Screening of silent film will not be so quiet

As part of a concert emphasizing the visual element, the Columbia Orchestra will perform a soundtrack for a screening of the 1920 silent film "One Week" starring Buster Keaton, above.
As part of a concert emphasizing the visual element, the Columbia Orchestra will perform a soundtrack for a screening of the 1920 silent film "One Week" starring Buster Keaton, above. (file photo)

The Columbia Orchestra's first commissioned score provides new music for an old movie. It commissioned Washington, D.C.-based composer Andrew Earle Simpson to compose a score for Buster Keaton's 1920 silent film "One Week."

This score's world premiere accompanies a screening of the film on Saturday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m., at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School.


The 20-minute-long "One Week" promises to be a highlight of a concert program that also includes three pieces of classical music that Columbia Orchestra music director Jason Love said have "a strong visual element."

In "One Week," Keaton plays a just-married fellow who has received a build-your-own-house kit as a wedding present. As you might imagine, things do not go exactly as planned and the resulting house is something out of a surrealist dream. When "One Week" opened in 1920, "Motion Picture World" magazine praised it as "the comedy sensation of the year."


Love observed that this relatively short film is "a series of slapstick sequences," which in musical terms translate into distinct segments for the orchestra to play.

He added that there is an "element of pastiche in terms of the kind of music you would have heard in the 1920s," including the "jangly piano music" associated with silent films.

Although some parts of the score establish an atmospheric mood without literally corresponding to individual bits of action, other parts of the score are very precise with musical cues designed to correspond to specific slapstick routines.

"There's no latitude. I have to hit at the exact moment. I have to gauge it quickly and have just the right tempo," Love said. "One such cue is the point where Keaton falls through the roof and lands in a bathtub, so there's a big bang of percussion."

If the Columbia Orchestra responds to such musical challenges with, well, percussive precision, it's had a lot of practice recently. Love's orchestra played another Simpson score for a screening of Keaton's 1927 feature-length "The General" that was done at the American Film Institute's Silver Theater in Silver Spring last November.

Simpson will explain his Keaton connection when he is joined by Howard Community College faculty member Bill Scanlan Murphy at a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m.

A music professor at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University in Washington, Simpson is a versatile composer who also composes opera, orchestral and chamber music. And he is a noted pianist and organist. Simpson is the resident film accompanist for the National Gallery of Art, House accompanist for the Library of Congress' Mt. Pony Theater, and has performed elsewhere in this country and abroad.

"One Week" is just one of the pieces being performed in this weekend's program. The rest of the Saturday night concert consists of Rossini's "Overture to William Tell," Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite."

"It's a nice opportunity to play pieces I have wanted to do that have a story or are picturesque. They're colorful and evocative," Love noted. "Listening to them is like watching a movie without the movie."

All three pieces have been quoted in the scores for movies and cartoons over the years. "Night on Bald Mountain," for instance, is used in Walt Disney's 1940 animated feature "Fantasia."

"It's a fun program for us," Love said. "I think it is very family-friendly."

The Columbia Orchestra performs Saturday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m,. at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. Tickets are $25 and $20; $21 and $16 for seniors; and $12 and $10 for students. Call 410-465-8777 or go to http://www.columbiaorchestra.org.

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