Film Interview: Jeff Rapsis’ Code of Silents

For the past decade, Jeff Rapsis has improvised live scores for silent films starring Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Jess Jess effPhoto: Steve Friedman

Jeff Rapsis tickling the ivories. Photo: Steve Friedman.

By Ken Bader

Jeff Rapsis doesn’t merely see dead people — he works with them.

I’m collaborating with people who are long gone. Everybody I work with on the screen is dead. So I collaborate with dead people. That’s my niche.

For the past decade, Rapsis, 53, has improvised live scores for silent films starring such dead people as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. The New Hampshire native performs in movie theaters, school auditoriums, and town halls throughout New England and beyond. Rapsis makes his vintage Korg Triton LE88 digital synthesizer sound like an orchestra one minute and a percussion section the next. He’s also happy to play a traditional piano, an acoustic keyboard, or even a theater pipe organ.

Live music was a vital part of the moviegoing experience during the silent film era of the 1910s and ’20s. But the experience varied from theater to theater. That’s because each new film arrived without a composed score, so the musical accompaniment was left up to the individual venue. This resulted in what Rapsis calls “a hodgepodge of light classical music and, sometimes, popular tunes of the day. It was all very much cut-and-paste.”

And who performed the music? That, too, depended on the theater.

Some theaters would have a small group of instrumental players. Some of the larger big-city theaters would have these immense theater organs that came along later in the era. And small towns might just have Grandma bangin’ away on the horse teeth all by herself.

Rapsis gets ready to accompany a screening by familiarizing — or re-familiarizing — himself with the film.

The best thing for me is to have the film, say, on a DVD. I look at it on fast-forward and get a sense of what the ups and downs are, what the emotional line is, if there’s any big moment that would be unexpected, like gunshots and things that, musically, you can’t be even a second late on. Then, you have all you need. It turns out better than if you’d over-prepared, because that special energy doesn’t happen when you prepare too much.

He doesn’t try to recreate the kinds of music that audiences heard back in the day.

When I do music for a film today, I’m acknowledging that there’s been a century of development of this art of film music, which was only just being discovered in the 1920s. We’ve learned that music isn’t just a tune to accompany a scene. It can create an emotional matrix from beginning to end that helps a film pull together and communicate things non-verbally to an audience. So I try to come up with music that sounds like what you’d hear in a movie theatre today: modern movie music but applied to a film from another era. And I think that helps bridge the gap between today’s audiences and moviemaking from a century ago.

Rapsis lives by his golden rule of musical accompaniment: Less Is More.

An audience doesn’t need full and busy music for an hour and a half. If you can keep things as simple as possible for as long as possible, it becomes very effective later when you need to go big or punctuate a moment that the film has been building to. That’s true with a drama, a comedy, a western, or any film that tells a narrative.

Different silent films pose different challenges. One that occasionally pops up is what to do when a character performs a specific piece of music on the screen. Rapsis cites as an example the 1923 romantic drama, Zaza, starring Gloria Swanson.

There are a couple of close-ups where you see the sheet music on the piano. So, what do you do with that? I’m playing my own music, and yet Gloria plays this song on the piano, it’s played by a little girl later on, and then it’s played again. So I got the music for this tune, which turns out to be a French song from the 18th century called “Plaisir d’amour,” which means “the pleasure of love.” It’s a simple tune that has endured for generations in France as a love song.

The problem with the song was that today’s audiences would recognize the melody not as a centuries-old French ballad but as the 1961 hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Rapsis decided against playing the song as written.

I would risk people being taken out of the moment today by the song that suddenly turns into an Elvis Presley tune. You don’t want to do that, because people are going to stop thinking about the movie and think of Elvis. I had to arrange it almost like a Mozart melody, so it wasn’t going to sound like Elvis goin’, “I can’t help falling in love with you.” And it fit into the scene; it didn’t get people thinking of Elvis.

(Courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics and Paramount Pictures)

As important as music is to a movie, Rapsis insists that it should play a supporting role, not a starring one.

A musical score to a film should not call attention to itself. It’s not music that has a film accompanying it; it’s the other way around. The best compliment I can get at the end is when people come up to me and say, “You know, I enjoyed the movie so much, I forgot there was somebody playing the music live.” I love that.

At the end of every film, Rapsis redirects the applause from himself to the screen and, by extension, to the makers of these silent classics. Rapsis says those masters really understood how to connect with moviegoers.

The early directors like D.W. Griffith had spent decades directing live stage actors in the theatre and knew how an audience would respond. And Griffith, especially, was good at it. He was directing melodramas in third- and fourth-tier circuits, where you go to small towns, and if you didn’t entertain these people, they’d throw things at you. So you had to get ’em right at the beginning. He knew how to do that. And his melodramas still work today. I’ve seen it myself. People who never heard of D.W. Griffith will go to a film like “Way Down East” and be swept up in it, just as Lillian Gish is swept along on that ice floe heading to the waterfall. They have to see what’s gonna happen!

No less a director than Alfred Hitchcock remained a silent film loyalist.

Hitchcock said that the best training he got was in the silent cinema, because it taught you the importance of telling a story visually. You didn’t have the crutch of dialogue. You had to show on the screen what was going on. He said it’s the purest form of cinema there ever was.

And, according to Jeff Rapsis, it still is.

It resonates with people, because no matter what our gadgets are, no matter what cars we drive, or what clothes we wear, we still respond to conflict, anxiety, tension, and others around us in ways that these films celebrate.

Still, silent films can be a hard sell, especially to those whose opinions about them stem from having caught a short or two on YouTube. To the skeptics, Rapsis urges an open mind.

There’s a lot of things about silent movies that people don’t get, because they haven’t attended a film in a theatre with live music the way it was intended. This stuff was baked into the silent film experience, like flour in a cake. If you don’t put in the flour, you’re not gonna get a good cake. So with silent films, if you don’t put the live music to it, if you don’t have an audience, and if you don’t have a good theatre, you’re not baking the cake. So that’s what I tell people: you’ve been eating lousy cake.

Here’s a schedule of Jeff Rapsis’s upcoming screenings.

Ken Bader has written about film for NPR, WBUR, WGBH, the Voice of America, and Monitor Radio.

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