The Dresser, an online column for Scene4 Magazine , reviewed the March 11 multimedia performance "Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance and Film Create a Ruckus." The performance, coordinated by Andrew Simpson , associate professor of music and silent film composer, featured seven original scores for silent films written by CUA composers and performed by the D.C.-based Snark Ensemble (with Simpson on piano). The event was part of the President's Festival of the Arts. See the review below.

In the Realm of Silent Film and Dreams--Snark Ensemble, Terry Riley

From: Scene4 Magazine Date: March 31, 2009 Author: Karren LaLonde AlenierNew classical music concerts, the forum where edge really cuts, are often hard to find. Universities with a mandate for teaching composition and the money to back up that imperative are where these concerts erupt with flair. The Dresser uses the word erupt meaning, "to emerge violently from restraint or limits," because not everyone, including regular concertgoers, supports the untamed refusing-to-be-put-in-a-box programming. Recently the Dresser heard two such concerts, one at Catholic University with spankingly new compositions set to silent films and another at the University of Maryland with an eye to the history of Minimalism.


What the Dresser loves about the programs that are presented at Catholic University is that professors like Andrew Simpson take wild and whacky chances with newly conceived work. On March 11, 2009, the Dresser attended "Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus--A Multimedia Performance Event Inspired by Early Silent Films of Georges Méliès." This program, one of many during CUA's President's Festival of the Arts March 9 through March 22, explored silent film and live dance through an exercise of new musical composition. In fact, Simpson, a composer himself, instigated the commissioning of seven new scores that were to take inspiration from seven short films by Georges Méliès (1861-1938), a French filmmaker known for his early innovations in filmmaking. One of those seven, "The Luny Musician" is Simpson's composition--here's a professor who leads by example.

The set up for this exercise and ensuing program was fairly complex despite the inspiration being based on silent films ranging in duration from slightly over a minute to slightly over four minutes. The composers' assignment was to view the film and then create music that "supports the on-screen action of the film" (Simpson's description from the "Program Notes"). The music was then handed over to three choreographers to create dance from the music alone. The choreographers and dancers were not allowed to see the films until the evening of the performance. Because the films each had some element of dance, the idea was to see how much commonality blossomed between dance and film as translated by the music, but more so to see how the process of creation unfolds.

One additional layer was the music was played twice (once with the film and once with the dancers) by the talented Snark Ensemble, an instrumental chamber group dedicated to the creation and performance of new original scores for silent film. Two of the three Snark Ensemble members--Andrew Simpson (keyboards) and Maurice Saylor (woodwinds)--made up two of the seven commissioned composers. Perhaps, you, Dear Reader, are now shaking your head and wagging a finger at what seems to be an incestuous opportunity for CUA faculty (and there was a third commissioned faculty member Steven Strunk). Mais, au contraire, the Dresser counters. Given that all the composers only had four to six weeks to write the music and that the senior composers were willing to share the stage with the newbies as well as play all of the compositions, the Dresser sees the project as a freeing and joyful experiment in collaboration.

Of the seven musical compositions, the Dresser liked Steven Strunk's "Silly Music" the best. "Silly Music," an edgy and busy piece for the clarinet, was inspired by Méliès' 1901 film "L'antre des esprits" ("The Magician's Cavern"). The two-minute-55-second film shows the antics of a magician who animates such objects as a skeleton, which not only moves but dances. Dancer Elton Pittman and choreographer Shannan Quinn interpreted Strunk's music as a man bedeviled by some kind of flying thing that manifests in an active hand that zigzags around the dancer's head and pretty soon has him diving into break dance gyrations on the floor.

The Dresser was also impressed with the choreography of Shawn Short and associated dancers for John Maggi's composition "The Ballet Master's Dream" danced by Nicolette Jenkins and Dedrick Makle and for Simpson's "The Luny Musician" danced by Tisa D. Herbert and Prentice Whitlow. The Dresser felt the choreographer had a charming sense of the absurd and made good use of the limited time to show the prowess of his dancers.

While the Dresser did not hear any profound outpouring of the soul in the seven musical compositions, she believes that the sum effect, particularly with the added elements of the Snark musicianship and the live dance, will continue to ripple out in the universe to positive creative effect. Simpson's teaching methods in the field of new classical music deserve hearty recognition.