The Catholic University of America

Andrew Earle Simpson
Silent Film Composer, Musician

Original Music for Silent Film (Piano, Organ, Accordion)

"...Andrew Simpson sounds like he has the potential to be another grand new find as a silent film accompanist." Richard M. Roberts, film historian

December 19: Andrew Simpson performs a new score to The Little Match Girl (La petite marchande d'allumettes), a charming 1928 silent film by Jean Renoir and Jean Tedesco. National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium, 1:00 PM, Free admission

December 12: Andrew Simpson, House Accompanist at the Library of Congress' Mt. Pony Theatre in Culpeper, VA, performs a new score to The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1928), 7:30 PM, Free admission

November 24: Andrew Simpson performs with the Snark Ensemble at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. His score for Liberty is performed along with other scores by Snark Ensemble composer members. Streaming audio and video of the performance are found here.

August 14: Andrew Simpson performs a concert of his film music, "Silents Are Golden," at the Sala Cecelia Meireles in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Performing several piano scores and ensemble scores with musicians from the Symphony Orchestra of Brazil, the concert was extremely enthusiastically received.

August 8: Simpson plays Show People (King Vidor, 1928) at the Library of Congress' Mt. Pony Theater in Culpeper, VA.

August 4: Members of the Snark Ensemble and guest artist Noah Getz (saxophone, clarinet) perform three of Simpson's scores at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage: Picking Peaches, Too Many Mammas, and One Week (piano). Click here to watch archived video of the performance.

July 25: Andrew Simpson plays at the National Gallery of Art on Saturday, July 25, at 3:30 PM: "The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom" (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1924), a 90-minute Soviet comedy.

July 24: "The Comic Roach" receives a glowing review in DC Theater Scene, and is chosen as one of the "Picks of the Fringe" Festival. Click here to read the review.

July 22-23-24, 2009: The Snark Ensemble plays the Capital Fringe Festival! The ensemble presents a new show conceived and scripted by Simpson, "The Comic Roach: A Roadhouse Picture Show," including guest artists Tracy Lynn Olivera (CUA faculty), Ben Redwine, Dale Barton, and Susan Rider, will be performed at the Warehouse Theatre's Mainstage at 5:30 PM on July 22, 7:00 PM on July 23, and 11:00 PM on July 24. This cabaret-film show, lasting about 65 minutes, features three silent films (two from the new Charley Chase DVD set, and one from the Harry Langdon "Lost and Found" DVD set).

Tickets are $15: click here to visit the ensemble's website to learn more about the show.

June 12, 2009: Simpson's score for "Too Many Mammas" (Charley Chase, 1924) was recorded along with two other Snark Ensemble scores for inclusion on a forthcoming CD on Naxos. Maurice Saylor's score for "Publicity Pays," and Phil Carluzzo's score for "Stolen Goods," all Chase films, will be included on the disc as well. The Naxos disc will feature Saylor's "Hunting of the Snark," a major work recorded by the Cantate Chamber Singers. Simpson appears as accordionist on this work, as well.

June 2009: Simpson's interest in exploring film in cross-disciplinary contexts (as with "Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps") takes a new direction with his conception of a 65-minute theatrical presentation, "The Comic Roach: A Roadhouse Picture Show," to be premiered at the DC Capital Fringe Festival July 22, 23, 24, 2009. "The Comic Roach," a 1920's era roadhouse show, will feature actor-singer Tracy Lynn Olivera as chanteuse/emcee Bella Gardon, who will guide the audience through the show, sing cabaret songs, and introduce the three films ("Too Many Mammas," "Boobs in the Wood," "Stolen Goods"). The Snark Ensemble plays its film scores live with the films, and will provide overture and exit music, as well. In some ways, the show evokes an early silent-era picture show, but has updated elements, as well.

May 2009: Andrew Simpson is very excited about his new association as silent film accompanist with the Library of Congress' new Mt. Pony Theater. Upcoming performances will take place there on May 2 (early silent films, a program moderated by Paul Spehr), May 9 ("Safety Last!," "Big Business," "One Week"), May 21 ("Sparrows"), and June 27 ("Clash of the Wolves"). Click here to see the May 2009 schedule of films at Culpeper.

