The Crossroads of Two Art Forms on TLI Film Weekend
Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., the 1924 classic that Rapsis will discuss in his presentation.
Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis discusses Music, Motion, and Emotion at the Tanglewood Learning Institute
Though most moviegoers probably don’t think about film scores until Oscar time, when the best scores are singled out and honored, music provides an indelible (and invisible) element to what is otherwise considered a visual medium. This summer, during one of four Immersion Weekends, the Tanglewood Learning Institute will take a deep dive into film music to explore how it is both a core element and a central subject of drama.
TLI Film Weekend, taking place August 23-25, will feature conversations with legendary conductors and composers, demonstrations, and screenings across three days. Highlights include a closed rehearsal for George and Roberta Berry Boston Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams’ Film Night, a discussion between Williams and film scorer David Newman, and Music, Motion, and Emotion with silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis, who practiced a career in journalism before moving to film music, specializes in creating live musical accompaniment to silent films, using a mix of free improvisation and material created in advance. InTune spoke with Rapsis, whose August 23 presentation will focus on Buster Keaton’s classic 1924 film Sherlock, Jr., about his work and the art of improvising to silent films. (Note: This interview has been edited for length.)
InTune: Outside of film musicals, where the songs that drive plot become familiar, many moviegoers may not consciously be attentive to film scoring. In your case, you are performing live, often where an audience can see you. Do you feel this adds to the recognition of the importance of the score to the narrative?
Rapsis: In silent cinema, music makes a vital contribution to the overall experience. It can function as an unseen narrator who helps tell the story or signals shifts of tone or pacing — a role that's even more important if an audience is unfamiliar with the visual world of silent cinema. In terms of visibility, however, as an accompanist, I prefer to remain out of the picture. Once the lights go down, the job of the musician is to serve the story and bring the film to life. If this is done well, the accompanist can seem to disappear as an audience gets absorbed in the on-screen world unfolding before them. Sometimes venues arrange for me to sit up on stage as I accompany — maybe even with a light on me while the film is running, as if I'm the main attraction. I always ask for this to be changed. Put me down below in the pit, or off to the side. I wear black because it promotes invisibility, and because it's slimming.
InTune: Your performances are live and in-the-moment, set to a film that may be close to 100 years old. Are you working to make silent films relevant for today, or bring listeners back to a place in time?
Rapsis: Different approaches exist on this subject. Some accompanists specialize in researching and recreating what a theater combo or organist might have played to accompany a film in the 1920s, and then compile and edit scores based on that existing material. It's a form of musical archaeology and they do a great job, and it's not easy because almost everything was thrown away. My method is driven by the desire to create my own music to bring a film to life. I prefer to acknowledge that movie-goers today have all been exposed to nearly a century of film scoring technique, and even non-musicians have certain expectations about what music should do when you enter a movie theater. In creating music for silent films, I try to draw upon this vocabulary to help a movie from long ago resonate with today's audiences. At the same time, my natural voice seems to be the musical language of the late 19th century, so it's relatively conservative in that sense, but then that seems to fit the era.
InTune: How much does original composer or filmmaker intent figure into your work?
Rapsis: Hardly at all, as very few silent films had actual written scores commissioned for them. But I do try hard to honor the original intent of the filmmakers, as much as it's possible to know. A lot of it is pretty evident from what happens on screen. But it helps to know the backgrounds of the directors, the performers, the studios, and the period. There's a ton of great literature out there about the era, and more is being published all the time, so there's a lot to guide you. Alas, at this point, there's really no one left from the period to ask questions or seek guidance. But I suppose someday I'll find out how I did, provided that Buster Keaton and I wind up in the same place.
InTune: How much of your work is preparation, and how much is improvisation? Are any two performances the same?
Rapsis: It's mostly improvisation, sometimes using themes or ideas I've created beforehand, but sometimes material that comes to me in the moment. If it's a high-profile screening and a film I've never encountered before, I'll check the movie in advance if possible to get a sense of the dramatic arc and any surprises. Sometimes, if I have time and a film merits it, I'll create a special suite of tunes and chord sequences to form the basic blocks for an effective score, and to add to my stockpile of ideas that can be used later. But I find that if I prepare too much, it's more difficult to work freely and effectively at show time. So, I've found limited preparation is best for me. Because of this, no two performances are the same. Even with films I've done a dozen times and for which I've created a set of well-established material, such as Fritz Lang's pioneering sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927), it always comes out differently. But that was true in the silent era as well — performances would differ from show to show, theater to theater, and city to city.
InTune: The Tanglewood Learning Institute is for curious people who are interested in learning more about music, the arts, and their relationship to our culture. What role do the arts have in people’s lives today?
Rapsis: In an era where entire worlds of music and other forms of art/entertainment are available in the privacy of one's home and with just a few clicks, I think it's encouraging that people still come together and value the act of live performance. It's a basic human need, I think, to assemble and share a common experience. And that's something we need more than ever in an age when so much else seems to divide us. I also believe that knowledge and perspective can greatly enhance what one is able to get from art. Programs such as the Tanglewood Learning Institute are terrific ways for people to satisfy their curiosity, get questions answered, but also to discover many new questions worth exploring. Also, the arts themselves cultivate curiosity — about the big questions, yes, but also about different lands and people and cultures. Where did this come from? Who made it, and why? Thus, the arts make us more empathetic citizens, I think.
InTune: What do you hope to express with your TLI presentation Music, Motion, and Emotion?
Rapsis: I hope audiences will see that the silent cinema was not a primitive ancestor of today's visual entertainment, with scratched-up blurry images accompanied by that undying stereotype, the out-of-tune piano. Rather, it was an entirely different art form of visual story-telling, accompanied by music, that flourished for only a very short time before being made obsolete by technology and changing public tastes. At its peak, the silent cinema gave us intense and truly universal narratives driven by basic human emotions: love, hate, fear, joy, despair, and more. Like opera, silent film dealt in the big emotions we all experience no matter what era we live in, and so has much to show us today if we let it. I find that silent film at its best gives me something that no other art form does, and I find it deeply satisfying to share that with others as they discover it for themselves.
Music, Motion, and Emotion with Jeff Rapsis will take place August 23 at 2:30pm, as part of TLI Film Weekend. For more information about Rapsis’ presentation, and the rest of the Film Weekend, visit tli.org.