out from studios…on ne peut q’esperer…

A final thought: a recent New York Times article by Michael Cieply about THE ARTIST spoke of the lack of sound – with the exception of “background music.”  Yes.  It is background music.  As much as, to me, it dominates and completes the action, this summation is correct: the purpose of film music is to serve the film.  The best use of film music is to support, enhance, fill out, clarify, and disappear.  Even when it’s the only sound in the room.

Fri, December 30 2011 » Silent Film » No Comments

Science, Music and Motion: French Science Films at the National Gallery of Art

This weekend, I’m participating in a particularly interesting film program at the National Gallery.  Part of its ongoing screenings of newly-preserved films, “From Vault to Screen,” this year displays French restorations.  The particular program here, “Poetry in Motion: The Scientific Short,” lives up to its billing.   Admittedly, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be the sort of program which would be anything but dull.  But that’s the beautiful thing about this program: it makes art from nature.

There are about 80 minutes worth of footage, with about 16 short films, each depicting a specific animal or plant.  The range is remarkable: from the Amblystone, a Mexican salamander, to the snail-eating creature called the “Glandina,” the many remarkable parts of the crawfish, to orchids, carnivorous plants, and translucent sea creatures.  What is wonderful about these short films is how carefully and artistically they are shot.  The photography is beautiful: some of the close-ups show animal scales or plant parts in extraordinary detail.   Sometimes it’s clear that the camera has been over-cranked to create slow motion, and there is a beautiful time-lapse sequence showing orchids blooming.    Plants are spun in a circle to show their flowers from all sides, and many scenes are shot under water or near the surface of the water.  All in all, these films, most of which date from 1912-14, show remarkable sophistication and artistry. 

And, again, this is a perfect example of humanistic music in action, not only in that music is paired with science, but that these silent science film allow the musician to engage with the fundamental questions about the relationship between sound and image.   In particular: between sound motion, and how that motion directs and dictates sound.  

The science film or documentary, as we know it in the form of NOVA or National Geographic, is narrated, a sound film, with musical underscoring (occasionally coming to the fore).  But, the narrator’s voice is paramount.  Indeed, there is a good deal of “talking” in these films (the often extensive French intertitles have not been translated, and so a translator will be reading the translations), but the images themselves tell a compelling story even without text.   We are also accustomed to some anthromorphizing of animals in science films, as with “March of the Penguins”; again, this makes for good and compelling narrative.  For example, a snake is shown doing a brief “toilette” (spinning around and around on the ground to clean itself!) before its post-prandial nap. 

Dramatic music’s spot.  Indeed, these images readily present narratives and dramas, one of the most clear of which is confrontation.  There are some remarkable battles here, including the remarkable fight of a rat and a scorpion. We see the scorpion sting the rat at last,see the rat’s immediate responses, then return in an hour to see the rat’s final convulsion and death.  Or, the snail-eating glandina, shot in extreme close-up, projects a creepy and in fact almost terrifying image as it consumes its prey.   This is drama, and dramatic music and its tools readily comes into play.

Divertissement.  The films showing beautiful transparent sea mollusks (jellyfish, etc.) create wonderful opportunities for delightful dance-like scores…the creatures, moving slowly and gracefully through the water, readily invite this dance-like music.  The shapes of these creatures aare endlessly varied: chains of cellulose bodies, small lozenges, mushroom-shaped undulating jellies, some emitting graceful thin tendrils, moving with a poetic slowness (here is the “poetry in motion”!). Once again, the qualities of motion which suggest dance and lightness are not entirely clear, and cannot be perfectly articulated, but are still logical to the musician. 

There is ample scope here for differing styles and textures of music.  Some of the animals are quick and light (the dragonfly), others move deliberately (glandina).  But, all of the animals and plants move, and the plant films bring to brilliant light a remembrance that plants are both living and mobile creatures.  The time-lapse photography telescopes natural blooming motion, but shows that music-inspiring motion on another time scale.  There is some tinting in the films as well, which lends an additional visual pleasure to the presentation. 