For news prior to May 2009, please see the continued list below the calendar of performances.

Click here to listen to a Feb. 7 interview on The Kojo Nnamdi Show (WAMU radio:NPR), with Simpson, the Snark Ensemble, and silent film historian Rob Farr. Simpson also plays accordion for the Snark Ensemble.

Click here to hear mp3 files of samples of Andrew Simpson's silent film scores (piano) performed live.

Click here to access a track listing for Andrew Simpson's most recent demo CD of silent film scores.

Recent and Upcoming Performances of Silent Film Scores
Except where otherwise noted, all scores are by Andrew Simpson
Date Films Time, Venue
22 The Great Train Robbery, The Bargain (piano) 2:00 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
14 Silents Are Golden: Silent Film Music by Andrew Earle Simpson 8:00 PM, Sala Cecelia Meireles, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
8 Show People (King Vidor) (piano) 7:30 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
4 Picking Peaches, Too Many Mammas, One Week 6:00 PM, Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
27 Release of DVD set, Becoming Charley Chase (All Day Entertainment), which contains several Simpson piano and chamber ensemble scores  
26 The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (Iouri Jeliaboujski) (piano) Time TBA, National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium
22-4 Capital Fringe Festival: "The Comic Roach," with the Snark Ensemble Dates and times TBA, DC
27 Clash of the Wolves (Noel Mason Smith) (piano) 7:30 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
31 Sparrows (William Beaudine) (piano) 2:00 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
9 Three Comedy Classics: Big Business, One Week, Safety Last! 2:00 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
2 "The Man Who Made Movies," presentation by film scholar Paul Spehr, with live music to accompany selected shorts 2:00 PM, Library of Congress Mt. Pony Theatre, Culpeper, VA
Mar. 11 "Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance and Film Create a Ruckus," part of the CUA President's Festival of the Arts, with the Snark Ensemble and CUA and DC-based dancers 7:30 PM, Catholic University of America
8 Salvation Hunters and Children of Divorce (Von Sternberg) (piano) 2:00 PM, 4:00 PM, National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium
11 Janice Meredith (The Beautiful Rebel) (E. Mason Hopper) (piano), Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, Italy
6-11 One of two invited participants in the 2008 Pordenone Masterclasses, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Pordenone, Italy
17-20 Performances as pianist at Slapsticon 2008 Film Festival Rosslyn Spectrum, Arlington, VA
25 Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein) (piano) 5:45 PM, National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium
10 Langdon Film Festival: Lucky Stars (music by Andrew Simpson), also Feet of Mud (music by Phil Carluzzo) and Luck of the Foolish (music by Maurice Saylor), with the Snark Ensemble 6:30 PM
St. Andrew's UMC, Edgewater, MD
13 Meet the Music Makers: Little Orphant Annie (1918), starring Colleen Moore; The Fairy and the Waif (1915), starring Mary Miles Minter: new, original piano scores and discussion 2:30 PM, Donnell Library Center, New York Public Library


Shoulder Arms (Chaplin), One Week (Keaton), other comedy shorts (piano)

7:00 PM
Pickford Theatre, Library of Congress

11 Way Down East (Griffith), original 1920 score by Louis Silvers and W. Peters, with improvised passages by Andrew Simpson (piano) 4:00 PM
National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium
13 Capital Punishment, Helen's Babies (Clara Bow) (piano)

7:00 PM
National Museum of Women in the Arts

17 Merry Widow (Von Stroheim) (piano)

2:00 PM
National Gallery of Art East Wing Auditorium

20 Chicago (Frank Urson) (organ)

7:00 PM
AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD

24 Chicago (Frank Urson) (organ)

1:00 PM
AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD

News Archive

March 2009
"Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus" took place before a packed house at Catholic University's Ward Recital Hall as part of its annual President's Festival of the Arts. The project, which Simpson spearheaded, featured new scores to seven Melies films, each of which was choreographed and danced, as well. The March 11 performance featured two performances of each score: once with dance, and once with its Melies film. The Snark Ensemble performed each new score live in Catholic University's Ward Recital Hall. Choreography was done by Shawn Short (CUA faculty and Artistic Director, Dissonance Dance Theatre), Doug Yeuell (Executive Director, Joy of Motion Dance Center), and Shannon Quinn (CUA faculty and member, NextReflex Dance Collective).

