F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu has been terrifying audiences for 100 years. On Saturday, October 29th, the Narrows Center in Fall River will present the movie that has inspired generations of filmmakers with a new score performed live by Paul Bielatowicz who is best known as the virtuoso guitarist for Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy.
For this special one-off Halloween weekend concert, Bielatowicz has put together an all-star band featuring keyboardist Dave Bainbridge (The Strawbs, Lifesigns), bassist Mike Dutko (Groundlift) and drummer Leah Bluestein (Goundlift). Expect scares, laughs, audience participation and FANGtastic fun. Experience Nosferatu like never before – the loudest silent movie you’ve ever seen!
Join us for a Spooktacular live performance of a new rock soundtrack that breathes new life into the undead classic. Costumes are encouraged and prizes will be awarded to the top three best costumes.
The Narrows Center is located at 16 Anawan Street in Fall River, Mass. Tickets to this show are $25 in advance and $30 day of show. They can be purchased by visiting nosferatuLIVE.com or by calling the box office at 508-324-1926. For those wanting to purchase tickets in person, box office hours are Thursday through Saturday, 12 noon to 5 p.m.
Alan Howarth’s sound designs are ingrained in pop culture.
The sound you hear when the Starship Enterprise appears in the Star Trek films? That’s Howarth. When the little girl calls from within the television set in Poltergeist? Howarth. That musical sense of foreboding that overcomes you when Indiana Jones faces a cobra in Raiders of the Lost Ark? All Howarth.
And if you happened to see jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report in the late 70s, you might recall marveling at co-founder Joe Zawinul’s next-level keyboard setup. That, too, was Howarth’s magic, working as a touring technician to keep Zawinul’s complex array of synths in running order from night to night — no small feat in the pre-digital age.
As an adolescent, Howarth was always more interested in visual art, but music ended up in the driver’s seat. Eventually, he married the two things, creating music to soundtrack images. Nowadays, he’s also drawing sketches of some of the famed movie scenes he’s celebrated for scoring — an unexpected full-circle connection to his creative roots. Howarth will have some of his sketches for attendees to view when he performs a set to kick off the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s 20th Halloween Horror Marathon at 11 p.m. on Saturday, October 30th. Purchase tickets HERE.
“When we were approached about the idea of bringing out Alan Howarth for this event, we jumped at the chance, because it just worked perfectly,” said Mark Anastasio, a.k.a. ‘Midnight Mark,’ Program Manager and Director of Special Programming at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre for over fifteen years. “And we were thrilled that he was willing to perform as part of this show. People love the scores that he’s created and to hear some of them live with a packed house full of horror fans is going to be quite something. Halloween III: Season of the Witch, [which he scored with John Carpenter], was already locked in as one of the two films we’d be revealing early, so it just made total sense.”
Howarth is best known for his spooky sound signatures at the intersection of sci-fi and horror, but his musical interests began with an accordion found in the attic of his Cleveland-area childhood home. Music became more than just a hobby after a one-off high school gig (playing sax) yielded an $80 payout—big money at that time.
So began a series of serendipitous events that shaped the trajectory of his career. Playing bass in popular Cleveland bands, one of which opened for The Who, eventually led him to Los Angeles. There, an earlier connection to the band Weather Report resulted in attaining the keyboard technician job that put him on the road for several years, beginning in 1976. Four years later, based on his job with Weather Report, an old Ohio friend working at Paramount Pictures recommended Howarth as a knowledgeable ‘synth guy’ for some work on the first Star Trek movie. In the wake of completing that project, Film Editor Todd Ramsay offhandedly put him in touch with John Carpenter, but Howarth was not expecting to become the tech-yin to Carpenter’s creative-yang.
Actually, at that time, Howarth was taking classes on film scoring at UCLA Extension. A lot of guys would’ve probably quit the classes, but for Howarth, working with Carpenter was like a dream internship on steroids.
