When silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis sits down at the keyboard to create a musical score, there’s no music stand and no sheet music.
That’s because Rapsis is making up the music right then and there, improvising a soundtrack on the spot in the manner of theater organists
“It’s kind of a high-wire act,” Rapsis says. “But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience.”
As the resident accompanist of the Western New York Film Expo, Rapsis creates music that helps early movies connect with modern audiences.
“Ideally, the music should help get across what a filmmaker was trying to achieve,” Rapsis said. “It can be an emotional atmosphere, or a sense of rhythm, or cues that underscore how a character is developing or a story is progressing.”
At the Expo – Live Music for Silent Films
Each year at the Western NY Expo, Rapsis creates music for a half-dozen feature-length films in the Expo’s main screening room. He also accompanies collections of short comedies and other films as needed.
The movies range from well-known classic comedies of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to obscure and rarely-screened melodramas, many of which Rapsis has never seen before.
“It can be a challenge to accompany a film you’ve never seen before,” Rapsis says. “But if you pay attention and keep on top of the story as it unfolds, it’s possible to create an effective score – one that’s often quite different that something written out and prepared in advance.”
To create the soundtracks, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer that produces a range of musical textures, from solo piano to full orchestra.
“I try to vary it, and match the general style of the accompaniment to the film,” Rapsis said. “A simple solo piano or organ is fine for a knock-about silent comedy, but an orchestra palette might be more appropriate for a full-length feature film.”
Silent Movies Weren’t Always Silent
Music has always been important to the movies.
As the actors performed before the cameras at the motion picture studios, music was played on the set to help set the mood. But when the films were released to the cinemas, it was up the theaters themselves to supply the music. Movie studios knew different regions of the United States would want different musical styles.
And while a downtown movie palace – where admission was a dollar, half a week’s salary in the 1920s – might have a full orchestra, the neighborhood picture show could get along with a piano player.
With the sophistication of today’s pianos and keyboards, silent film with live musical accompaniment is not a primitive ancestor to modern-day motion pictures, but has emerged as an entirely different way of telling stories visually, with music playing a major role.
“When the lights go down, and the movie and music starts, it’s like we’re all embarking on this adventure together,” Rapsis says.
“Part of that is the atmosphere created by live music, but also the presence of a live audience,” Rapsis says. “The films were designed from the ground up to be shown to audiences in theaters. If you can recreate those conditions, it’s surprising how they snap back to life.”
This makes the Western New York Film Expo a great place to experience vintage cinema, Rapsis says.
“One of the terrific things about the Expo, and other venues that show silent film with live music, is that these screenings give people a chance to experience these films as they were meant to be seen – on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience. It helps you realize why people first fell in love with the movies, and fell hard.”
Jeff Rapsis Embarks on Musical Career
So how did Jeff Rapsis get started accompanying silent films?
In college, Rapsis studied music, but ended up getting into the newspaper business. As a fan of old movies, especially comedies, he had always wanted to see silent films with live music accompaniment.
In 2007, he got his chance. When a local movie theater had nothing planned for Halloween, Rapsis recommended a showing of the Lon Chaney, Sr., classic Phantom of the Opera (1925) – with Rapsis himself providing the music on his keyboard. With nothing written down or planned, Rapsis improvised, and the presentation was a success.
Realizing how much he had enjoyed the experience, Rapsis decided he wanted to keep playing music for silent films and began looking for opportunities to do so.
From his home base in New Hampshire, Rapsis accompanies about 120 silent film screenings each year – mostly in the Boston and New England area, but further afield at festivals and museums across the nation and beyond. Prior to the Western New York Film Expo, Rapsis was a regular accompanist at the long-running Cinefest annual vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y.
At home on acoustic piano, theatre organ, or synthesizer, he regularly accompanies silent film screenings at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass.; the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas; the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in San Francisco, Calif.; the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass.; the Revue Cinema in Toronto, Ontario; and the Cleveland Cinematheque. In 2017, Rapsis made his London debut at the Kennington Bioscope cinema.
As a composer, his “Kilimanjaro Suite” for large orchestra was premiered in 2017 by the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I’m like a traveling minstrel,” says Rapsis.
To find out where this modern-day minstrel will perform next – or to contact him for a booking at your event – please visit his website, Jeff Rapsis / Silent Film Music.