The Catholic University of America

Andrew Earle Simpson, composer and pianist

Primary areas of interest
  • New music for silent film
  • Opera and theatrical music
  • Composer residencies exploring music within a humanistic, cultural context

 

Humanistic music: a cultural, cross-disciplinary context

 

Exploring the interaction of music with extra-musical elements such as visual art, theater, and film, is an undertaking which has become increasingly fascinating to me. Discovering external connections with musical works, including my own, helps (for me) to put music more clearly in context with the world around it, and to give it a broader perspective.

 

My compositions, while constructed with purely musical considerations, often begin from the inspiration of a particular image or concept. And although knowledge of or familiarity with an underlying concept or image may not be necessary to the appreciation of a piece of music, such knowledge does, I think, allow the listener or performer a greater share in the piece's total expression. As a composer, I believe very strongly in conveying to audiences something of the richness of these interconnections.

 

This type of music is often, in my view, more fully expressive when effectively paired with dance, acting, movement, or film. From this comes my growing interest in opera and theatrical music.

A summary of current and recent projects

Perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate my interests in multi-disciplinary music is briefly to describe some projects on which I am now working or have recently completed. All of these projects involve extra-musical or humanistic features in a very central way.

• New music for silent film. As solo pianist and organist, I am House Accompanist for the Library of Congress' Mt. Pony Theater in Culpeper, VA. I have created and performed original scores for silent film at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy (2008), National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, AFI Silver Theater, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the New York Public Library, Sala Cecelia Meireles in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and, in spring 2010, the J. Paul Getty Museum Villa in Malibu, CA. With the Snark Ensemble (a group I co-founded with composer Maurice Saylor in 2005), I have composed, performed, and recorded scores for more than two dozen silent films of comedians Harry Langdon Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection, a 4-disc DVD set (2007) and Charley Chase: Becoming Charley Chase (2009), both with All Day Entertainment. As solo pianist and composer, my scores appear on those sets as well as All Day's American Slapstick, Volume 2 (2008).

Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus. I conceived and directed this special multimedia, cross-disciplinary project in March 2009, for the CUA President's Festival of the Arts. The project involved new musical scores created to accompany short silent films by French film pioneer Georges Melies. Those scores were then choreographed and danced. The resulting performance featured two performances of each new score: once with the film, and once with the choreography. Thus, a "chain" of inspiration was presented - dance inspired by music inspired by film.

lotus and poppy, dramatic scene for mezzo-soprano and tenor solos and chamber ensemble (2007). Commissioned by counter)induction and premiered by them in New York in December 2007, this work employs many diverse texts which create an intertextual dialogue on the themes of drug addiction, sleep, remembrance, and withdrawal from the world. Both the lotus flower (as in "lotus-eaters") and the poppy (source of opium as well as a symbol of remembering war dead) carry powerful associations, which are employed here.

Framed as a dialogue between living and dead (the mezzo-soprano as dead opium addict and the tenor as living "lotus-eater"), the piece employs texts as diverse as Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters," Thomas de Quincy's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," as well as original texts by the composer.

A Crown of Stars, a wedding oratorio employing texts on love and marriage from throughout history and around the world. In finding texts for this 45-minute oratorio for soprano and tenor soloists, SATB and SSA choruses, and chamber ensemble (commissioned by the Cantate Chamber Singers), I have drawn on ancient Greek and Roman poetry, medieval French, Italian, and Hindu texts, 18th- and 19th-century English poetry, as well as a beautiful contemporary poem by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. Each text lends a distinctive aspect to the topic: in addition, liturgical and wedding texts from various religious traditions appear in the piece, as well. The Cantate Chamber Singers premiered A Crown of Stars on June 10, 2006, in Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD. The work will be recorded for a forthcoming disc on Albany Records.

The Oresteia Project: a trilogy of one-act operas faithfully setting Aeschylus' tragedies (Sarah Ferrario, translator-librettist). This multi-year enterprise fuses art and scholarship in creating contemporary operas whose dramatic pacing is based as faithfully as possible on three ancient Greek tragedies by Aeschylus. The music of these Oresteia operas amplifies the impact of Aeschylus' original dramas and shows, in a direct and new way, the powerful combination of Greek tragedy and opera. The trilogy's final opera, The Furies, received a February 2006 World Premiere production at Catholic University. Streaming audio and video of each of the four performances (Feb. 9-12) may be found by clicking here to visit The Furies' opera website.

 

Songs of the Forgotten War: a group commission and World Premiere inspired by Washington, DC's Korean War Veterans Memorial. I served as coordinator and participating composer in this project, bringing together 19 composers, the Memorial's 19 bronze soldiers, and 19 one-minute pieces inspired by them. The 19 composers are diverse in background, age, and musical style, but are unified in reflecting and commenting upon the Korean conflict and, by extension, upon war itself. Songs of the Forgotten War premiered in April 2005 at The Catholic University of America as part of "Dialogues," part III of the School of Music's four-part President's Concert, entitled "Waging Peace: Making Music in Time of War."

 

In August 2005, Songs of the Forgotten War was repeated at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage, sponsored by the Asian-American Music Society. Click here to hear streaming audio of a WAMU Metro Connection radio story on the Kennedy Center performance.

 

American Gothic Suite: based on Grant Wood's masterpiece, this commissioned piece for the Red Cedar Trio (with whom I am currently Composer-in-Residence) is deeply connected to and inspired by Grant Wood's art, tapping into that artist's quirkiness and dry humor.

 

A theme and variations set, American Gothic Suite takes three distinct views of Grant Wood's 1930 masterpiece: the man and woman in the painting can alternately be seen as "A Farmer and His Wife" (Theme and Variation I), "A Farmer and His Daughter" (Variation II), or "your dentist and your sister" (Variation III). Additional short interludes draw upon some of Wood's smaller artworks (his found-object-filled flowerpots entitled "lilies of the alley," for example). The premiere of American Gothic Suite, in June 2005, took place in the refurbished loft studio in which Grant Wood painted American Gothic, and preceded the triumphant return of this most famous of American paintings to Cedar Rapids -Wood's hometown - for an exhibition in fall 2005.