“John and I are the same age,” Howarth said over the phone from Newport Beach, California. “He’s from Kentucky and I’m originally from Cleveland, so we’ve both experienced life through a Midwestern lens and on a similar timeline. But he’s John Carpenter, right? I mean, he’s a trained musician from his dad, his dad was a concert violinist and also taught music. In our first meeting, he came over to my house and we sat and just talked for about three hours. I showed him some stuff in my little dining room studio, and we were excited. And at the end of that meeting, he goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,” and so just like that, I’m now scoring with John Carpenter on Escape From New York. It was my first score! And I had all the gear, but John wasn’t interested in gear. Several times I tried explaining to him how something worked and he’d say ‘Alan, I don’t really want to know about that stuff. That’s your job’.”
In the forty years since, Howarth collaborated with Carpenter on a half dozen more genre classics (Christine, Halloween II, Halloween III, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live) while moving further into his own scoring career (another trio of Halloween films, amongst others).
When he’s not scoring, he’s often called on to create effects or sound designs — mini-themes — for specific moments in films. This is his specialty, taking visual cues and effectively representing them sonically— merging his passion for visual art with his musical abilities and technical chops. As a result, his designs have been featured in everything from National Lampoon’s Class Reunion to Beetlejuice, Phantasm II, and the Back to the Future sequels. Howarth’s team won Academy Awards for their sound effect work on The Hunt for Red October and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While the tone of his work remains largely ominous (but not solely—more on that later), how he creates it has shifted over time. Like most everyone involved in music production, Howarth has learned to use Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live, Garage Band, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, etc.), which have become an industry standard. As a tech-enthusiast, he’s stayed abreast of the changes from the very beginning, and he was even involved in the development of what we now know as “surround sound.” Most of the digital shift, he says, has been positive.
“The editorial aspect of digital is a huge improvement,” he said, explaining that the cut-and-paste nature of digital recording ends up requiring less musical skill, but it makes his job easier. When he and Carpenter did Escape from New York, they couldn’t synchronize the videotape with the audio recorder. Literally, it was just a matter of pushing play on both consoles at the same time, letting them freewheel and the pair would work on the score that way. The other thing Howarth would sometimes do is record the dialogue from the video to one track of his multi-track tape recorder, so he could turn the video off and still know where he was in the movie.
Lately, an appreciation for analog sound is fueling a revival of sorts. Howarth says that the sound of analog synths and analog tape that he and his contemporaries were using forty years ago — emulating avant-garde artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze — has become sought after. As a result, popular software has emerged to recreate those textures. What’s more, he’s now being asked to work on vintage equipment.
“The last two scores I’ve done—one was a movie called Hoax (2019) and the other is Cosmic Dawn, which will be out in the spring—both directors asked me to do what I used to do in the 80s with analog synthesizers,” he said. “So, it was technically somewhat limited, but now it’s a style. Back then, we got the most out of the technology because that’s all we had. Now, with digital, the possibilities are limitless, which can actually make things more difficult. I had lunch with Brian Eno one time and he was talking about producing records for other artists and he said that what he does now is limit the use of technology. Before he starts work on an album, he sets parameters, like real drums only or only analog synths or… anything to make the universe of digital possibilities more finite. He said it provides a sense of direction because the limits of the past have proved to be a good way to go, artistically.”
No doubt, the folks at the Coolidge Corner Theatre would wholeheartedly agree with Eno: they prefer to run 35mm film prints. As a registered NFP for over thirty years, Anastasio says it’s one of the main factors in keeping the venue’s programming unique. But staying true to an analog vision in the digital age comes with challenges.
“The main challenge with that, in this day and age, is the expense,” he said. “Shipping rates across the world have increased. And 35mm prints are heavy. So it’s more expensive than ever to show 35mm, but it’s something we still do here and we do it well so that we’re able to maintain relationships with studios and archives in order to borrow what is becoming increasingly rare. Film on film has become a rarity. But I think a lot of our audience comes out to watch these movies in their original format and they appreciate it.”
Anastasio says the Halloween Horror Marathon is a 100% 35mm program right down to the trailers that will run between films. He explained that a distributor who owns the rights to a film they might want to license won’t necessarily have a 35mm print of the film in stock, forcing the Coolidge to have to go to a private archive or to private collectors — folks that have salvaged these 35mm prints from destruction. That process fetches an additional fee.
For the Marathon, five of the seven films will remain a secret until they’re actually up on the screen. Anastasio also points to the challenging endurance test involved for his projection team, led by Nick Lazarro, formerly of Kaiju Big Battel, and Thomas Welch.