December 2008
The release of "Becoming Charley Chase," a new 4-DVD box set featuring numerous new scores by Andrew Simpson and the Snark Ensemble, has been delayed. Further news about the release (from All Day Entertainment) will be posted when available.

October 2008
Andrew Simpson is one of two invited participants in the 2008 Pordenone Masterclasses at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. The masterclasses, which took place from Oct. 6-11, are advanced workshops in silent film accompaniment, taught by some of the most distinguished pianists in the field: Neil Brand, Donald Sosin, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Philip Carli, Gunter Buchwald, and John Sweeney participated as instructors.

Andrew Simpson makes his Italian silent film accompaniment debut, playing for Janice Meredith (E. Mason Hopper, 1924), starring Marion Davies, at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, on Oct. 11.

July 2008
Andrew Simpson joins Slapsticon 2008 as a new pianist, joining eminent pianists Ben Model and Phil Carli.

May 2008
Andrew Simpson will play a new score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, "Battleship Potemkin," at the National Gallery of Art. This Soviet-era propaganda film has been accompanied by scores from numerous composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich.

February 2008
Andrew Simpson appeared as pianist, composer, and presenter on the New York Public Library's "Meet the Music Makers" Series on Wednesday, Feb. 13. He played original piano scores for two films: "Little Orphant Annie" (1918), and "The Fairy and the Waif" (1915).

December 2007 New DVD Release
The new DVD box set, Harry Langdon, Lost and Found (4-DVD set of newly-restored Harry Langdon films), was released on December 26. I have provided three piano scores for films on this box set, three scores for the Snark Ensemble (which I founded jointly with composer and woodwind artist Maurice Saylor), and two scores for Redwine Jazz The Redwine scores, originally intended for Ben Redwine's ensemble, have instead been recorded by Ben Redwine, clarinet, Phil Carluzzo, drums, and myself on piano. The Snark Ensemble was joined by various guest artists, including Ben Redwine. The DVD set will be released by All Day Entertainment and distributed through Facets.

Slapsticon 2007 Two new scores by the Snark Ensemble for Harry Langdon films were screened on Thursday, July 19, at this northern Virginia festival. The films, both two-reelers (i.e., ca. 20 mins.) were The Hansom Cabman (music by Andrew Earle Simpson) and Luck o' the Foolish (music by Maurice Saylor).

Selected Recent Silent Film Performances as Composer, Pianist, and Organist

American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre: "The Best of Buster Keaton" (May-July, 2007)

The Navigator (May 20: organ)

Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, a daft young rich man who winds up stranded on a steamer with his would-be fiancee (unnamed, played by Kathryn Maguire) who has already rejected his proposal of marriage. The film focuses at first on the hilarious misadventures which befall a pampered wealthy pair who must suddenly fend for themselves on a boat set adrift in the Pacific (fortunately, well-supplied with provisions). In time, they adapt marvelously well, and together escape attacking cannibals by the thinnest of hairs.

My score for The Navigator was my theatre organ debut, in late May 2007 at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD. This film offers marvelous opportunities for diverse musical textures. The underwater sequence in which Keaton, in a deep-sea diving suit, works to fix a breach in the Navigator's hull and is attacked by a swordfish, suggests an ethereal, otherwordly musical accompaniment, which the slow-motion action supports particularly well. The cannibals also invite drum-like sounds played low on the organ manuals.

Two songs are referred to in the course of the film: an early 20th-century song titled "Alice, Where art Thou?" and "Many Brave Hearts are Asleep in the Deep." Also, a song from Victor Herbert's 1905 operetta Mademoiselle Modiste, "Kiss Me Again," is referenced. When musical artifacts are referred to in a film, it is an invitation to engage with the tune without necessarily quoting it in full. Rather, my structured improvisation takes the tune as its subject, and builds a new structure on that foundation.

