Orchestra premieres silent movie score
When the Columbia Orchestra set out to commission an orchestra piece for the first time, it had no idea it would turn into a multimedia experience.
“I was thinking he would write a standard concert work,” said Music Director Jason Love of composer Andrew Earle Simpson.
But Simpson decided to take this opportunity to do something a little less orthodox and compose a score for the 1920 Buster Keaton silent film One Week.
The score will debut at the Columbia Orchestra’s Jan. 31 concert, Cinematic Inspirations. The film will be shown at the concert while the orchestra provides a live accompaniment of the new score.
All the pieces being performed in the concert were ones Love had been hoping to perform in the near future, and he was able to find a place for them in the upcoming concert with the unifying theme of the cinema.
“I tried to find pieces that were either somehow very cinematic and visual or at least had a strong narrative story to them,” said Love.
In addition to Simpson’s score for Buster Keaton’s One Week, the January program will include Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” and Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
“Night on Bald Mountain” is a piece the audience may recognize from Disney’s Fantasia, while the “William Tell Overture” found its popularity as the theme for The Lone Ranger. Though less recognizable, “Grand Canyon Suite” offers what Love called a “tone painting” depicting vivid imagery and narrative.
The Columbia Orchestra is well known for its diversity within performances, putting both well-known and unfamiliar pieces on the same program. Just last year, the Columbia Orchestra won the American Prize in Orchestral Programming.
Jan. 31’s concert is no exception. “It is a great combination of what is very familiar and what is new and accessible,” said Love.
Music and film in tandem
Accessibility similarly played a major role in Simpson’s new composition.
“I love the way that there is this magical three-way interaction between the screen, the performer and the audience,” Simpson said. “It creates this experience that’s better than film or music would be on its own.”
It was this type of unity that Simpson focused on while composing for the silent film. Although his main goal is for the audience to enjoy themselves, musical themes recur throughout the score that the audience can listen for. Since the score was written specifically for the film, the music changes mood according to what is happening in the story.
Simpson did note, “There’s no tragedy in the film. It’s a comedy.” But with the new piece comes new challenges, as a live orchestra has to stay in time with the rolling film.
“It is a high wire act,” Simpson said. “The trick is keeping varying people together with an unvarying film.” In other words, the conductor will have to keep one eye on the orchestra and one eye on the screen.
“It’s a little bit like shooting a rocket ship,” said Love, “If you’re just one degree off here on the surface, by the time you get to space, it’s way off.”
The experience will be unique for orchestra and audience alike. Some music that used to go along with silent films was often more generic, or not quite a match for the film. But Simpson’s score was tailor-made for the 20-minute One Week.
Simpson hopes to offer a complete experience, with the idea that the film and music “go so well that you can’t really separate them in your mind.”
A Keaton comedy
Buster Keaton’s One Week depicts the story of a pair of newlyweds. Their wedding present is a house they are supposed to be able to assemble in one week. Naturally, the audience can expect comedy to ensue.
“You can imagine what could go wrong building a house,” laughed Simpson. “It’s really very entertaining from first to last. The film has a great ending. It has one of the best endings in silent comedies. I’m not going to spoil it for you.”
The Columbia Orchestra’s Cinematic Inspirations concert will take place Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Rd., Columbia. Tickets cost $20 for adults ($16 for seniors), and $10 for students.
To purchase tickets or for more information, call (410) 465-8777 or visit columbiaorchestra.org.
In its Jan. 31 concert, the Columbia Orchestra will screen Buster Keaton’s comedic 1920 silent movie One Week as it performs the world premiere of a score tailored for the film. In the movie, Keaton and his bride (played by Sybil Seely) are given a build-it-yourself house that supposedly can be assembled in one week. The score was commissioned by the orchestra.