Silent’s Songs: Keeping Alive an Old Hollywood Tradition

Jan 28, 2018

Jeff Rapsis is a silent film accompanist, bringing sound to old Hollywood masterpieces.
Credit Courtesy

Jeff Rapsis is a hard man to shut up once he gets going on his favorite subject. Ask him about how silent movies used to be staged, and Rapsis overwhelms you with information, a walking Wikipedia entry with actor anecdotes and deep history at his fingertips. He’s been into the genre since he was a kid growing up in Nashua.

“And so the film and the music, to me, were like peanut butter and chocolate. It was two things that I always loved, and you put them together and it is even better,” he says.

  [Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.]

Rapsis is a silent film accompanist--one of a few dozen performers around the country who specialize in playing alongside early Hollywood masterpieces. Last year, he performed more than 130 shows around the country, as well as in Europe. That’s despite this being a hobby: Rapsis earns his living as co-owner of the Hippo Press weekly newspaper, based in Manchester.

I caught up with him on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy just before an evening performance of a great Charlie Chaplin movie.

“Nobody called them silent movies,” he says. “When they were new, people just saw them as the movies. They were pictures that moved, and the music was part of it. Live music being played in the theater, it was all part of the experience.”

In the very early film days, music helped drown out the clicking of projectors, but sound quickly grew into an important part of moviemaking. Single performers or sometimes entire orchestras would accompany a screening.

Rapsis warming up the crowd inside Phillips Church, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Eventually, film studios did begin sending out recommended songs for musicians to play, but Rapsis says they were often ignored: performers wanted to improvise. That means an audience in New England likely heard a radically different score than one in, say, New Orleans.

Spontaneity is still important to Rapsis. This evening, he’s performing alongside Chaplin’s 1921 film The Kid. He guesses he’s seen it at least 20 times, but that doesn’t mean he plays it the same way every time.  

“There is always something different about it,” he says. “The audience could be different, I could have had a fight with my wife, it could have been anything that creates a different matrix of emotions that leads to music being different each time as the appropriate way to do it.”

At showtime, the lights dim, and all eyes are on Rapsis, who sits at the front of the audience.

He begins working the keys, filling the big room with sound as the opening credits roll. The attention isn’t on Rapsis for long, though, as Chaplin and the actors and the plot take over. The music is still there, but Rapsis, in a way, isn’t.

“Most accompanists would find it to be the highest of compliments to be told afterwards by an audience member, ‘I forgot you were even playing.’”

Like a ballet, it’s not the band but the dancers who take center-stage. Music and motion working together to tell a story.

(Rapsis keeps up a busy performance schedule. You can follow his upcoming events at jeffrapsis.com.)