National Gallery of Art: "Victor Sjöström, Swedish Original" (November, December 2006)

Between November 26 and December 17, 2006, I provided new scores for six films and one fragment by Swedish director Victor Sjöström.

The films, with synopses and notes on the films and the scores I composed for them, are listed below:

Outcasts: A central theme of Sjöström's films
Sjostrom's themes continually revolve around an outcast character, about a person or persons cast out from the ordinary realm of society.

He Who Gets Slapped (Nov. 26)

In the case of He Who Gets Slapped (perhaps the first film made by MGM in 1924), the outcast is a young French scientist, Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) whose discoveries, and then his wife, are both stolen by his supposed friend and patron, the Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott).

In one crushing day, the Baron takes credit for Paul's ideas in presenting them in a lecture to the Academy, and Paul's wife announces that she is in love with the Baron instead of him. Both, at different times, slap him across the face. The double shock of this blow, and the indignity of being slapped, drives Paul to leave the Baron's house (where he and his wife had been resident) and take up a new life as a circus clown, known only as "HE Who Gets Slapped." His act, in which the humiliations of his experiences before the Academy are nightly re-enacted for the circus crowds, is wildly popular, and his fame grows - fame which eluded him as a scientist.

The film offers ample opportunity for musical set-pieces, particularly in the circus scenes and HE's act itself.

Seemingly beyond the capacity to love, "HE" yet finds renewed joy and hope in his silent love for Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the daughter of a now-poor Italian nobleman, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall). Because she is a trick rider of horses, her father has sold her to this circus, where she falls in love with fellow rider Bezano (John Gilbert). Despite her love for Bezano, her father arranges a marriage between her and the Baron Regnard, HE's nemesis.

HE, in a desperately crushing scene, at length announces his love to Consuelo, who believes that he is joking, and playfully slaps him in turn.

The culminating event of the film is HE intervening to stop the marriage between Consuelo and the Baron, while at the same time enacting revenge on the Baron: both events accomplished by means of a circus lion. In the course of this, however, HE is stabbed by a sword concealed in Count Mancini's walking stick, and eventually dies in the arms of Consuelo after going on one last time to portray his now-famous act.

The Divine Woman (fragment) (Dec. 10)

Starring Lars Hanson and a young, radiant Greta Garbo, this 10-minute fragment is all that survives of the film. Hanson, a soldier called away from Paris to Algiers, goes to his lover Garbo's house that evening for dinner: his troop leaves at 9 PM that night. During the course of their dinner, he reveals his orders. A furious argument ensues; they make up; the clock continues to tick.

The last moments of the fragment show the couple in the apartment window, with a gentle summer breeze blowing, and the clock striking midnight. Hanson's face reveals the trouble which he knows is to come, but Garbo merrily sings a little song, seemingly oblivious to his plight.

The Wind (Dec. 10)

Click here to listen to mp3 excerpts of the live performance of The Wind (National Gallery of Art, Andrew Simpson, piano).

This remarkable drama, starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, was shot in California's Mojave Desert, in blinding heat. The principal narrative revolves around Gish's character, Letty Mason, who comes to the West from Virginia to live with her cousin, who is married to an extremely jealous woman. Letty falls for a somewhat dubious man she meets on the train out West. She marries Lige, a neighbor whom she does not love and initially spurns; he, however, dedicates himself to raising the money to send her back East.

Throughout the film, the wind - which never stops blowing - makes Letty more and more uneasy. Its continual presence becomes ever stronger, and drives her close to madness. The culminating scene of the film is a great wind storm (a "norther," as it is called in the film), in which Letty is left alone in her cabin. The presence of nature - in this case, its destructive power - makes an important subtext to the film.

For the storm scene, I combined much inside-the-piano playing on the strings and frame of the soundboard, and employed a wooden spoon, as well, for its unique sharp but shallow timbre when played on the instrument.