These films make art within a scientific approach (these are clearly the purpose of the films), going far beyond what is needed to accomplish the task.  Science reaching over into art and making a joint statement is humanistic music joining silent film.

Sat, July 9 2011 » Humanistic Music, Silent Film » No Comments

Bjork and “Biophilia”

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about Icelandic artist Bjork‘s new performance event/album, “biophilia,” which is premiering at the Manchester International Festival (UK) this month:  (

As with the earlier “Gurs Zyklus” by the artist Trimpin, who I  mentioned in a previous post, Bjork’s piece contains newly-built instruments such as the Gameleste (a combination of the gamelan and celesta), a musical pendulum, and a gigantic pin barrel harp called the Sharpsichord.  This follows the great tradition of creating or modifying instruments to suit one’s artistic vision (Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow come most strongly to mind, similar in spirit to the earliest electronic music composers – Pierre Schafer, Stockhausen, Varese).   Bjork’s own website has tanalizingly little substantive information about the instruments or the piece itself, however; a vimeo post shows the making of the gameleste (, and there are some beatiful photos of quartz and crystals on her news page.  The amazing amount of engineering and work which goes into the creation of the Gameleste alone already tells something about the significant funding base which Bjork has at her disposal for this project: materials alone must have cost a considerable sum (it took at least $160,000 to build the instruments, which Bjork used from prize money, according to the Times).  This level of exploration is something open to those with sufficient resources and the opportunity to explore (Bjork speaks about being “spoiled” by being surrounded by engineers),  but this is also an example of taking advantage of one’s particular circumstances. 

Bjork’s comment in her website audio posting about wishing to interact with electronics on a more emotional level and not get caught up in the programming when working on biophilia speaks to another personal concern, the growth of technological specialists, which needs another essay.   Artists may or may not be technologically gifted; whatever their location on the skill spectrum, however, they deserve equal access to the tools which would help them to realize their visions.  Software is increasingly intuitive, but still has far to go until the very high treshhold of functional entry is open to most artists. 

Where biophilia is humanistic appears to lie not only in the cross-disciplinary scope of the event both in performance (video and live performance, new instruments) and concept  (crystals and galaxies are only part of a strong scientific field of associations),  but also in its desire to address and discuss different aspects which the work references (the  Times article mentions promised analyses of the music, for example) and its focus on music education.  Music and its partner arts are placed within a theatrical context, apparently thematic and coherent.   The work itself has many foci and manifestations – it is not simply an “album,” nor simply a performance-art piece.  By generating ancillary informational and artistic materials external to the performance (and with its educational arm) – the songs on the album will be released as apps for iphone, for example – it seems to be about exploring music in the context of the wider world – how it relates to the outside world – and perpetuating and extending the experience of the piece beyond the immediate performance, which humanistic music is about.

I say “seems” because it is not entirely clear what takes place in the piece.  Festival-goers in Manchester are seeing the work this month; while the website makes the standard prohibitions against photography and recording, it seems that a hand-held camera posting smuggled video on youtube would hardly be able to measure up against the full-sensory experience which “biophilia” promises to be.  Being there in person would have to be the best way to experience this.  

In time, I will hope for additional video and audio samples to give a glimpse into the piece itself , if this is feasible and possible.   It seems to me that having a little more would provoke more interest in the work rather than less while still allowing ample scope for the experience of seeing the work (and hearing the album itself) as well.   This direction is enticing, fantastic, incredible- the proof, as always, is in the pudding, to see how well the many elements serve a greater expression.

Biophilia is scheduled to come to New York in early 2012: I hope to see it!

Mon, July 4 2011 » Humanistic Music, Music and Musicians » 1 Comment

Trimpin and the MAP fund: Humanistic Music and History

On the lookout for evidences of humanistic music projects, the recently-announced premiere of the “Gurs Zyklus” by composer-sculptor-artist Trimpin at Stanford University seems right in line with the ideals of cross-disciplinary ventures which serve a greater purpose and reflect on a larger external narrative (events taking place during WW II in the village of Gurs).  The fascinating combination of sculpture, moving parts, new instruments (a fire organ!), and Nancarrow-inspired scores from tree bark, is exciting.  Alas that I cannot be at Stanford to see this premiere…perhaps it can travel. 

