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Silent Treatment

Anne Watts and Boister Find Scoring Old Movies to be a Love Affair

By Michael Yockel | Posted 2/26/2003

On-screen, in closeup, a smolderingly beautiful Greta Garbo looks pensive but resolute. Her Anna Karenina, at a critical emotional juncture after realizing that her self-involved politician husband doesn't remotely understand her--and never will--suddenly has come to an important, life-swerving decision.

"That's the moment," announces Anne Watts to her Boister bandmates, who collectively watch Garbo's subtly palpable transformation on a small TV monitor. "She knows she's gonna go off and do the nasty," a comment that prompts Curt Heavey to launch playfully into a John Lee Hooker-style boogie riff on his guitar, eliciting chuckles from everyone.

Boister--singer/songwriter/keyboardist/accordionist Watts, guitarist Heavey, clarinetist/bass clarinetist Denis Malloy, bassist Charles Emmett Freeman, and drummer Lyle Kissack (trombonist Craig Considine is absent, in service to the All Mighty Senators, opening act on the current Pretenders tour)--has gathered in Kissack's art studio on the fringes of Hampden late on a Sunday afternoon in early February to rehearse the musical score that Watts has pulled together to accompany the 1927 silent film Love, which the band will perform when the movie shows at the Walters Art Museum on Friday night, Feb. 28, in conjunction with the city's Vivat! St. Petersburg cultural clambake.

The quintet sits informally around the room, intermittently glancing at the monitor showing a video of Love as they test-drive snatches of classical pieces by Russian composers, European folk songs, and newly minted Boister originals. About halfway through the 90-minute Love they stop the VCR to debate these various elements' relative merits and demerits: pre-existing music vs. improv, solo piano vs. fuller instrumentation, Russian masters vs. Boister, whose sound seamlessly meshes rock, jazz, folk, and the singer/songwriter genre, laced with a strong dose of the European art-song tradition. Though mostly democratic in nature, the discussion occasionally betrays a hint of benign despotism when Watts detects the process dragging and steers it elsewhere.

"Curt, can you get a little twisted here when the light goes out?" she asks, alluding to a particularly portentous scene not long into the movie; Heavey obliges, tightening the screws on some bare-wires chords. "Poor Shostakovich," deadpans Watts a minute later, strapping on her accordion and calling out chord changes as she leads the group through one of the composer's preludes. "He must be rolling over in his grave."

Four days later, sprawled on the sofa in the living room of the Cambridge home she shares with her husband and two small children, Watts, 40, recounts the genesis of the Love project, explaining that late last year Maryland Film Festival executive director Jed Dietz approached her regarding the possibility of scoring director Edmund Goulding's screen adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Dietz had admired the music Watts had written previously for Buster Keaton's 1928 silent picture Steamboat Bill Jr. Through contacts she'd made during the Steamboat Bill Jr. experience, Watts was able to snag a precious videocassette of Love and began brainstorming the score's components. Initially, she considered writing in the style of Russian composers--Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and especially Prokofiev--but chucked that gambit in favor of what she terms "stealing from them directly."

After the previous Sunday's rehearsal, however, that plan, too, has been deep-sixed, with the band, notably Kissack, objecting to the preponderance of Russian music. "It's like cooking," she says of assembling the score, "pulling things off of different shelves. What goes with the coriander? What goes with this weird kind of curry? And that's what's cool about having a band--they're like, 'There's too much fucking cilantro.' And I'm like"--she mock whines--"'What, I love this shit. How can you say that?'" In this case cilantro equals Russian composers, and after considering her bandmates' reservations, she realized, "They're right. And I'm just very grateful that they care."

With the deadline closing in fast, she was induced to rely more on familiar pop music than she previously planned. One idea: Patch in a snippet of "The Letter," the 1967 Box Tops hit, to jibe with a simpatico scene. "It's fun to make pop-cultural references that help everybody feel connected," she contends. "Not just the band, but the audience, too." She dismisses the potential for distraction that such an approach raises. "I think I'm so obsessed with serving the film that I actually don't worry about being intrusive," she says. "This is a new relationship--film and the band--so it's a risk we have to take. With Keaton, you're pounding out [Queen's] 'We Are the Champions,' and you just feel this rush of 'Yeah!' But with Garbo it might just crash and burn. I feel that all I can do is follow my instincts."

For most of her adult life Watts has done just that, first working as a waitress as she honed her musical skills and performed locally, then veering into art therapy with residents of a Baltimore nursing home, inviting city artists and musicians--the Tinklers, Cathy Leaycraft, Dan Van Allen, Richard Sober, among others--to interact with the institution's aging clients. Since moving to the Eastern Shore from Baltimore in 1994 and starting a family, though, Watts has forsaken art therapy to teach piano out of her home, while simultaneously devoting more energies to Boister, which last year released its third album, Pieces of Milk.

While in Cambridge she also fashioned the score for Steamboat Bill Jr., an endeavor originally commissioned by the Walters in 1992 as part of a series pairing classic silent films with local composers. Despite citywide budget cuts kayoing that project before it came to fruition, an undaunted Watts pressed on: "I said, 'Well, I'm gonna finish mine.'" Over the years she did, debuting the work with Boister in 1998 at the Tilghman Island Inn after prevailing upon its owners to screen the film. And she continued to tinker with the score as Boister performed it at increasingly larger venues: the Charles Theatre, Villa Julie College, Johns Hopkins University, the Smithsonian, and the Kennedy Center. "We kept working it and working it and working it," she recalls, eventually reaching "an apex" last fall when Steamboat Bill Jr. showed as part of the Virginia Film Festival. A DVD of the film with Watts' score is currently in the works.

"For some reason," she allows, "it's hugely gratifying to be doing something that's really about somebody else who's gone now. There's something very romantic about wanting to offer up Buster Keaton instead of wanting to offer up your own thing."

To date she doesn't feel quite the same attachment to Love. "Yeah," she laughs, "it's like the second kid, you know. But I'm hoping that we're going to start to connect, because Garbo does happen to be incredibly fabulous. With her, it's all in her eyes."

Accordingly, a passel of recent Boister songs have been requisitioned for the Love score, too. "We're like, 'OK, we'll give them to Garbo,'" kids Watts. "She probably deserves it."

Boister plays along with Love at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 at the Walters Art Museum. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors and students. For more information, call the Maryland Film Festival at ( 410) 752-8083 or visit www.mdfilmfest.com/vivat.html.

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