The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Dec. 16)

A sentimental tale about the love of a farm girl, in disgrace for having a child out of wedlock, and Gudmund, a wealthy young man (Lars Hanson), this film (filmed in Sweden) points up class differences and mocks the false piety of "respectable" people. Shunned by the church-going citizens of the village, the girl yet performs a selfless act which would benefit her rival, Gudmund's fiancee.

The many shots of Swedish countryside lend a sweep and flow to the film; the music also reflects that scope and power.

The Scarlet Letter (Dec. 16)

Click here to listen to mp3 excerpts of the live performance of The Scarlet Letter (National Gallery of Art, Andrew Simpson, piano).

A beautiful setting of Hawthorne's novel, this 1928 MGM film, starring Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne and Lars Hanson as the Reverend Dimmesdale, "The Scarlet Letter" proves powerful and moving throughout.

Whereas in many of Sjöström's films focus on nature as an implacable force, in "The Scarlet Letter," the implacable force is man's intolerance, bigotry, and narrow, inflexible piety. Hester, a married woman shunned by the community (as was the Girl from the Marsh Croft) for bearing a child out of wedlock to the Rev. Dimmesdale (his identity as father is unknown to his admiring parishioners), nobly refuses to identify her lover to preserve his social standing. Hester's husband, long thought lost, returns unexpectedly to discover her child, and torments the pair of lovers to the film's end. Plans to board a ship for Europe on the film's final day are thwarted as Dimmesdale at last publicly announces his sin, and dies in Hester's arms.

The Outlaw and his Wife (Dec. 17)

A dark tale from the Swedish period which tells of a young man, Kari (Victor Sjöström himself) outlawed from his home in the Icelandic South (again, a story of outcasts), comes to work at the farm of a wealthy widow named Halla. His identity is discovered, and he and Halla flee to the highlands to follow a life of exile away from society in the wilderness.

The film ends unhappily, as both freeze to death in a winter storm many years later, but there are many tender moments throughout the film.

The music evokes both the sweep of the landscape and the intimate nature of Kari and Halla's relationship.

The Kiss of Death (Dec. 17)

This short film (a fragment, 32 minutes in length after reconstruction) is a mystery, a crime drama. Victor Sjöström again plays himself as well as another character who resembles him: thus, two exposures in the same shot are employed to show Sjöström playing himself as well as his "double."

The essential plot of the story is that Dr. Weyler (Sjöström), an engineer for a mechanics firm, is slowly being poisoned by his neighbor, Dr. Monro, who is being hired by Weyler's competition. Through a stroke of luck, another engineer who resemble Weyler shows up out of the blue; the two agree to switch places, and Weyler leaves for a rest home.

Eventually, after many events, the criminals are apprehended, and Weyler returns to his work.

The film is deliberately melodramatic and over-theatrical, with somewhat improbable and ridiculous coincidences; thus, the music similarly is overwrought and exaggerated, to match the tone of the film.

"Magical Méliès" at the National Gallery of Art (July, August 2006)

Click here to listen to mp3 excerpts from Méliès Suite, a concert work drawn on the music composed to accompany the Méliès films at the National Gallery of Art. The movement titles correspond to those of the films.

In summer 2006, the NGA commissioned me to compose music for screenings of seven short films of French film pioneer Georges Méliès as part of the "Jungles in Paris" exhibition and the Family Film Program Series. For this project, I was involved at an early stage, meeting with NGA staff at the Library of Congress to view selected Méliès shorts and advise them on their selection of films. The films were to be screened in July and August; because I was to be away for the first weekend, however, it was necessary to find another pianist. So, I fully composed the music (about 31 minutes in all) for these films: pianist Molly Orlando premiered the works in July, and I performed them again in August. The resulting music is now part of a seven-movement concert piece, Méliès Suite, the movements of which may be played in whole or in part, in any order.

National Gallery of Art Film Series: First performances (April 2006)

My first live, improvised accompaniment for silent film took place in April 2006, when I performed scores for two 45-minute films, both made during the World War I era. The first, "Shoulder Arms (1918)," was a Charles Chaplin comedy; the second, "Maudite soit la Guerre (A Curse on War, 1914)," was a Belgian drama dealing with a fictional war narrative.