Boister, the chamber-pop ensemble led by composer/keyboardist Anne Watts (who won CP's Best Pop Composer this year), will perform their original score to D.W. Griffith's 1916 silent film "Intolerance," at AFI Silver in Silver Spring tonight. Boister's movie scores have received widespread praise (from movie critic Roger Ebert and the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, among others). Watts took some time to chat with us about her work.
CP: How many silent films have you scored, and how did that all start?
Watts: Let's see, I think this is like our fifth one. We've done three Buster Keaton films and then one Greta Garbo and then this one. I'm always looking for interesting things to do. Like playing in a band is really great, that's really cool, but doing weird things that are outside of the box really just keeps us challenged and keeps us thinking and keeps us responsive. Like if you're just playing in a band, you have audiences to respond to and that's really cool, but in this case having the film to respond to is incredibly stimulating. Anyway, I got off track. But usually if somebody approaches me with a weird or interesting idea, generally I'm going to lean towards doing it. So somebody called me from the Walters Art Museum and they were running the film series there and it was their idea originally to score Buster Keaton films. And I'd never even seen a Buster Keaton film, I didn't even really know who he was. And now he's become truly one of the most important collaborators of my entire life.
CP: Why did you decide to do Intolerance?
Watts: Well yeah it was kind of the same thing with D.W. Griffith. I was not hip to him at all. But now it's like, oh my god, I just realize the guy is a complete and total genius. Gerald Ross called from MICA—he's the head curator at MICA—and said he was putting together a show about the history of racial intolerance. And he was just like, wouldn't it be weird to do this crazy film? Which I had never seen. And it's basically D.W. Griffith's apology for doing Birth of a Nation [an important but legendarily racist film].
CP: What exactly is the movie about? I know it's like some epic four part thing that's like three and a half hours long, but what is it about exactly? And what kind of effect do you think your music has on the film?
Watts: Those are two really good questions that have to be dealt with separately. So basically it's four different story lines. So one is contemporary to the time—it's 1916—it's basically a story having to do with labor, and a labor strike, and a capital punishment case. And then there's the story of Jesus. And then there's the story of the persecution of the Huguenots in 16thCentury France, and the fourth one is the fall of Babylon. And it all sounds really dry and kind of banal, but because Griffith is so adept—I mean he created the close-up—you really really get in tight on the actors. And it's our job as the musicians to enhance the emotional effect of every moment of the film. So that's what we do. We just amplify the intensity. So if you don't laugh and/or cry repeatedly in this film, you don't have a pulse. I mean after this experience seeing it with our score. Because, I mean, we are emotionally tied to every moment. And the level of intensity is profound.
CP: That sounds really interesting.
Watts: It is. I mean it's way amazing.
CP: The reviews to your score have been super positive, so I'm inclined to believe you. They pretty much all talk about how the score really brings the film to life, which sounds like the response you're hoping for.
Watts: Yeah, it's so cool, so cool. Because for us, we always relied on Buster Keaton who was just, you know, Johnny Depp's big influence, and the combination of his physical dexterity and his courage, and the fact that he's just drop-dead funny and drop-dead gorgeous—you know, doing something without him was a real risk for us. But there are brilliant performers all throughout this film as well that more than compensate.
CP: How many times have you performed the score?
Watts: I think this is about our sixth time. The thing is that every time we do it, it's different. We're always writing new music, we're always coming up with new stuff, so we're always changing the score just to keep us on our toes, because we're always looking to improve everything that we do. And you know, you can't go back and change a record. You made a record and that's it, you can't go back and fix it, or change it—not that you would want to, I certainly don't want to. But I love the fact that the score is like a living painting. it's like a mural, you can just keep going back and adding to it, or changing a little corner of it or something, and that makes it really dynamic for us.
CP: I read that you plant little musical Easter eggs in the score—
Watts: Yeah that's a cool little metaphor. That was Ann Hornaday from the Washington Post I think who said that.
CP: Yeah, and she said you play bits and pieces of a diverse range of stuff, like Bach, Jimi Hendrix, the Pogues and Led Zeppelin. Why do you include these references?
Watts: Actually I took the Bach out, I switched it with some [Erik] Satie and some Jacques Brel, because of the French reference. There's this great song by Brel called 'Ne Me Quitte Pas,' which means "don't leave me," that works really well woven into one of the French sequences where this beautiful young couple in love meet their demise. The thing is, the film is really fast-paced, and the music causes you to just kind of stop, and honor the fact that a child is about to die, or a girl is about to be raped, or someone is about to go to the gallows and they have been wrongly accused. The music can really make you stop and really feel that. Sorry, what was the question?