“But it’s also a ton of fun,” he said. “And I do think that there’s something really special for our audience members, to be able to spend an entire night inside of a place that they love so much. This is a way of reminding our audiences that this is their theater. It’s such a beloved community space and they support us by coming to our shows, and by donating. So having a night where they can sleep over and feel as though it’s truly home is special.”
If there’s something that (thankfully!) isn’t particularly challenging for the Coolidge, it’s making sure that patrons have the safest possible environment to enjoy their unique programming.
“We’re not messing around when it comes to the safety of our guests,” Anastasio said, and he’s not kidding. In addition to requiring masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within a 72-hour window, he explained that the Coolidge went a step further, upgraded their HVAC with high MERV-rated filters and new, state-of-the-art Continuous Infectious Microbial Reduction (CIMR) Systems technology. In the most basic terms, the CIMR system scrubs the air, “creating charged, ionized compounds of safe, self-regulating ultra-low level hydrogen peroxide,” that kills airborne pathogens. Apparently, it’s the same system used at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense. Additionally, they’re blasting their ventilation ducts with UV light, which also works to kill pathogens. All told, it seems like spending the night at the Coolidge is a safer bet than most hotels.
Anastasio also clarified that the smaller theatres will be open for guests to enter should the big room begin to feel too full.
For his part, after a long period of performing very little, Alan Howarth is excited to bring his stage show to an appreciative group of genre fans, particularly on mischief night and in celebrating 20 years of Halloween marathons at the Coolidge. When he performs live, he creates an amalgam of his most famous scores and sound designs with cleverly edited visual accompaniment from the related movies.
Of his most recent work, a project with Oliver Stone’s son Sean Stone on a politically charged docuseries, The Best Kept Secret, sounds most riveting. Amusingly, Howarth was told to dial back the dark, menacing score he initially provided because it made the series too heavy. In the end, he used lighter tones to set up an interesting contrast, which reveals his other side: there’s more to Howarth than witches, ghosts, and goblins and spaceships.
“I’m really into meditation and spiritual things, and I’ve done two meditation CDs, Paradise Within and Indigo Ra,” he said. “I also collaborated with a jazz buddy of mine named John Novello who has a very famous band called Niacin. That project is called Luna Tech. All of that stuff is up on Youtube, so folks can check it out for free. I want to do more work like that, that’s not all dark and black. These are the sunshine and flowers and beauty projects, y’know?. One of my clients for many years, before the internet, was Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” based in San Diego. “They had an annual video that they would distribute to the donors showing what they were doing each year, and I scored all that stuff… the fish in the reefs, and the oceans and the winds and the climate. I have a whole other part of me and my work that nobody knows about.”
The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard Street in Brookline, MA. Tickets for the 20th Annual Horror Marathon with Alan Howarth live can be purchased HERE.
True innovators don’t often realize they’re marking new territory until after the fact.
When composer/musician Harry Manfredini got the job to score Friday the 13th, which is celebrating its 40th-anniversary this year, he already had a few notches in his professional belt, but he was mainly just trying to keep working.
“It was about putting food on the table,” he said recently, over the phone from his home in Valencia, California. “I knew I was going to get paid, and, at the time, that was enough for me. Nobody involved had any idea what we were onto. It wasn’t until we actually screened it and saw the audience’s reaction that we realized we had lightning in a bottle.”
Manfredini went on to score most of the Friday film franchise alongside a lengthy list of other projects. However, there was a time in his life when film scoring was more of a fantasy than anything else. As a classically trained musician playing sax in jazz clubs and earning a doctorate in Music Theory at Columbia University, he wasn’t at all sure what direction his career would take. A fellow Columbia student that was producing records on the side helped point him in the right direction.
It began slowly with a shoe commercial and assisting with some demos. That led to working with Arlon Ober (Robotech, DeepStar Six) on the score for a controversial art-porn film released in 1976, Through the Looking Glass, directed by Joseph Middleton. Scoring music for porn might not seem like an auspicious break for a classically trained guy holding a doctorate, but Throughthe Looking Glass doesn’t sound anything much like the blaxploitation-toned soundtracks that characterize skin flicks from that era.
