On a recent evening in October, Jeff Rapsis was setting up for a silent film screening at the Jane Pickens theater in Newport, Rhode Island. He plunked a pair of duct-taped old speakers underneath the screen and then laid out a set of long cables to his Korg synthesizer at the foot of the stage.
Throughout this, Rapsis kept up a nearly nonstop patter, by turns jovial and wry as he unleashed deeply-researched discursions on silent film history and the genius of Buster Keaton. When asked if there was a chair he preferred to sit on that was the right height to reach the keys, he replied that he wasn’t picky. “Whatever’s good for my sensitive artistic ass,” he quipped.
Rapsis is one of a small, but active, group of local musicians and ensembles who provide live musical accompaniment to silent films. Renewed interest in the genre, along with a proliferation of silent film screening series across New England, sends Rapsis crisscrossing the region all year round and has provided a vibrant second act to his career.
On this particular evening, Rapsis was preparing to accompany the 1925 film “The Phantom of the Opera.” Sitting at the Korg, he explained why he lugs the heavy instrument to every gig, even though he’s already worn out two other Korg synthesizers and had to source their replacements on Craigslist.
“If you press it lightly, that'll trigger one setting. If you press it really heavily, that'll trigger maybe the fourth setting,” he explained. “It’s set up so that I can pretty much get the whole orchestra at my fingertips.”
A light touch produced soaring strings, a heavy touch brought in the brass. With his left hand, Rapsis conjured crashing cymbals and the deep boom of the timpani.
“It’s not what you play, but how you play it,” Rapsis explained. He moved deftly from a warm major chord to a foreboding minor. Then he picked up the tempo, evoking a chase scene. The Korg's plastic keys clicked as Rapsis demonstrated how he could make the same passage sound suspenseful, romantic or even dreamy, laying on the schlock with ethereal chimes.
As the theater slowly filled up, Rapsis chatted about his unusual vocation. His love of silent films, he said, went all the way back to his childhood in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“I was a, uh, weird child,” Rapsis deadpanned.
He got hooked because one of his middle school teachers liked to show silent movies during study hall.
“So he would show these films to a room full of 12- and 13-year-olds and most could not care less. They continued to do whatever they did. They'd be throwing their gum at each other or tossing airplanes out the window or whatever,” Rapsis recalled. “But one kid, me, was transfixed.”
It was around this time, too, that he became obsessed with classical music. Rapsis guessed that he must have borrowed every single LP from the library’s collection, poring over the scores as he listened to the Beethoven symphonies and other classics.
“There was nothing but music,” he said. “It just inhabited me. It was always there, I think, and it finally came to the surface when it discovered me, or I discovered it.”
He found an idol in the American composer Charles Ives, who had a similar background in community music-making – church and marching bands and the like. Rapsis decided he wanted to become a composer. He set his heart on attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, where musical giants like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland taught. He submitted a score he’d written based on a trip to a barbershop quartet competition in Vermont, which mimicked the cacophonous overlapping harmonies of barbershop singers and the downshifting gears of the bus as it charged over the steep climbs of the Green Mountains. But he didn’t get in.
“It devastated me at the time,” Rapsis said. “I guess it's the downside of being sensitive about such things. It allows you to do a lot, but it also inhibits you. And at the time I just had nowhere to go and no one to ask about or to guide me. And I just gave it up.”
Instead, he majored in English in college and worked for many years in local newspapers. Now, he’s the executive director of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.
But Rapsis never lost his love for silent films. One day, years after he gave up on his musical dreams, he convinced a local theater to screen “The Phantom of the Opera” on Halloween, and offered to provide the music for it. He planned to write a score over the summer.
“Well, summer melted away, September comes and goes, and the next thing I know, it's coming up this weekend, I haven't done a thing to put together a score,” Rapsis said.
A man of his word, he showed up at the theater ready to play. “I knew I was going to have to kind of wing it,” he said. “And what happened was a revelation.”
Rapsis quickly realized he didn’t need to plan a score at all. Something about watching the film and responding in real time unlocked something inside him.
“He's a performer who really does something that I don't think we've ever encountered quite like before,” said Marty Norman, who runs a silent film series at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
Norman said that most musicians he hires for the series plan the music ahead of time. It was clear to him immediately that Rapsis was doing something different.
“Everything was coming together on the spur of the moment,” Norman said. “And it was very, very engaging and enveloping for the audience.”
It turned out Rapsis was tapping into an old tradition. In the early days of silent cinema, films didn’t come with pre-written scores. A local musician might improvise the entire soundtrack in real time, much like Rapsis does today. Ensembles would sometimes work from a fakebook, with pre-written music for different emotional moments. “And then in some cases, in small theaters, it really was grandma banging away at the piano, doing whatever,” Rapsis said.
This community ethos is one of his favorite things about silent cinema.
“You should see it with an audience,” Rapsis said. “You should see it with as many people as possible, because at its root, silent cinema is supposed to be a shared experience. It was designed from the ground up to be shown to a lot of people in one place.”
Rapsis' dynamic approach to silent film accompaniment keeps him extremely busy. He averages about two gigs a week on top of his day job, which adds up to over a hundred performances a year.
In this way, he has fulfilled his boyhood aspirations after all.
“If you had asked me to predict this, there's no way I could have done it,” Rapsis said. “I thought that train had left the station decades ago. I never thought I'd be in a position to be doing my own music, my way.”
This segment aired on November 9, 2023.