CP: I honestly don't even remember anymore. Oh, the musical Easter eggs and why you include those references.
Watts: Oh right. So it's because when you hear a song that you recognize, like the Clash—when you hear "London Calling"—it's like nothing has changed. That's what that song says. That's what Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" says. It's like, you know, it could be Kent State, it could be Occupy Wall Street—I mean it's 1916 but it could be yesterday, on the streets of fill-in-the-blank. And that's why historical film and historical art, or art that has an historical perspective is so poignant. There's even a mural in one of the scenes in the film that says something like, "The same today as yesterday," or something like that. Which is really amazing as we're playing Hendrix's "Machine Gun," as the Pinkerton bullies are opening fire on these workers on strike, and the women and children are watching from a hillside. I mean it's so vivid, and the music just drives it all the way home—especially if it's a song that you recognize.
I mean, let's face it: silent film is hard to watch. It's not something that I was ever interested in at all, it just seemed so flat, you know? But with the music, it's amazing how opening your ears and creating this aural experience enhances and intensifies the visuals. I mean this film inevitably gets us a standing ovation. And it's crazy. It's like, wow, are you serious? A three-hour movie with four different story lines?
CP: Does it get exhausting? Playing for that long?
Watts: Weirdly, practicing and figuring it out is the exhausting part. Because you're constantly calculating what you're doing, trying to give credence to each passing moment. You're not just creating a wash of sound. So it's exhausting to create it, that's the truth. But the performance is like this incredible catharsis. You know, it's dangerous, anything can go wrong. And anything has gone wrong! We've done it when a film has broken in half, or like burned—like you see these little burn marks on the screen, and you're like, "Oh my god"—or we've played one when the projector was set on repeat, and kept repeating the same 15 minutes. So it can be really scary for us, because we care intensely, and we don't want to do the director of the film a disservice. So we're scared. We don't really know if we're going to pull it off. We're not exhausted, we're like on a major three-hour adrenaline rush. It is so cathartic, and at the end you just remember, "Oh this is why it matters."
What you're creating is something that people haven't thought of. So there's an intense beauty in that. And the other thing is that this is a piece of art that would be dead in a vault somewhere, and it's being resurrected. And at the risk of sounding arrogant, that feels heroic to me somehow.
And to add one last thing, the movie turns 100 in 2016, so we're gearing up for that—trying to figure out where to take it and what to do with it for that big moment, the 100-year anniversary.
CP: Any thoughts on what you might do?
Watts: Well I don't really want to talk about it, because I have such high hopes for it, you know? But I would really love to do it again in Baltimore, I don't know where. But you know. End of sentence.
CP: OK, I won't push it. So last question: Boister is a band in its own right, aside from the movie soundtracks. You've recorded 7 albums? What's next for the band? Or is this dominating your time for now?
Watts: No, man, we're constantly juggling things. So the next thing we're playing is a farewell thing for Megan Hamilton at the Creative Alliance. That's a big deal, because the Creative Alliance kind of nurtured us, they commissioned one of our films, they've showcased all of the silent films more than once, they've hosted every single one of our record release parties, and they gave us our very first gig when they were at like a moose lodge in Highlandtown. So saying bye to her is a pretty big deal. And then we have a Christmas solstice thing that we do. And we're working on a new album called "Cast a Net" with J. Robbins at Magpie [Cage] in Baltimore.
CP: That's where you recorded the last album, right?
Watts: Yeah. So we're about halfway done with that.
CP: So I know musicians hate the "what's your sound like?" kind of questions, but I'm just wondering: Is the stuff you play for movie scores totally different than the way the band sounds, or is it along the same lines?
Watts: There's not a big difference between what we do as a band and what we do in the films. It's just that the films really let us kind of let loose. We don't have to deal with the parameters of songs. I mean we do songs, we do complete songs in the score, we do complete Boister songs, but we weave in and out of all of our influences, all of our instrumental tendencies, so we exercise real freedom in the films that we don't ordinarily have. [It's like] when you think about the awesome format of a record: You put on the first song and when the last song is done you take it off, and that's the end. As opposed to the way we listen to music now, it's like one song, sitting in isolation, mixed together with all the other songs in your collection. And a lot of times it just doesn't do that song justice, to separate it from its brothers and sisters on the original album. So that's why the film score is so freeing—it's like, you know, you're just going to have to listen to this idea from the start to the finish, and that's what makes it such a complete experience.