“Middleton told us he wanted a really classy, orchestral score,” he recalled. “It was wall-to-wall music forever – scored like a real film, very unusual. I’ve only seen the parts of it that I composed the music for, but it’s supposedly a well-regarded, experimental film for that genre.”
And as if to balance out Through the Looking Glass, Manfredini and Ober also scored two short films during that same time frame that went on to win Academy Awards, The End of the Game and Angeland Big Joe. Sometimes versatility is your best asset at the beginning of a career.
“One of the things you learn in the land of low budget and small films, especially back then in New York, is that with each one you work on, you’ll know some of the people on the next assignment,” he explained. “The small budget family is very small and very close, and we were all out there helping each other. “
When Ober left for California, Manfredini worried the phone might stop ringing, but the Academy Award wins opened some doors. It wasn’t long before someone introduced him to Sean S. Cunningham, producer and director of Friday the 13th.
“Given my background, I understand a lot of contemporary avant-garde music. But one of the things you learn about scoring films is how different the composition is from other modes of writing. You’re ninety percent dramatist ─ sometimes you write just one note, and it works. Your obligation is to the film, not to show off your chops or how complex your understanding of composition can be.”
Though he initially wondered who, if anyone, would go to see the film, Manfredini brought musical personality to the soundtrack of Friday the 13th by making his score come to life as a character. ‘Leitmotif’ is a compositional term mainly used in opera that denotes a recurrent passage of music associated with a specific person. In this case, he bent that musical tool to indicate the presence of someone we can’t see. It was an unusual twist for a slasher film.
“I told Sean that because we don’t see the killer until the ninth reel, we needed to somehow introduce them in reel one,” he said. “I suggested that we only have music when the camera is from the viewpoint of the killer, making it immediately indicative that we’re now seeing with their eyes. So, the score became a character, in that sense, and I think that’s a large part of what makes the music stand out so much.”
And stand out it certainly does, particularly with the chilling “Ki-ki-ki-ki…” and “Ma-ma-ma-ma…” chants (recordings of his own voice saying the words ‘killer’ and ‘mommy’ processed through some filters) and the orchestral swells that frame the boat scene toward the movie’s end.
“The chanting is scary because it’s a human sound,” he noted. “For the boat scene, it was my job to make the audience think the movie is over, and the editors stretched that damn thing out as far as they possibly could. I couldn’t imagine what the hell I was going to write to make that work.”
In the end, he chose to retool a country song he’d written for the diner scene from earlier on in the movie. The second version of the song bears little resemblance to its jaunty former self, presented as an orchestral piece with keyboards, light drumming, and a substantial ‘flange’ effect. It projects what one might call a ‘mournfully triumphant,’ tone, leading the viewer down a path of resolution and effectively indicating that the story is ending ─ but there’s just a hint of menacing undercurrent. Folks that are familiar with the film know why.
It would appear that, despite the unlucky associations with the calendar day itself, Friday the 13th is the gift that keeps on giving.
With a no-name cast (Kevin Bacon’s career was barely underway, leaving Betsy Palmer as the sole recognizable star) and a meager budget of $550,000, Friday the 13th still grossed nearly $60 million at the box office when it debuted in 1980. Now considered a classic, it’s been franchised, novelized, incorporated into comic books, and made into a video game. Manfredini, now 77, says producing music for the game was particularly challenging, given that the music continually shifts for each person playing (up to 8 simultaneous players) depending on the path they take.
About 15 years ago, Manfredini got clued into a fun world of fandom he previously didn’t know existed when he attended the movie’s 25th-anniversary screening in Los Angeles. Encouraged by Friday cast members ─ folks he’d never met before because the composer is usually the last person to work on a film ─ he discovered an audience, thriving at conventions throughout the country, that’s familiar with his work and wants his autograph. He’s since become a regular at these events.
He’s also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his scores through the vinyl revival. Horror-centric indie label Waxwork Records has pressed the original soundtrack twice, and it has completely sold out both times. In fact, all but three out of eight Manfredini releases the label has issued have sold out. He says he’s thrilled on multiple levels.
