- Andrew E. Simpson in a rare moment of rest. (Photo: John Armato)
If you watch silent film accompanist Andrew E. Simpson perform, as I did last weekend, you'll see the pianist sprint his fingers the length of the Steinway's keyboard, then pound the ivory with such force that his back straightens and his curled bangs flop against his forehead. You might also see him scrape a wooden spoon against the strings inside the grand piano, or play it with one hand while simultaneously blowing a trumpet, a duck whistle, or a bicycle horn. He'll even sing, when the occasion calls for it, though he's not much of a vocalist.
What you won't catch Simpson doing, however, is reading sheet music. When he accompanied Maciste all'Inferno at the National Gallery of Art, there were exactly two pages of chicken-scratched notes resting before him — for a 95-minute film. They were general ideas, he later explains, about what to play during the opening credits, during transitions, and during scenes involving Pluto (king of the underworld, who gets the trumpet blast) and Graziella (the young flirt who, albeit indirectly, lands softhearted muscleman Maciste in hell).
"Sometimes Maciste is thinking about her and and her music" — a light, twinkly melody — "might appear at the top of the piano," says Simpson, 42, a professor of composition and music theory at Catholic University (who performs again this weekend at the museum, where he's a resident film accompanist). Aside from such moments, though, it's all improvisation, like a bluesy riff he pulled out during scenes in which devlish minxes fawn over Maciste in the underworld. "I didn't really think about doing that until that time," he says.
It's a challenge, to say the least, because Simpson must play for an hour and a half straight, no breaks. "You have to pace yourself," he says. "The good thing is, most films have very few moments where there's outright action all the time. There's almost always a place where you can play a chord and settle, and the audience needs a break, too." And yet there are other films, Maciste being one of them, which are packed with action. "You look for opportunities to save yourself, so you're not exhausted, but with that film I did sort of leave it all out there," he says. "I have to tell you, this was one of the more exhausting performances I've done."
In this instance, at least, Simpson had the opportunity to watch Maciste beforehand. For many of his 50 or so performances since becoming an accompanist in 2006, he's gone into the screening cold, including when he plays the Slapticon festival in Arlington. (He also regularly plays the Library of Congress' Mt. Pony Theater in Culpeper, where he's the house accompanist.) "Often I play something I've never seen before, which is another special challenge because I have to anticipate what's happening," he says. "The more films you play, the easier it becomes to spot patterns, and it becomes a little easier to predict what will happen." For instance, if there's a vase prominently displayed in a scene, "you're pretty sure that vase is going to be broken at some point." And when the vase breaks, he's ready to replicate the sound of breaking china on the piano's upper register.
But you can't plan for everything. In A Gentleman of Paris, which he'll accompany on Saturday, the disgraced marquis shoots himself, a moment that's not shown on screen. Had Simpson not seen the film (which he has, fortunately) he wouldn't have known the gun was fired until it was too late. And even those rare occasions he's allowed time to compose a complete silent film score, as when he performed in Rio de Janeiro with members of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, come with their own unique challenges, like synchronizing the music with the film. "Even if you think you're playing a steady tempo, as a human you're always deviating a little from the tempo," he says.
And throughout these performances Simpson, who also co-founded and plays in the Snark Ensemble, draws on musical styles ranging from 19th century romantic music to 20th century jazz to 21st century avante-garde. While he continues to compose music for music's sake, he finds his work on silent films to be a rewarding outlet that allows him to unite the three disciplines of improvisation, composition, and performance.
"The film is creating the initial statement, and the music is responding and working off of it," he says. "It's really high-wire stuff."