In the moment: The unique way Jeff Rapsis creates music for silent films

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis doesn’t use sheet music when he sits at the keyboard as a movie plays in front of him. He doesn’t have the score memorized either. In fact, it’s not even created yet.

Every time the New Hampshire-based musician, composer and educator performs with a silent film, he improvises the music.

That unique style came from a serendipitous moment about 15 years ago, the first time he performed with a silent film, the 1925 Lon Chaney classic “Phantom of the Opera.”

“I thought I would have it all planned out,” Rapsis said. “But the night of the performance I had to go in and wing it to see how it would go. I saw pretty quickly it was quite preferable to be there with a film and play what was right at the time instead of planning in advance.”

Rapsis enjoyed it so much he wanted to do it again. Understanding the great skills of other musicians/composers doing similar work, he decided the way to achieve the same strong performance level would only happen if he played – a lot. Not practice, mind you, but performing in front of an audience. And that’s what he did.

“I had to do a lot of shows,” Rapsis said. “The only way to get to that level was to do it a lot and for real with a film playing and audience there. So that’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years.”

Jeff Rapsis

Like ‘peanut butter and chocolate’

Rapsis remembers when he first fell for silent movies. He was a 7th grader in a study hall monitored by his music teacher who, to calm down the “rowdy” teens, brought in his 16mm films from his own collection. They were mostly old comedies that starred the likes of Charlie Chaplin.

“It was the first time I ever saw anything like it. I was fascinated,” Rapsis said about the movies in a recent phone interview. “It was a whole different world. I developed an interest in that era of filmmaking.”

He continued to study and play piano even as his life took him into a journalism career. (Rapsis later became co-owner of the New Hampshire HippoPress and remains a teacher of communications at the University of New Hampshire). Fast forward to that night of “The Phantom of the Opera” screening when his joint passion for music and movies finally collided in a way Rapsis now compares to the tasty combination of chocolate and peanut butter. (“Once I put them together,” he said about music and movies, “there was no turning back.”)

Today he is a well-regarded musical accompanist and composer for silent movies, performing about 100 shows annually around his home base of Northern New England, as well as annual appearances at the Kansas Silent Film Festival and the Western New York Movie Expo in Buffalo, N.Y., in addition to performances in San Francisco, at the Library of Congress and even London.

“I’m not a touring artist,” he said. “It’s a special thing I love doing it and I’m happy to do it anywhere.”

“I sometimes joke it’s my therapy – but it’s not a joke,” Rapsis continued. “To accompany a silent film program, it’s like meditation. I lose myself – I forget about any problem.”

A link to movie history

Rapsis said the idea of collaborating on movies created 100 years ago or more by people now long dead is incredibly special to him. “You’re contributing and bringing it to life for audiences today. It is very satisfying using my creativity to bring the visions of people from long ago to life.”

“In some cases, you have to try very hard to understand what filmmakers wanted people to feel and go in that direction. In drama, there can be moments of comedy; likewise, in comedy there can be moments of drama.”

A challenge in accompanying silent movies is that movie music has changed dramatically in the past century. While today we think of film scores written usually by one composer or a movie soundtrack that is a collection of pop songs, in the silent era, the music that accompanied films not only varied from theater to theater, but city to city.

“It was up to local people to create the music for their audiences and that makes sense,” Rapsis explained. “Back then, there wasn’t a national culture – there was no internet, no TV. And music would sound different in different parts of the country. People in Boston would want different music than people in New Orleans.”

Today, he said, that approach doesn’t work.

“Now you expect the music to be cemented in place – can you imagine ‘Star Wars’ without John Williams? It’s part of the experience. Back then it was part of the creativity, live and local.”

Another difference in modern film music is the use of short musical “snippets” or a motif that may simply signify a character or emotion. Think about composer Marco Beltrami’s signature monster theme in “A Quiet Place” which is more of a terrifying sound than a song.

To illustrate the point, Rapsis likes to use the example of one of the most famous motifs in movie history – the shark theme in “Jaws.”

“In the film ‘Jaws,’ people are familiar with how John Williams was able to create this mood of impending terror with those low notes when the shark was going to attack. That’s not a melody, it’s not a popular tune. But it’s music that does a lot to create an overall experience for a movie,” Rapsis said. “In the 1920s they didn’t know how music could do that.”

Rapsis takes all of this into consideration when he composes.

“We’ve had 100 years of film scoring music. I use all of that vocabulary to make an older film come to life – not just what was heard in the 1920s, I use the whole box of crayons,” he said, adding there is an ongoing debate on if there is a right way to accompany a silent film.

For his own creativity, the right way is to improvise.

“I’m more interested in creating my own music, my own chord progressions that I use to bring a film to life. It’s my outlet for music I have within me in and that’s how it comes out in in the dark with a movie.”

“It’s actually quite exciting. It’s a test of your skill, like a final exam.”

When he prepares too much for an event, he said he can think too much about what he created previously, and it takes him out of the film.

“I found if I prepare less, I’m not being lazy, I’m setting myself up to be my best with the film. No sheet music, I have a bag of ideas I can draw from. If it sounds good or right, I’ll do more of it, if it doesn’t, I’ll stop.”

His passion for the silents comes from what they give us, the viewers, in return.

“Even though these films were made at the beginning of cinema, some have the most sophisticated visual sense. It had to be that way. They didn’t have dialogue. They go for the big emotions. Love with a capital L or joy or envy. It’s all in primary colors.

“Silent film stories allow us to commune with big emotions and remind us what we are capable of experiencing,” Rapsis continued. “Falling in love is a physical experience that really consumes you – if you could do that a few times in life, what more could you ask? So instead of falling in love, you can go to the movies.

“The silent film allows us to bring out these big emotions if you let the film in and let it do its work on you. That’s why people fell in love with movies.”

More on Jeff Rapsis

Jeff Rapsis keeps a running blog of his performances at where you also can learn more about him and his upcoming performances.








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