“It’s incredibly gratifying and monetarily tasty, too. What’s really cool is that we went to Paramount and got the original tracks specifically for the Friday stuff, and then they were remastered by James Nelson for the 6 CD box set that came out on La-La Land Records. I called him up and he asked me what I’d like to do, so I told him ‘more low end, more high end, and clean up the middle,’ because sometimes the mid-range can get plugged up. He added some reverb, and when I heard the results, it was like night and day! I’m very grateful to him for helping my work sound so good. For the vinyl releases, Kevin Bergeron at Waxworks remastered the tracks specifically for vinyl, which requires a different process, working off of the great sounding transfers that James Nelson had already done. They’re unbelievably good.”
Recently, at the request of an orchestra in Spain, he’s reworked the Friday the 13th score into an orchestral suite, which then got performed by a group at MIT (a YouTube video exists). To continue fostering the trend, he’s also remade DeepStarSix into an orchestral suite and is currently developing Suite from Swamp Thing. Additionally, Austin-based film composer Brian Satterwhite has interviewed him extensively for an upcoming book about the music of Friday the 13th.
According to IMDB, Manfredini also has many new scoring projects on the horizon, and, looking at the long list of contributions to his credit, he’s remained consistently busy. Curiously, he says he’s not a big fan of horror as a genre because much of it involves gratuitous killing and torture. He sees Friday the 13th as a murder mystery.
“Friday the 13th knew what it was, it knew what it was going to be, and it didn’t try to be anything else. The cast looked like a bunch of regular people, not models, and you briefly got to know each one of them. It knew exactly what it was, and for what it was, it was very good.”
[PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Harry Manfredini & Fred Mollin’s score to Friday the 13thPart VII: New Blood was recently released on CD through La-La Land Records. Copies of the CD signed by Manfredini are currently available for pre-order at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, CA, by clicking HERE. Please support small businesses during these difficult times.)
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.
Throughout 2017, Limelight Magazine continued its weekly “Soundtrack Saturday” series on our Facebook pages. For those who are unfamiliar with this series, we feature a different soundtrack score every Saturday from either the past or present from our collection. Since we received so much positive feedback, it will resume for a third consecutive year in 2018.
Of the nearly 150 soundtrack scores we listened to in 2017, here are our top 10 favorites.
1. Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series (Angelo Badalmenti & Various Artists)
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Carter Burwell)
3. Murder on the Orient Express (Patrick Doyle)
4. The Killing of the Sacred Deer (Various Artists)
Throughout 2016, Limelight Magazine has spotlighted a number of great film score composers and the soundtracks they created, primarily in the horror movie genre. We think everyone would agree that classic films such as Psycho, Halloween and Friday the 13th just wouldn’t be the same without their memorable scores.
When we found out that J. Blake Fichera, of New York, recently authored a book called Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers, we couldn’t wait to interview him for a feature story.
In his book, Fichera interviewed 14 renowned film score composers who have created music for such films as The Beyond, The Conjuring, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Hellraiser, House of the Devil, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Supsiria and many more. Among the composers he interviewed are: Nathan Barr, Charles Bernstein, Joseph Bishara, Simon Boswell, John Carpenter, Jay Chattaway, Fabio Frizzi, Jeff Grace, Maurizio Guarini, Tom Hajdu, Alan Howarth, Harry Manfredini, Claudio Simonetti, and Christopher Young.
In our interview with Fichera, he spoke about why he chose to write Scored to Death, how he chose each composer, the format of his book, and a number of other interesting things.
“My favorite kinds of books are film and music-related non-fiction and horror film scores are a genre of music that I am passionate about,” Fichera said. “So the decision to write Scored to Death actually, kind of, came out of necessity. I really wanted to read a book like it but I couldn’t find one, so I decided to write it myself.”
Fichera explained why he felt confident about writing the book due to his experience interviewing artists.
“I have been interviewing musicians and film-related people for various publications and websites, off and on, for years,” Fichera said. “In my own mind, it didn’t seem that crazy at the time. Had I not had experience as an interviewer, I may have been too intimidated to actually go through with it but I knew that talking to artists about what they do was something I really loved doing. So I decided to just go for it and now, almost 3 years later, the book has been completed, published, released and luckily, the feedback has been pretty good.”
