BALTIMORE — On a cold night in a cramped recording studio in northwest Baltimore, Anne Watts heads nervously into a rehearsal with her band, Boister. “I brought beers,” she says as a half-dozen musicians begin tuning up. “I wasn’t going to drink, but I guess that’s out the window,” she says to no one in particular. “I’m going to need a beer for this.”
By “this” Watts means informing her bandmates of a small but important change of plans. For the past year, Boister has been performing its live score to D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent film “Intolerance,” a long, complicated, multi-storied epic that marked a watershed in the director’s career and film narrative in general. It’s the latest addition to the group’s repertoire, which also includes live original scores to the silent films “Our Hospitality,” “Seven Chances” and “Love,” starring Greta Garbo. Along with the Boston-based ensemble Alloy Orchestra and composer and pianist Ben Model, Boister is part of a resurgence of live musical accompaniment to silent films that has helped resuscitate both art forms in recent years.
But Watts recently discovered that the “Intolerance” Boister has been playing to has been shown at the wrong frame rate, resulting in a running time that’s about a half-hour too long. When they perform with the film at the Freer Gallery a few weeks from this rehearsal, it will be a considerably sped-up version of what the band has meticulously perfected over months of playing together.
When Watts lets the musicians know of the impending hustle, the reaction is nearly unanimous. “Woo-hoo!” says guitarist Warren Boes. “Told ya!” opines trombonist Craig Considine. All they know is that the 3 1 / 2-hour gig they have been playing (Considine began calling it “Intolerable”) will now wrap up a half-hour early.
A week later, Watts meets for breakfast at a restaurant in Roland Park, a few blocks from where she spent her teenage years. She and the band rehearsed again last night, this time with the properly timed version of “Intolerance,” and she’s pleased. The faster frame rate, she said, has resulted in a swifter film and tighter musical experience.
“It just now has this forward momentum that wasn’t there before,” she explains, adding that before, “you’d languish on a subtitle, you’d languish on a scene change. That’s gone.”
Watts, a fixture on Baltimore’s burgeoning music, theater and arts scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s, formed Boister in 1997. (The band just finished recording its seventh album, produced by Dischord Records’ J. Robbins.) Around that time, Watts received a commission from the Walters Art Gallery to compose an original score for Buster Keaton’s silent film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” The resulting composition was an exhilarating mash-up of Watts’s original compositions — redolent of Kurt Weill and Weimar-era cabaret — and riffs from Queen, Harold Arlen and the Doors, giving Keaton’s physical daring and soulful expression newfound poignancy and edge.
Since the success of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” Boister has been the region’s go-to band for lush, witty, wildly inventive accompaniment to silent films. “Intolerance” was commissioned by the Maryland Institute College of Art where Gerald Ross, exhibitions director, curated a show last year called “The Narcissism of Minor Differences,” about personal responsibility for collective strife. “It was not a happy exhibition,” Ross recalls, “and I was looking for something else to go along with it.” He approached Watts to contribute a musical element, and together they hit on the idea of screening Griffith’s film, which depicts four historical eras and corresponding modes of oppression — religious, political, social and sexual. One chapter depicts the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.; another the life and crucifixion of Jesus; another the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572 and another the early 20th century conflict between workers, capitalists, the police and progressive reformers.
“If you’ve seen the film, you know it can be a little dull,” Ross says. “It’s a really hard thing to hang with. And [Boister’s] soundtrack and score just ignited it.” At the “Intolerance” Boister premiere at MICA last March, he recalls, “It was really just captivating. For three hours nobody made a move, nobody made a sound. After intermission, people could hardly wait to get back in.”
Watts’s score for “Intolerance” represents something of a departure for the band, both in scope and aesthetic range. The group has expanded to a minimum of eight musicians for this project, and for the first time the score includes singing (they’re joined at one point by Watts’s daughter, Posie Lewis). But for the most part, Boister hews to its proven approach to film, which starts with Watts sitting at the piano and watching it on her iPad, jotting down ideas for new compositions and rifling through her enormous archive of compositions to begin to build the aural equivalent of the emotional world she sees on screen. “Little Bean,” a song she wrote almost 20 years ago when a beloved pet died, has become a theme for one of “Intolerance’s” most wrenching scenes, when a man goes to the gallows for a crime he didn’t commit. “Demons Come,” which Watts wrote during the Katrina catastrophe, accompanies sequences of self-righteous reformers descending on the man’s family to take his child away.
And, as always with a Boister score, there are homages that Watts hides like so many musical Easter eggs and that the band plays with brash, brassy brio. (Yes, that is the “Marseillaise” performed as a New Orleans-style second line dirge, and yes, it does segue seamlessly into “All You Need Is Love.”) The score for “Intolerance” includes nods to J.S. Bach, Jimi Hendrix, the Pogues and the Clash — as well as a big, bombastic rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” at one of the film’s most stunning moments, set in Griffith’s lavish re-creation of ancient Babylon when the empire is about to fall to Persia.
At the rehearsal, when the band kicks into “Kashmir” it’s a dynamic, breathtaking moment, with Considine’s sinuous trombone taking the place of Robert Plant's lead vocals. A few moments later he, along with the rest of the band, is harmonizing with Watts on the pop classic “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” just before they switch into a riff from Led Zeppelin’s ”Misty Mountain Hop.” “The band is on the edge of its seats,” Watts says of a typical Boister film performance. “They have to be thinking on their feet, which is dangerous and thrilling. The movie’s not going to wait for you while you’re figuring something out.”
Watts includes the eclectic references less as a gimmick than as a way for audiences to latch on to an archaic cinematic language — full of jerky movements, melodramatic title cards and theatrical performance styles — and new, sometimes dissonant music that might otherwise put them off. “It pulls the audience closer,” she explains, and creates “all these amazing, unplanned convergences.”
What’s more, she says, the creative anachronisms are of a piece with Griffith’s essential themes, which have to do with the way human values (and foibles) transcend time and cultural contexts. Like the film itself, Boister’s score is a fugue-like convergence of styles and story lines that collide into jarring dissonance only to resolve into goosebump-inducing harmonies. “Because [“Intolerance”] is dealing with four different elements of history, you get to just go swimming in the ocean of musical possibilities, from Bach, past Coltrane and into the future,” Watts says dreamily. “All the doors come flying open.”
Boister will perform their live original score to “Intolerance” on March 9 at 3 p.m. at the Freer Gallery. Admission is free.
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