Saturday, August 28, 2010

Andrew E. Simpson on Silent Movie Accompanying

The art of silent movie accompanying is alive and well - a recent Ryan Kearney article in TBDArts looks at the work of Andrew E. Simpson, who specializes in utilizing a variety of traditional and contemporary techniques to bring these silent classics to life. About his preparation process for the 1925 movie Maciste all'Inferno, recently screened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington:
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.


  1. Ha! It's like sketch comedy designed for pianists. You have to think ahead the goings-on on the screen.

  2. My grandmother played for silent movies. The most interesting aspect in her description was that she said the music came in one really long continuous sheet. She only had the job as a fill-in for about 6 months, which makes sense because she was never all that good at reading music.