Fichera is obviously a skilled writer, editor, producer, and musician. Although his parents were not musicians, music has always been a big part of his life, starting with the influence of his grandfather.
“My grandfather was actually a dancer, singer and one half of a comedy duo called Fisher and Marks,” Fichera said. “They were the comic relief in a couple of forgotten music-themed movies in the 1950s and had a live act, etc. I guess music and performing may be in my DNA somewhere, but my grandfather died when I was pretty young so I don’t think he was a direct influence on my love for music and performing live.”
Although his parents were not musicians, they kindled Fichera’s love for music during his childhood that has continued into the present day.
“My parents and my older brother are all music-lovers, with pretty eclectic tastes and I think that is where my love for music, and so many different kinds of music, stems from,” he said. “Listening to music is just something I always did and then when I was in high school, I started playing guitar. Now as an adult, I perform live regularly in New York City.”
In Scored to Death, Fichera interviewed a variety of classic and contemporary film composers over the phone, with the exception of Fabio Frizzi which was done by e-mail because of the language barrier.
“I love horror film music so picking composers I liked and wanted to talk to was my first priority,” Fichera began. “That was really the most important thing to me, because this was a passion project. I didn’t have a publisher when I started. I was doing this on my own and for myself, so I wanted to enjoy the experience! Also, of course, featuring some composers of iconic scores from iconic horror films was important but I’d say even more important to me, was interviewing a diverse group of artists. I really wanted to cover as wide a spectrum of horror film music and artistry as I could.”
Scored to Death is a great read especially for anyone who is interested in horror film scores. One interesting thing about the book is the way it’s structured with self-contained interviews. This way, readers can jump from one composer to another without necessarily reading the book from beginning to end.
“I didn’t really have a format in mind when I started writing, because I didn’t know what I was going to get,” Fichera said. “I think one of the book’s biggest strengths is that the interviews feel very conversational. I think because of that, giving each of the composers their own chapter, seemed to be the best option. I really just wanted to do whatever would serve the book best and ultimately I decided that keeping each interview/conversation intact seemed to be the way I would want to read them.”
Fichera enjoyed interviewing all of the 14 composers. He said each of them had something interesting and unique to add to the book.
“I think all of the composers really opened up and had very insightful things to say about themselves, their work, their process, the business, etc.,” Fichera said. “What I will say though, is that I’ve had more than a few people tell me that they like how ‘raw’ the Christopher Young interview is and I think that is because Chris and I got a bit into the nitty-gritty, regarding the ups and downs of being a composer in the film industry, and he was extremely candid and honest about it. It seems that many readers are finding that part of his interview very enlightening and interesting.”
Despite being very happy with the composers he chose to interview, Fichera said there were some that he wanted to interview but wasn’t able to.
“Two of the biggest deciding factors regarding who actually ended up in the book were (1) could I find contact information for them and (2) did they get back to me,” he said. “Nobody declined to participate, but several people or their agents just never got back to me. Now that could be because the contact information I found was false or out of date, etc., but nonetheless, they are not in the book.”
Fichera doesn’t have a favorite horror movie composer but he did mention one of his biggest inspirations.
“The biggest inspirations for my pursuing the book were probably John Carpenter and the band Goblin,” Fichera said.
Due to Fichera’s passion for many horror movies, he couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.
“I don’t have one favorite horror film but I will say that one of my favorite horror films is John Carpenter’s The Thing,” Fichera said.
Fichera said he has been inspired and intrigued by the genre of horror for a while now.
“In one way or another, horror has always been a very big part of my life,” he said. “Although I didn’t get serious about horror films and really start to study them and explore all aspects of them until high school and then especially in film school/college.”
Fichera promoted the book with a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, CA, on August 21, 2016. He talked about how he found out about the store.
“I took a trip to Los Angeles in the spring and had the great pleasure and honor of hanging out with a few of the composers featured in the book,” Fichera said. “While at dinner with Harry Manfredini and Joseph Bishara, they told me that I should check out this bookstore called Dark Delicacies while I was in town because they thought I would love it.”
