Jeff Rapsis – Bringing sound to silent films

While you may know Jeff Rapsis as one of the co-owners of New Hampshire’s largest independent newspaper, The Hippo, he has also made a name for himself as a versatile silent film score composer,  providing accompaniment to nearly 300 films of all genres. (Just last year alone, he accompanied a jaw dropping 137 silent film programs!!!). What sets him apart from other composers is his improvisational style. He typically creates his compositions as he watches the film for the first time with the audience. Rapsis travels throughout New England, primarily in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, to perform at art houses, theaters, college campuses and libraries. This Sunday, February 18, 2018, he’ll provide accompaniment to the silent film Algol: A Tragedy of Power (1920) as part of the 43rd Annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival’s 24-hour science fiction film marathon. (Click HERE to purchase tickets). Despite his buy schedule, we caught up with Rapsis on Friday and he was kind enough to answer our questions about his life and creating live musical scores for silent film screenings.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE (LM): You provide accompaniment to classic silent films. How did you get involved in doing this?

JEFF RAPSIS: I’ve loved music of all types since childhood, and was one of those weird kids who responded especially strongly to “classical” music. That led to piano lessons and lots of other musical activities from high school marching band to musical theater and even barbershop quartet singing. For most of high school, I was quite serious about becoming a composer of works for the symphony orchestra. At the same time, I had a music teacher in 7th grade who would show films during study hall, and these often included silent comedies such as Charlie Chaplin’s famous Mutual two-reel comedies from 1916 and 1917. Most of my classmates kept fooling around, but something about these older films captured my imagination. I’ve been a silent film junkie, more or less, ever since. After college, I turned to journalism and the written word for my career, and for the next 20 years did very little with music or film, although my interest in both fields never waned. I never stopped learning and thinking about these subjects, but the extent of my music-making was taking chorus roles in the productions of a local opera company. About the year 2000, I co-founded a weekly newspaper in New Hampshire called The Hippo, which focused on the arts. As the paper’s self-appointed “classical music writer” (because no one else had a background in the subject), I found myself mixing with musicians and attending performances and getting involved with the local music scene. This reawakened my desire to make music and to compose. And so when a local filmmaker named Bill Millios asked me for musical advice for a feature-length drama he was making, I leaped at the chance to compose the film’s score. Doing music for the film, Dangerous Crosswinds (2005), and having my cues played by musicians of the New Hampshire Philharmonic, to me felt like I was coming back to what I was meant to be doing all along. I wanted to do more, but in New Hampshire, there aren’t exactly a lot of directors throwing around opportunities to write film scores. So I noticed that a local venue, the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., had no performance scheduled for Halloween, and so suggested they run Phantom of the Opera (1925) and I would do live music. I had tried doing silent film music a few times in the past, but always felt it was a field best left to specialists. Well, the Palace folks said yes, and so that Halloween I found myself at the keyboard of my digital synthesizer doing music for Lon Chaney scuttling about the catacombs of the Paris Opera House. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t have time to prepare much in  advance, and so was resigned to winging it and hoping for the best. And I was surprised to find that accompanying film in real time, with an audience present, was something that came quite naturally to me. I recall a growing sense of excitement as the film went on and I found I could create music right there that I felt helped it come together and absorb and audience. And I was able to use the musical material in different ways depending on what the film was doing, and how the audience reacted. I could do it! And it felt like I had wings. So this led to more screenings in other venues as I began to devote more time to exploring and learning the craft of creating live music for films without a soundtrack. To me, music and film turned out to be like chocolate and peanut butter. Two great things I always liked turned out to be even better together!

LM: I’ve read that your shows are very unique because you make up the compositions as you play them and sometimes as you watch the film for the first time with an audience. Can you elaborate on why you decided to take this approach?

JEFF RAPSIS: One practical reason is that as a full-time business owner and a busy schedule, I just don’t have a lot of time to make elaborate preparations in advance of a screening. Another reason is that this method makes use of my natural tendency to explore and experiment at the keyboard. As a teenager, I was a lousy piano student in that I would rarely have the patience to learn pieces written by others, no matter how well-crafted or worthy. Instead, I would start making up my own versions and going in different directions. So the seeds were there right at the beginning, and this kind of film accompaniment plays to my strengths as a musician. Also, I think a musical score created in the moment, in live performance, gives off a kind of unique energy in a way that a recorded or written-down score does not. If I was buried in sheet music, I don’t think I’d be as effective in helping a film connect with audiences. And I like the contrast between a vintage film, which has been fixed and unchanging for 90 or 100 years or more, and music that’s happening right there in the moment.

LM: What’s interesting is you don’t focus on providing accompaniment to any specific genre of silent films but a wide range of them. Are there any specific genres that lend themselves to your improv style more than others?