Here’s more about the project:

And, reading the recent list of MAP Fund grantees gives further fuel to this growing fire…

The MAP fund and Creative Capital work together, moving in fantastic directions.

Mon, May 30 2011 » Humanistic Music » No Comments

Art in Motion! at the National Gallery

Last month, an incredible program of film animation took place at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Called “Art in Motion!”, this 90-minute event screened abstract animation in film from the 1920’s to the present, putting on screen a wide variety of approaches and artists.  From Viking Eggeling to Norman McLaren to Len Lye to Larry Cuba and Sara Petty, the program featured painting on film, computerized animation, and culminated with four digital animations by NY-based visual artist Sharon Louden, including the premiere of her film, Carrier. 

The program represented another aspect of music and visual art working in combination, which is a central part of my work now.  During the program, some films already had soundtracks, and some were silent.  Peggy Parsons, director of Film Programs at the Gallery, asked me, as the NGA’s Resident Film Accompanist, to create new scores for Sharon’s animations; as we continued our discussion, I proposed creating interludes to comment on and dialogue with the other films (in the manner, in a sense, of Mussorsgky’s Pictures).  I teamed up with percussionist Barry Dove to provide live music interludes between the films with soundtracks – I crafted them as real-time responses to the music just heard in the film (a kind of live interaction with or dialogue with, or reflection upon, the music just heard).  I wrote short interludes for each, as I had the opportunity to watch each film in advance.  Some of the music was older music – Bach unaccompanied cello suites, for instance; some was jazz or folk music, some was electronic (Sky David’s, for example).  For each, we responded musically and reflected the recorded sound.  This alone created a dynamic dialogue between recorded and live. 

The highlight of the program, of course, were Sharon’s films.  Until now, she has always created silent animations, and so my being able to create and perform new scores is a great honor.  Working on these films, I was most gratified by the fact that her films are extremely musical: their structure and flow is very compatible with music, and the motions suggested ready musical analogues for me.  This is not always the case with abstract animations: as I have noted in conversation, sometimes it is difficult for me to know where I am in an abstract film.  In other words, we are accustomed now, as film watchers, to recognize the signs that the film is coming to an end – there are well-accepted visual cues which we recognize.  In many animations, these cues are not there; and, in default of any recognized visual coding, we can’t know how far into a film (or how far from the end) we are; and, I found that while playing for another progam of abstract films at the Gallery this past fall, I was sometimes surprised to reach the end of the film.  (Even watching a fireworks show, possibly very similar to abstract film, is clearer: most of them are organized to display different types of fireworks, and then we all recognize the “grand finale” when it comes).  With Sharon’s films, one’s position in the film is clear, which makes musical scores follow naturally. 

Each of Sharon’s films is brief – the longest is 4 minutes – and I created a new, fully notated piano-percussion score for each.  The content and structure of the films helped to determine the style of music: my scores fell along a gamut of fully-notated to notation and ad libitum playing within boundaries.  The first, Footprints, was the earliest in time.  For this film, I created several short motives which were repeated ad lib until the next film event.  hedge, the second film, was whimiscal, and I drew on my silent film comedy experience to create something lighter, including a strummed autoharp chord pattern on the strings on the piano and a flexatone.  

The Bridge was Sharon’s most-screened film to date, and I created a score with full notation and a few bars which had ad lib repeats.  Then, the new film, Carrier, was the most sophiscated digitally, and I had a fully-notated score. 

