Musician Provides Accompaniment To Silent Films

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(Host)  This weekend, the Brandon Town Hall will show the silent film classic The General, starring – Buster Keaton.

Jeff Rapsis, a Manchester, New Hampshire composer will provide a musical accompaniment. Rapsis performs throughout northern New England and says even though the films of the 1920s were called silent movies – they were never meant to be.

(Rapsis) "That’s right – Silent film – it was never silent, it always intended to be shown with music.    I grew up watching TV and you’d see Dudley Do-right – on the cartoons – and he music was supposed to represent what might be silent music – so it was all like. "

(piano music)

(Rapsis) Just rinky tink piano stuff. And so all of us have that kind of in our bones thinking that was what they played for silent film music. But that’s not the case at all. Most silent films were shown with at least a small group of musicians – even the smallest theater would have a pianist yes, but also a violinist, a percussionist and a trumpet player


(Rapsis) "This is a Chord Triton LE digital synthesizer and what it allows me to do is to reproduce the texture of the full orchestra – in a way that I think helps the films come to life.One person, now with digital synthesizer can do a lot to recreate the sounds of a full orchestra."


(Rapsis) "Live music is an especially important part of the silent film experience. Because it’s literally being made up as I sit here with the audience and watch the music. And there’s a special kind of energy and excitement that comes from that. The music that I play is somewhat different than what would be played in the 1920 when these films were first being shown. But what you have to remember is that we have several generations of music in our brains and for us to sit down and watch a film today we expect certain things to bring a film to life. So I do stuff that may have originally come from Bernard Herrmann – who was not around I the 1920s but that scene in the shower in Psycho with the high strings squealing out in terrific dissonances – No one would have known what to do with that in the 1920s, but I do that in moments to make the film come to life."

(Psycho type music)

(Rapsis)  "If there’s something going on that might be a bit menacing – I can bring that to life by musically with a couple of low brass notes and then maybe some much higher stuff softly up above."

(menacing music)

(Rapsis)  "And it is all about supporting the movie – it’s not about me playing wonderful music.    I have to actually take into account the fact that if I overdue it, it sometimes inhibits an audience reaction so often less is more.    And the greatest compliment people can give me is when they say, you know, I forgot you were even playing live music during that and I’m so pleased to hear that because it means I’ve succeeded in bringing this film – whether it’s a comedy or a drama, or horror movie or western movie – because they had it all way back then – to life – Then I’ve succeeded in doing that."


(Host) That’s musician Jeff Rapsis who’ll perform this Saturday at the Town Hall in Brandon.  Our story was produced by VPR’s Nina Keck.


‘The General’ will be shown on Saturday, June 18 at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Upcoming silent film screenings at Brandon Town Hall include:

Saturday, July 23, 2011, 7 p.m.: ‘Tol’able David’ (1921) starring Richard Barthelmess and ‘Hell’s Hinges’ (1918) starring William S. Hart. Double feature pairing of intense small-town rural drama with gritty back country Western.

Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, 7 p.m.: ‘Paths to Paradise’ (1925) and ‘Hands Up’ (1926), starring Raymond Griffith. A double feature of two films from a comic actor who for a time was a serious rival of Chaplin and Keaton, but who’s all but forgotten today.

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