The Sound of Silents

Pianist Anne Watts adds a boisterous soundtrack to Garbo and Keaton classics.

January 29, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Anne Watts sits down at her Steinway piano and rips through a snatch of a Prokofiev concerto like an express train crossing Siberia.

"I love those guys, those Russians," she says. "It's so percussive and ... weird. I love that stuff."

She's tall and slim and droll. And animated as she marches the music off across the steppes.

"And the band is jumping," she says. The band is Boister, as in boisterous, her longtime collaborators. "And they don't know what I'm doing. I'm playing a sonata. But they can find a groove with that. I mean, Prokofiev is groovin'. We sort of contemporize those guys, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff."

She's sampling the music she's put together for two classic silent films showing this weekend at the Creative Alliance's Patterson Theater in Highlandtown.

She and Boister will perform Prokofiev - and a lot more - with Greta Garbo's Love (1927) at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tomorrow night at 8 they will do the music for Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925), with echoes of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Pink Floyd, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. These films wring tragic and comic changes on love and marriage.

In Love, Garbo plays Anna Karenina opposite John Gilbert as her lover, Count Vronsky, in an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel. Garbo and Gilbert bring sexual passion and open-mouthed kissing to the silent screen in a romance that flared on and off the set.

"You are not going to believe how drop-dead gorgeous she is," Watts says of Garbo. "She's 22. She's lustrous. She's stunning. And she's already a master of her craft. She [already has] that ability of speaking with her eyes, nothing else, just the eyes. I'm crazy about her."

Watts expects to do the Hollywood version of Love Saturday. It's Anna Karenina with a happy ending. There's a European version with the ending Tolstoy wrote.

"It was a tough ending," Watts says. "She goes to the train station and throws herself under the train. American audiences didn't like it."

Jed Dietz, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival, commissioned the music for last year's Vivat St. Petersburg celebrations. Watts and Boister performed both endings at the Walters Art Museum.

"We did the bleak ending and the happy ending at the same showing," she says.

Watts works on the movie pieces mostly at home and rehearses with the band in Baltimore. She lives on the Eastern Shore, in Cambridge, in a fine old house on Vue de L'eau with her children Posie, 5, and Levi, 3, and her husband, John Lewis, the arts and culture editor at Baltimore Magazine. The house is filled with art and artifacts, notably paintings by John Root Hopkins, whose work has been shown at the American Visionary Art Museum. The house also has a couple of pianos for Watts and her students. She named one of the tunes for the Keaton movie after a student who gave her a hand with it, John Handley.

"I put the TV set next to the piano," she says. And she pops in a video. "I improvise. I've got my remote. You just turn on the TV and you just start playing. I do that for a month.

"A lot of it is what you're coming up with on your own. But then there are scenes that bring up memories," Watts says. "There's a moment in Love where [Garbo as Karenina] realizes her marriage is dead. ... I know what that feels like and I have the song for it. And that's what I use. So for me it's a psychic journey to play these films."

She pretty much avoids the cliches of contemporary pianists who reprise the literal playing of the silent era - players who underline every footstep tiptoeing through the tulips and every hoofbeat with a thundering William Tell Overture.

For Seven Chances, the Keaton film, Watts and Boister start with a Brecht song from The Good Woman of Setzuan. But they'll also play Pink Floyd, Little Willie Dixon, Charles Mingus and an array of others.

Boister has the singular voicing of bass clarinet with Denis Malloy, who plays with the Annapolis Symphony and the Summer Opera Theater in Washington. Its trombonist is Craig Considine, whose gamut runs from Indonesian Gamelan to Rumba Club Latin jazz, to funk, blues and Baltimore's Municipal Band. Guitarist Curt Heavey has transcribed Bach, Bartok, Satie, Brahms and Prokofiev for guitar and taught Sen. John Kerry at the Washington Guitar Shop. Bassist Charles Freeman has performed with the John Waters Egg Lady, Edith Massey and Tom DeVenti of Da Moronics. Drummer Lyle Kissack also paints murals and makes tiles. Watts plays accordion and piano.

She recruited Heavey's help to put together the movie music. She's been playing with him since she was about 16 and they were in a bar band called Full Moon. She's 41 now, incidentally.

"I remembered his favorite way to practice is in front of the TV with the sound off," she says. "Instead of watching TV he watched the video."

Heavey "does his own strange interpretations of Rachmaninoff, a lot of Russian stuff, for the Garbo. That was a lot of help, to have somebody else helping to put it all together," she says.

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