JEFF RAPSIS: Comedy is the most demanding genre because the music really needs to support what’s happening on the screen, but also stay in the background for a very basic reason: audience members need to hear each other laugh. This leads to the kind of contagious laughter that sometimes gets sparked during a show, and which is one of the great glories of the silent cinema. Once the house is roaring, you can amp up the music if you want. But before that, you need to do everything you can to keep it simple, almost nursery-rhyme-like, so that you don’t step on the laughs. Less is more! Also, because so much of comedy is timing, the musician must hone the same kind of instincts that the comedians had—when to stop, when to start, when to move, and so on. It can make the difference between a so-so screening and a true no-holds-barred howler. So if I can preview a comedy beforehand, it’s especially valuable because you get a much better idea of the film’s pacing and what kind of music will support the comedy, and you can just do a better job helping the laughs come naturally. Beyond comedy, my idiom seems to do best in big dramas that lend themselves to big sweeping musical gestures. Although there’s no one single “right” texture for silent film accompaniment, my own style is to work in a pretty conservative idiom rooted in the musical language of the late 19th century classical symphony orchestra: the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss. Shostakovich is a big influence, too. And I think this helpss me to bring out the big emotions in these films, no matter what genre. Drama, western, thriller, costume picture, whatever—silent film at its best is often about the BIG human emotions: Love with a capital L, or Joy, or Hate, or Envy. The stories are often built to bring out and celebration these big, basic emotions, which silent film, by virtue of lack of dialogue and other limitations, was uniquely geared to do. I don’t get that experience from any other medium, with the possible exception of opera, which is similar in that’s it’s often also about the big, basic emotions.

LM: There has been an increase in the number of silent films screened over the years across the country, particularly at art houses and horror and sci-fi movie marathons. What do you think is the cause of the silent film “boom”?

JEFF RAPSIS: After the transition to cinema with synchronized sound in the late 1920s, for a couple of generations nothing was more old-fashioned that silent movies. People saw them as a relic from a primitive era best left in the dustbin of history—we’ve moved on from that, haven’t we? And as a kid, I recall silent film clips on television or in certain “olde-time silent movies” being run at the wrong speed, to a kind of rinky-tink out-of-tune piano accompaniment, and generally being treated as a curious novelty, nothing more. Well, I think enough time has passed so that pretty much everyone around today has no direct experience with the silent cinema: the closest link might have been fading memories of a grandparent now long gone. And so because we haven’t known it, silent film is new to us in a way that it could never be to previous generations. Also, enough time as passed to make the films very interesting just for the basic things: how people dressed, ate, and behaved. How families acted, how people got around, what they did for fun—even the lousiest silent film is today an accidental treasure trove of information about daily life as it was lived in a byegone era, and brought to life in a way that no book or academic paper could do. So since about 1900, we have this amazingly rich accidental visual record of how people lived. Imagine if we had similar material from Shakespeare’s time, or from the time of Christ! I have a cousin who is no cinema buff, but he regularly attends silent film screenings I do because he loves seeing the old cars, the horses and the blacksmiths, and so much else. I also think that in an era where we increasingly find ourselves staring at a screen and interacting with people online, there’s a hunger for communal experiences that bring people together. How interesting that this aspect of silent film may be once again a key part of its appeal after all this time.

LM: Why do you think so many people today are becoming fascinated by the films of the past?

JEFF RAPSIS: I got into this topic in the previous question: how even the lousiest films from the silent era are a visual record of a bygone era. They bring to life the habits and customs of a vanished time in a way no history book can. But there’s also one other thing they do. Just as they are highlight how much has changed, they also contain a lot of info about what has NOT changed. They show, as no other art form can, how some things are unchanging aspects of the human condition: concern for one’s family and the community, the power of love to change so much, the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity, and so much more. These things, so important to the stories of so many films, were important long before cinema existed, and are important today, and will continue to be important for a very long time to come, I think. So if you’re not sure what’s ephemeral and what’s lasting in your own life, silent film acts as a kind of barometer to help guide you.

LM: I’m a firm believer that silent films should be seen in a theater with an audience. Do you agree with this statement and why?

JEFF RAPSIS: Yes, I do. For starters, the films were designed from the ground up to be seen in a large theater with an audience because that was the ONLY way to see them when they were being made. There was no home media like we have today. So silent films were almost universally geared for the large audience experience, which is very different from watching a film alone at home with just you and your dog or parakeet. The pacing, the way a story is presented, the way a character is presented—the reaction of a large audience to all of this was baked into films during the silent era. In many cases, filmmakers would preview their latest in-progress work to an audience to see how a sequence played, and whether or not it had any dead spots. Harold Lloyd was a pioneer of what became known as the “sneak preview,” as they were often unannounced. So if something got a big laugh, and then something else happened that was funny but the audience was still laughing at the first thing—well, then you’d go back and add some padding to accommodate the first big laugh and allow enough time for the second. So in many cases, the films were literally hand-crafted for the large audience experience! And it’s worth pointing out, I think, that this audience experience was one of the most important things about how the public first fell in love with the movies, and fell hard. It wasn’t necessarily because of techniques such as close-ups or location shooting or anything like that. It’s because most early film directors had extensive experience with live theatre, and they knew in their bones how to structure a story to get an audience hooked and keep watching and root for certain characters and all the things that make up an exciting time in the theater. With motion pictures, the same skills helped early pictures connect with audience. I think pioneer director D.W. Griffith doesn’t get enough credit for this aspect of his success. His background was in directing melodramas that traveled the small-town circuits—in these places, you had to get an audience hooked and keep them hooked, or they’d tar and feature you! So he know how to present a story to rile up an audience, and I think that’s one of the biggest things he brought to early motion pictures. It’s the REAL reason people fell in love with the movies.

