Thursday, August 4, 2011

Interview with Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch 2 Buster Keaton shorts and 1 full-length film on the big screen with live musical accompaniment (read more about the experience here). The music was courtesy of Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis who travels all over the Northeast of the US screening silent films and playing his own original music to them. Jeff is very talented and is providing film enthusiasts with a great service by screening and accompanying these silent classics the way they were meant to be experienced.

Jeff graciously accepted my request for an interview. In coming up with the ten questions for the interview, I enlisted some help from my fellow classic film fans on Twitter (you can follow me there as @QuelleLove or @ClassicFilmRead ) and got some great questions in return. Thank you to all who participated and to Jeff Rapsis for taking the time out to do this interview.

For those of you in the Boston area, Jeff Rapsis will be back at the Somerville Theater on Sunday August 7th at 7:00 pm for another Buster Keaton screening. He'll be showing the Buster Keaton shorts The High Sign (1921) and Cops (1922) and one of my favorite Keaton full-length films Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Don't miss out on this opportunity!


1) @TPJost asks- What first got you interested in silent films?

I had a music teacher in junior high who was also a film collector, and he'd bring in 16mm prints of short comedies such as the Chaplin Mutuals and screen them in study hall. I remember the very first one I saw was 'One A.M.' and something about the film caught my interest. I then started checking out books from the local library, including Walter Kerr's then-new 'Silent Clowns,' and I never looked back. Before long, I was saving my allowance and birthday money to order 8mm prints from Blackhawk Films in Iowa. I've maintained an interest ever since, but only started accompanying films in the past five years or so. I had studied music and played keyboard, and I found that doing music and film together was like chocolate and peanut butter for me.

2) @BiscuitKitten from the blog Sittin' on a Backyard Fence  asks - What was the first movie you accompanied?

The first full-length feature was a Halloween screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. in 2007. I had no time to prepare, but quickly came up with a few themes that were useful throughout the film, and it went pretty successfully. This encouraged me to tackle other films, and I've been at it ever since. Although I've had a lifelong interest in silent film, and I studied music separately, I had never considered accompanying silent film until I got a chance to score an independent feature film called 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' which was released in 2005. Prior to that, my only experience in creating music for silent film was accompanying short comedies here and there, including one time in a barn for a family gathering where the screen was an actual bedsheet.

3) @Walking26 asks - How do you decide what music to play?

One ground rule for me is that I use my own made-up material rather than songs or period pieces of the era. For each film, what I typically do is create four or five melodies or chord sequences, each with a different character -- one might be a main theme, then a secondary "love" theme, and maybe a forboding series of chords to help signal something important, and so on. Then, while the movie runs, I draw on this "bank" of material to improvise music that supports the film in real time. Because it's being done live, it also reflects the audience response as well as my own personal reactions, and so there's a kind of unpredictable energy present that I think is very different from when a score is all planned out and written in advance. It's a bit of a high wire act, but I think it's an important element in bringing these films back to life for modern audiences.

4) @pebbleinmyshoe from Gina: Blogs Books in Translation  and @diandapanda from Classic Movie Blog want to know about how you prepare and what you improvise. Is your performance practiced a lot in advance,do you wing it and is it the same music each time or is there wiggle room to improvise for the mood of a scene?

Generally, each performance is improvised live on the spot, although I try to create enough useful musical material beforehand to have a consistent musical vocabulary to work with that allows a score to hold together. To prepare for a film, I'll try to view it once beforehand to get a sense of the overall arc of the movie -- when the big scenes are, and any important moments like the firing of a gun. While I do this, I kind of doodle on the piano, and when I come up with something useful, I stop and jot down a scrap of melody or a distinctive harmony. It builds organically from there. And usually that's it for advance preparation, although for big films that I'm not too familiar with, I might watch them again with the DVD player on fast forward just to remind myself of the order of the narrative, which helps in terms of pacing the score in performance.

5) @NiamhVintageKid from Born in the Wrong Decade  asks - Do you ever feel like being completely contradictory and playing horror music during a romantic moment and vice versa?

Yes, but only when it's justified. Fundamentally, my job is to create music to help bring a vintage film to life for an audience today. Ideally, if what I'm doing is successful, audiences should not be really hearing the music separately, but should be absorbed in the film as a total experience. However, I find that using unexpected music can sometimes add real depth to a scene by contributing subtext to what's on screen. Say you have a love scene played between two people who are secretly scheming to kill each other; music can do a lot to bring out both of those seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. Also, I feel the best silent film comedy does not need "funny" music, but works best when played straight. And in terms of the all-important audience reaction, you need to be really careful not to overplay or play too loud for a comedy, because that keeps audience members from hearing each other react, and that contagious audience reaction is one of the great glories of silent film. They were made to be seen by large crowds in a theater, and music should help induce or trigger that reaction, rather than stifle it.

6) @filmclassics asks - Do you ever get emotional during a performance?

Yes. One film that always gets to me is 'Wings' (1927), the big World War I flying epic. I've done it maybe four times in performance, and it's hard not to get all choked up at some moments near the end. My father was a pilot from the old school, which may have something to do with this. But it's not just me -- once we screened 'Wings' for the New Hampshire Aviation Museum, and a large contingent of old flyboys showed up, and at the end all these tough guys were bawling and blowing their noses! I find one of the great things about silent film is that it's often about the big emotions: lust, anger, triumph, revenge, and so on. It's like opera in that regard, but even more so because silent film is more abstract, and therefore you project more of yourself into it. So if you buy into a film and let it cast its spell on you, it can be very intense, almost cathartic. I try to supply music that helps that process happen, and I personally respond to this kind of art, so it shouldn't be surprising that I get caught up in things every now and then.

Now onto some questions from me!

7) Where do you perform?