One thing led to another and the store owners Sue and Del Howison ended up hosting Fichera for a signing at their store. While many of the composers whom Fichera interviewed attended the event, Fichera was surprised to see Charles Bernstein and Alan Howarth in attendance. This was Fichera’s first time meeting them. He talked about the experience and the support he received.
“I knew Harry, Joseph and Chris would come because those are three of the composers I spent time with during my spring trip to LA and they all expressed that they would definitely be there,” Fichera began. “Several of the other composers that live in the area expressed that they would love to attend, if their scheduled permitted, so that was the reason for the uncertainty regarding Charles and Alan. I knew they wanted to come but I wasn’t sure they would be able to. Thankfully they did show up!”
Fichera has been surprised by his own success and thrilled by the outcome at the Dark Delicacies signing.
“The signing was amazing! I had never done one before, so I don’t know what a ‘good turnout’ is for that kind of thing but the store’s owners seemed happy. So that made me happy,” Fichera said. “To me it was a bit like a dream. Before the signing, Joseph Bishara and I were standing around chatting and he commented, ‘Hey people are starting to line up already. That’s great!’ For some reason I replied, ‘Yeah, but they are all here to see you guys (meaning the composers, not me)’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe, but we are all here because of you and to support your book. Don’t forget that.’ Which left me kind of speechless because I never really thought about it that way. For some reason, it hadn’t sunk in that five of horror’s most iconic composers were not only in the same room together but they were there, specifically to support the book and me!”
Fichera also spoke about how glad he is that many boutique labels, such as Mondo, Death Waltz and Waxwork Records, are now filling the void in the marketplace by releasing horror movie soundtracks on vinyl.
“I am extremely happy that these scores are having a renaissance and being distributed,” Fichera said. “It is about time that these composers and their amazing work are being highlighted and given their due. I do have to admit though, that I don’t love the ‘limited edition’ and ‘variant’ aspects of that business. It has been getting better because labels are now releasing less limited ‘standard’ editions of soundtracks in addition to the ‘limited editions’ but much like variant comic book covers and the way the DVD/Blu-ray industry releases a new-and-improved edition of beloved films every year or so, I can’t help but feel like it preys on and takes advantage of the loyalty and passion of the true fans and collectors.”
Most of the feedback that Scored to Death has received so far has been positive. Fichera talked about his surprise due to the positive reaction that he hadn’t expected but gladly accepts.
“There haven’t been that many formal reviews but the ones that have been written are favorable,” Fichera said. “The book was just included on a list of ‘10 Essential Books for the Horror Fan,’ which is amazing because it is in some very good company. The coolest thing though, and something I totally wasn’t expecting, is that people are sending me and posting pictures of their personal copies of the book on social media. I find that amazing and a bit surreal. That’s my baby popping up in pictures from all over the world! I love that and I’m grateful to everyone that has purchased a copy and has supported the book and I hope they enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed working on it.”
You can grab your copy of Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers on Amazon by clicking HERE and it can be ordered at most local bookstores.
“I’m hoping to do more signings and I will be selling and signing books at various horror conventions in the future,” Fichera said. “If people are interested in that kind of stuff or just want to keep up with all things Scored to Death, they can follow the book on Facebook and Twitter @ScoredtoDeath.”
Also check out one of Fichera’s other projects.
“I co-host a very fun and nostalgic movie-themed podcast called Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers,” Fichera said. “If you love movies and listen to podcasts, give us a listen when you get a chance. It’s available on iTunes and most other podcast sites and apps and people can follow that on Facebook and Twitter as well, if they like.”
The independent horror movie It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell, has been getting rave reviews by critics and fans alike, with it currently certified a stellar 96% fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The breakout hit is about a teenage girl who finds herself haunted by nightmarish visions and the inescapable sense that something is after her. While we won’t say anymore about the film because it needs to be seen in a theater to be best appreciated, the soundtrack by video game composer Disasterpeace (also known as Rich Vreeland) has been equally praised by anyone who has seen the film. The synth-heavy score is very much in the vein of legendary filmmaker and composer John Carpenter’s work on Halloween and The Fog, but has its own originality, especially with conveying a sense of dread. Quite frankly, it’s one of the best horror film soundtracks in years and is definitely worth listening to or purchasing. While Vreeland is currently in New Zealand designing new music for a game about subway systems, he graciously took the time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer our questions by e-mail about the soundtrack and what the future holds for Disasterpeace.
LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE (LM): When you composed the score for It Follows, it was the first time you created music for a feature length film. How did you get involved with this project? RICH VREELAND: I scored a game called FEZ a few years ago. David loved the music and reached out to me via e-mail. Our initial discussions were straight-forward. We talked logistics and expressed our interest in working together. David touched base right before he started filming and then we fell out of touch for a year. When he came back to me, prepared to start scoring, I had a lot of work underway and did not have much time. I turned him down at first, but he could tell that I wanted to work on the film. After much discussion, I gave in to his persistence. I’m glad I did! We at first talked about exploring an aesthetic with guitars and other acoustic instruments. Over time, we realized that synths had the versatility we needed.
LM: I’ve read that you initially had six months to develop the score, but when the film was accepted into Cannes, your timeline was condensed to only three weeks. How did you end up creating such a haunting masterpiece in so little time? RICH VREELAND: My familiarity with synths and the strength of the temp score allowed us to make it happen. When you are comfortable with your tools, the feedback loop is more immediate. Getting good results doesn’t take as long.
LM: I also read that writer-director David Robert Mitchell created a temp score to go with the film when the timeline was condensed. Did you have to work within the parameters of the temp score when you created yours and how much give and take went into the process? RICH VREELAND: I wanted to work within those parameters. I thought the temp score was solid, and it was a great help given the scenario. As someone with limited familiarity of the horror genre, it was nice to have a guide. I tried to boil down each reference piece to a general feeling. Then I’d build that feeling back up into something fresh.
LM: Upon listening to the soundtrack to It Follows, it’s very much in the vein of legendary filmmaker and composer John Carpenter’s synth heavy scores for Halloween and The Fog. Were you already familiar with Carpenter’s work when you created the score for It Follows? RICH VREELAND: I had heard some of his stuff in passing, but wouldn’t call myself well-versed. We did reference some Carpenter pieces for the score, though.
LM: I saw the movie in New York City on March 15th when it was playing on only four screens across the country. Since then it has expanded to over 1,200 locations and is going to expand to 1,655 screens this weekend. Did you ever expect the movie to take off the way it did and become one of the most talked about horror films in years? RICH VREELAND: I knew the potential was there based on the feedback we were getting. But it still came as a surprise!
LM: Has the movie’s success had any impact on your career so far or plans for the future? RICH VREELAND: I’ve had a lot of folks ask me to work on film projects. I think David and I will work together in the future too.
LM: Prior to your work on It Follows, you created music for video games, most notably the eight-bit soundtrack for the game FEZ. How much of a difference is it to compose a soundtrack for a video game compared to that of a film? RICH VREELAND: Scoring film is in some ways a nice reprieve from working on games. I’m working on music for a game right now that allows you to be a subway designer. I’m coding, playtesting, and doing lots of logistical problem-solving. I’m trying to make each interaction between the game and the sound symbiotic. It is intense and often a rewarding process. Scoring linear media for me tends to be more zen than problem-solving. I’m also working on an episode of Adventure Time right now. My creative process for that is a lot like flinging paint on a canvas. The structure of a film is more of a known quantity, and I can just get on with it. The linearity of scoring film makes it easier for me to perceive the outer limits.
LM: Now that you have one feature film under your belt, would you like to compose another one? RICH VREELAND: Sure! I care less about the medium than the experience and the value.
LM: How did you get involved with music and who are some of your biggest musical influences? RICH VREELAND: I grew up in a musical household. My step-father was the music director of our church. He would hold band practice in our basement, and I would go down there to play the drums. My mom sings and plays the piano and my sister has been singing since she could speak. I fooled around for a while but took up guitar in high school. I was big into bands like Tool and Rage Against the Machine. In the last few years my influences have been all over the map. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and impressionism.
LM: What are your plans for Disasterpeace for the rest of 2015? RICH VREELAND: I’m finishing music for a guest episode of Adventure Time. I’m in New Zealand right now designing a music system for a game about subway systems. Later this year I’ll be scoring a game inspired by the book Flatland.
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