Sharon is an ideal collaborator, and she heard my scores for the first time that day at the Gallery.  Talking afterward, I realized that she was surprised by the musical settings I had provided for some of her films.  Carrier, for example, has a long sequence in which the viewer goes down into tall grass and moves steadily through it.  My own field of associations was that of hunting, or pursuing something…so my music took on that feel.  Sharon, however, had a far different view – hers was a positive one, running through grass with pleasure.  I am glad that we did not talk about this beforehand, because my music represents an independent take.  On a future screening, it would be interesting to create another score which takes her own vision into account, and see how the versions differ.

As an event of Humanistic Music, Art in Motion! was a fantastic experience, and one which I hope we will be repeating in the coming season in more than one venue.

Mon, April 25 2011 » Humanistic Music, Music and Visual Art, Silent Film » No Comments

Humanistic Music: A Description

Humanistic Music

My work seeks to explore and demonstrate music’s organic, inextricable connections with other arts and with the external world.  I want to discover music’s place in the world by putting it in as many places as possible.  All of the arts are particularized manifestations of the same primal creative impulse; connected like neurons to one another, in innumerable ways and on myriad levels, the several arts relate to one another as different species within the same genus, overlapping or sharing expressive language.   

“Humanistic music” is the term I use to describe this system of linkages and connections, as well as my search to explore its branches.  My goal is to create artworks which incorporate many arts and link them together in metaphorical systems, small working models of a larger artistic cosmos.

Music is inter-textual, referential, and symbolic, having the capacity to remind, to predict, to comment upon events, to symbolize, to contextualize an action, phrase, image, or idea.  In theatrical contexts – opera, dance, film – these qualities are an indispensible aspect of music’s contribution to the artistic whole.

The Development of Humanistic Music: Previous and Current Works

I am interested in the metaphorical quality of music, by which it can reference or symbolize extra-musical things.  Music’s metaphorical qualities are immense and complex; what many consider to be its narrative (i.e., “programmatic”) potential is, to my mind, a subset of this larger metaphorical capacity.  Pieces of mine such as Tesserae: Six Mosaics of Ancient Rome or American Gothic Suite: Theme and Variations on Grant Wood’s Art, the second of which is included among my work samples, are metaphorical rather than programmatic. 

The first two movements of Tesserae (composed as part of a residency with an ancient Roman exhibition at the Cedar Rapids (IA) Museum of Art) are musical character studies, with distinctive musical ideas, of two emperors: Caracalla and Geta, who were brothers.  Caracalla had his brother assassinated, and his music symbolically “kills” Geta’s music at the close of the second movement.  American Gothic Suite is a set of variations 

While music is capable of serving narrative function – for example, my operatic, theatrical, and silent film scores are created to sustain and amplify narrative – it also has a broader contemplative aspect which invites reflection on analogies between music and other arts.  My Four Views of Pompeii (2004), for string quartet and harp, is such a piece, musically evoking four styles of ancient Roman wall painting in its four movements.   The first movement, for example, symbolizes the illusionistic, trompe l’ɶil “Second Style” by employing trompe l’oreille musical techniques: overlapping glissandi giving the impression of one continuous slide, instruments mimicking each other by playing in extreme registers, two instruments sharing a line in such a way as to create the impression of one.

I am also interested in exploring boundaries – for example, the tension between improvisation and composition, between control and chance, between preparation and spontaneous reaction (non-preparation), between visual and aural, between moving and still images, between theatrical and musical performance.  Actualities: A Theater-Concerto for Pianist and Chamber Orchestra (2010), exemplifies many of these explorations of boundaries.  In this piece, most of the orchestra’s music consists of improvisation upon pre-existing, notated ideas; the soloist, however, improvises the entire part, with no musical notation.  Even within the soloist’s part, however, different levels of improvisation exist.  Spontaneous improvisation is required in the first movement, “Pile-on,” during which the soloist responds to previously un-encountered stimuli: randomly-selected musical passages played by individual orchestra members, to which the soloist must improvise lines in counterpoint at first hearing.  The soloist must also improvise musical reactions to accompany  previously-unseen, randomly-chosen video images in the second movement, “Actualities.”  The final movement, “Fast motion machine,” combines control and non-control, and requires continual improvisation by the soloist within a formal framework whose dimensions are determined by the conductor.   Thus, this perpetual-motion movement’s content is partially controlled by the soloist, but the movement is also of indeterminate length (that aspect is determined by the conductor).  In this complex of elements, then, Actualities explores the interaction between composed and improvised music,  between theater and musical performance, between known and unknown elements (video previously unseen, and assembled without the soloist’s participation.   Even the video is divided into two categories: live – via webcams or television broadcasts– and pre-recorded films and videos).  The premiere of Actualities in March 2010, with myself as soloist, represented an initial exploration; a coming repeat performance in November 2010 will explore these elements further in a new performance space, with a different orchestra (but the same soloist). 