I've played films everywhere from big traditional theaters and concert halls to nursing home function rooms and noisy school assemblies. Because most of my work has been outside the big cities, audiences rarely exceed 150 people, so I find the best locations seem to be smaller venues (200 to 400 seats) so there's a kind of critical mass of energy with the audience. I also prefer places with good acoustics for the music, which is a major factor in me being able to work effectively, I think. The only unsatisfying gigs are when someone plans a 1920s-themed party (not very often these days) and they ask me about showing silent films as background entertainment or as atmosphere. This unfortunately tends to reinforce many of the negative stereotypes that persist about silent film, so I try to talk them out of it.

8) Is there a film you want to screen/accompany but haven't yet?

I would love to try some of the big Abel Gance epics such as 'J'Accuse,' 'La Roue,' or even 'Napoleon.' I've never done any of the silent Hitchcock films and I think those would be interesting. Also, I have yet to tackle several of the big Griffith epics, including 'Intolerance' and 'Broken Blossoms,' but I'm looking forward to doing them because the Griffith films seem to match my approach and my kind of music. 'The Birth of a Nation,' while regrettably racist, really comes to life with a score that works to support Griffith's story-telling. There are other more obscure features, such as 'The Johnstown Flood' (1926) and 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926) that I'd like to do -- really, any railroad-themed film, let me at it. I love the big Biblical epics, too; I've yet to do the original 'Ten Commandments' (1923), but I will get a chance to do music for the epic (and weird) part-talkie 'Noah's Ark' (1928) for screenings around Easter 2012.

9) Why are silent films important to you?

First, I think they're a neglected and misunderstood art form that still contains a lot of expressive power if the right conditions are present: good prints, the big screen, live music, and an audience. For me personally, silent films tell stories and depict life in a way that I really respond to, and my efforts to create music for them and screen them stems from a desire to share this experience with others, I think. To me, it's amazing artistic accident that the technical limit of no synchronized soundtrack caused filmmakers to tell stories in a way that turned out to be so universal. And so they have a kind of timelessness woven into them, meaning they can still produce a strong impact all this time later. They're really a different art form than motion pictures today: not that they're more primitive, but they're different in terms of how stories were told and how a viewer contributes his or her own voices and bonds with characters (either consciously or unconsciously), thus personalizing the experience, and how the variable of live music can keep the films fresh and bridge the gap between the time of their making and a contemporary screening. To me, the idea of supplying music to enhance the experience of a film is a remarkable creative opportunity, as long as the goal is to respect the integrity of the film's vision. So I sometimes joke that I've finally found my niche: collaborating with dead people! Also, with the passage of time, even the most ordinary of silent films have another level of interest now, in that they depict so much about life that's changed since they were made. We just screened 'Tol'able David' (1921), which was filmed in rural Virginia, and in the film it looks as if life hadn't changed much since Colonial days! No automobiles, no electricity, no iPads. By watching silent films, it's possible to get a sense of what's transient and what's timeless about your own life and times, and I find it deeply rewarding to experience this myself and to share the experience with others.

10) Why should we watch silent films with live music, an audience, the correct aspect ratio, a good print, etc.?

Because that's how they were intended to be shown. The people who made these films, good or bad, did so with all these factors in mind, either consciously or unconsciously: the music, the big screen, the communal experience of the audience. They were baked into the films during planning, shooting, and editing. The films were never intended to be experienced, say, on a home entertainment center by just you alone or with your dog. They were created to be shown in theaters to audiences (the larger the better) and live music, and to discount these factors is to rob a film of much of its intended impact. I've seen it happen many times: a film that bored me when I watched it alone produced a surprisingly intense reaction when screened for an audience. D.W. Griffith's 'Way Down East' (1920) is a good example: In developing music for it, I thought the first two hours were so slow and creaky that they'd be a very tough go for an audience. But we got a good crowd for the screening and they reacted strongly right from the start, whether it was laughing good-naturedly at the moralistic titles or energetically booing the Lowell Sherman character once he showed his true colors. And when Richard Barthelmess rescued Lillian Gish from the waterfall, they went absolutely nuts!

Thank you Jeff for this interview!


  1. Really great interview, Raquelle - I enjoyed reading it so much! I've never seen a silent film on the big screen (or any classic film, actually) but I imagine it must be truly incredible to see one with live music.

  2. I'd always wondered how much of the live music was improvised and how much was pre-arranged. Now I know! Thank you for this interview.

  3. I enjoyed this a lot, Raquelle, thanks to Jeff for providing such detailed, thoughtful answers--I love that you got him to mention so many specific titles! The last question reminds this couch potato that he's really got to get moving and get out to a big show with live accompaniment. Thanks again to both of you!

  4. Fats Waller started off playing theatre organ for silent films; it was a tremendous education in that he had to keep one eye on the screen and one eye on his keyboard, keeping up with the film's action and developing lightning fast reflexes in the process.

  5. This is a wonderful interview. Mr Rapsis makes so many insightful points about live music & silent film, & kudos to you for using your blog as a platform to write about this!

  6. Excellent interview. Thanks so much for using my question! I love that his first film was The Phantom of the Opera. I think it is wonderful that you have highlighted a very important component of the theatre experience. You cannot get that from watching something on your television at home.

  7. Sophie - Thanks so much. Watching a classic on the big screen is a divine experience. I highly recommend it.

    Rich - Thank you!

    Cliff - I'm glad. It really is worth getting out of the house and into a theater to experience classics on the big screen (and with live music sometimes). TCM is lovely but it can't beat the real thing.

    Black Pete - Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.

    John - That might be the nicest compliment I've ever received. I really appreciate people like you giving music to these silent films. It's a great service indeed.

    Jill - Thanks so much for submitting your question. It was great to have questions from different people.


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