LM: Besides performing in your home state of New Hampshire, you’ve done a lot of work at the Somerville Theatre for their silent film series called “Silents Please.” How did you get involved in this series and what do you like most about performing in that historic theater?

JEFF RAPSIS: I first came to the Somerville Theatre for the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon back in 2011, where I did live music for a screening of the very early 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While there, I met theater manager Ian Judge and head projectionist David Kornfeld. I was really impressed by their commitment to showing movies on real 35mm film, which was then being phased out by the studios in favor of digital formats. I was equally impressed by the brand new projection booth high up in “House One,” the Somerville’s main theatre. David described is as his “masterpiece,” and it really seemed so: equipped with every possible lens combination to screen prints in every format possible. They seemed to like what I did with 20,000 Leagues, and so Ian started the ‘Silents, Please!’ series after that with all titles in 35mm prints. I’ve been working with them ever since. Each year, we run eight to ten silent film programs, and we’ve built up an audience to where we often get well over 100 attendees, and occasionally many more. Highlights included a program of silent feature films starring W.C. Fields (yes, he was a popular star before talkies) for which his granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields, came up to Boston and told tales and answered questions about her iconic ancestor. What I like most about the theater, besides the people who manage and run it, is that it’s the real deal: an actual theater that was showing actual movies during the actual silent film era. So in that respect, if you want to recreate the total experience of attending silent film in a theater, you can’t do much better than the Somerville, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014.

LM: Speaking of The Somerville Theatre, you are going to be providing accompaniment to the silent film Algol: A Tragedy of Power (1920) this Sunday, February 18, as part of the 43rd Annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival’s 24-hour science fiction film marathon. Is this the first time you’ve ever performed music to this film? What instruments will you be using to accompany it?

JEFF RAPSIS: It’s Friday night as I write this, and we’re not doing Algol until Sunday, so it’s way too soon to think about it. Just kidding! Actually, I’d actually never heard of Algol until festival organizer Garen Daley mentioned he planned to run it. I’ve since seen the film once (in a sub-standard version at a very slow speed on YouTube), and to check it out at least once more to increase the odds of doing a good job. To accompany Algol, I’ll use my digital synthesizer, which is an 88-key Korg Triton LE model with weighted action. It’s actually an older model (from 2003, ancient as far as digital keyboards go) but it’s what I’ve used for years and I’ve found there’s nothing quite like it. Although the synth can produced an enormous range of sounds and textures, sometimes I augment its output with bells, whistles, and other sound-effects that provide variety without distracting from the film. For Algol, for some reason I want to bring along my bass tuba and use it as part of the score, but I’m not sure exactly how. We’ll see. I think if there’s any crowd that will respond to my bass tuba playing, it’s the sci-fi folks.

LM: You’re also the associate publisher of The Hippo which covers southern New Hampshire. How do you find the time to do everything you do?

JEFF RAPSIS: It’s a busy life, that’s for sure. I counted, and in 2017 I accompanied 137 separate silent film programs. This is in addition to working full-time as co-owner of the largest newspaper of any type published north of Boston, teaching courses in the Communications Department of UNH-Manchester, and sometimes sleeping and eating. Speaking of eating: our company is setting up a wholesale food distribution operation to go along with our newspaper delivery routes, so suddenly I’m in the artisan beef jerky business. But I enjoy staying busy, and in my own way I’m doing what composer Charles Ives did: while continuing to write music, he was also co-founder and partner in what became one of the largest insurance agencies in the United States. He would tell people that he felt his work in business helped his music, and his music helped his affairs in business. I find that to be very true. Also, I am blessed with a flexible schedule and a network of supportive people who made this pace possible. Personally, I don’t have many firm religious convictions, but I do believe this—our time here is limited, so it’s a shame not to make the very most out of every day we have.

LM:  Is there anything else you’d like to add to this interview?

JEFF RAPSIS: I sometimes joke that accompanying silent films is “my personal therapy,” but that’s actually not far off the mark.

For more information about Rapsis or to view his upcoming schedule, check out his blog HERE.

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