As a natural extension of creating music reflecting visual art, I am actively collaborating with visual artists such as Micheline Klagsbrun and Sharon Louden, collaborations which have performative, temporal manifestations.  In the first case, Ms. Klagsbrun is assembling an animated slideshow of her paintings to be projected while accompanying a performance of my piece lotus and poppy (2007), for mezzo-soprano, tenor, and chamber ensemble, at George Washington University in November 2010.  Some of the images in Ms. Klagsbrun’s slideshow previously existed: her series of lotus paintings, exhibited in summer 2010 at the Studio Gallery in Washington, DC, provided me with the initial idea for this project.  Some of her paintings in this slideshow, however, are newly painted for this project: paintings of poppies resulting from her repeated listening to a recording of lotus and poppy.  Her new poppy paintings, then, directly inspired by my music, build an additional layer of interconnectedness between the arts for this project.  Thus, Ms. Klagsbrun’s still, painted images of lotuses and poppies will acquire a moving, temporal, element to accompany lotus and poppy in a new context.  

In the second case, New York-based Artist Sharon Louden works in digital animation, and I created new musical scores to partner a small number of her animations as part of a March 2011 program of animated film, called Art in Motion! at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  In this case, Ms. Louden’s art is both visual and mobile, but silent; my music lends a complementary aural dimension to the work.  One of the animations for which I created music is Louden’s The Bridge (2008), which has been screened at numerous film festivals, including the 2009 Honolulu International Film Festival (Gold Kohuna Award), the 2008 San Francisco International Children’s Film Festival, and the 2010 NYC Downtown Short Film Festival.  The March 2011National Gallery screening of The Bridge represents not only the premiere of my score, but will be the first time Ms. Louden has paired music with her animations.  We are hoping to repeat Art in Motion! in New York and Los Angeles in the near future.

Patterns from Randomness: Mobiles

As links between visual and aural stimuli are thus central to my work, another boundary exploration interests me: that between control and chance.  I am intrigued by finding patterns within randomly-assembled or collected objects, making meaningful connections between ostensibly unrelated elements.  An example of this is a “text-mobile”, my term for groups of distinct texts gathered to express an overarching theme, which reference and comment, often in unexpected ways, upon each other.  Examples of text-mobiles are found in my libretti for lotus and poppy and my oratorio A Crown of Stars, for soprano and tenor soloists, chorus, and chamber orchestra.  Drawing on the field of associations for both lotuses (forgetfulness, lotus-eater, dreaminess) and poppy (opium, sleep, remembrance), my text-mobile for lotus and poppy collects texts from Tennyson, Thomas de Quincy, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and others, including original text, to form a dialogue between a living (tenor) and a dead opium addict (mezzo-soprano) about the need to engage with the world, and fight the temptation to escape its responsibilities and challenges.  A Crown of Stars, a wedding oratorio, draws on numerous sources, including Sappho, Propertius, Christine de Pisan, Hindu texts, and modern Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, to illuminate the work’s central theme.

 My work in humanistic music continues: anything which links music intimately, organically with other art forms or extra-musical elements is by definition humanistic.   Many more roads to travel: I am actively pursuing more collaborations with artists and film makers as this path continues.

Thu, April 14 2011 » Humanistic Music » No Comments