Local silent film accompanist embarks on international tour

BEDFORD – For a musician who specializes in a dead art form, Jeff Rapsis is one busy guy.

Rapsis, who improvises live musical accompaniment for silent film programs, is capping off 2015 with a pre-holiday tour of venues in the U.S. Midwest and Canada.

The tour finishes off a year that has seen Rapsis perform live music for more than 100 screenings of classic films from Hollywood’s early years, before the era of synchronized sound and recorded dialogue.

Using a digital synthesizer that re-creates the texture of the full orchestra, Rapsis plays his way through dramas, comedies, Westerns, thrillers and all manner of pictures from the silent era.

Most shows are at venues close to his New England base: in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, and at theaters in Greater Boston.

But December’s Pre-Holiday Midwest and Canada silent film tour will bring Rapsis to the Carnegie Center in Cincinnati; two shows at the Cleveland Cinematheque; and the Revue Cinema in Toronto.

The Toronto engagement marks Rapsis’ international debut.

"These screenings are a great chance for me to bring the art of creating live music for great silent films to places where audiences may not have had a chance to experience it," Rapsis said.

Rapsis uses no sheet music for his performances, but improvises scores in real time while a film is being run.

Typically, he’ll use three or four musical elements and weave them together to fit the film’s actions and support the mood.

"It’s kind of a high-wire act, but I find it’s the best way for me to stay completely with a film," Rapsis said. "When it works, it creates a bridge that helps modern-day audiences experience a film’s intended impact."

At Cincinnati’s Carnegie Center, Rapsis accompanied a holiday-themed program on Thursday, Dec. 10. The show included early silent film versions of "A Christmas Carol" and " ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas," both produced by motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison.

The Carnegie program was highlighted by "Tess of the Storm Country" (1922), a full-length drama starring silent era icon Mary Pickford that features a holiday ending.

In Cleveland, Rapsis will accompany Harry Langdon’s comedy/drama "Three’s a Crowd" (1928) on Friday, Dec. 11.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, he’ll create music for a screening of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s 1933 silent film "Passing Fancy."

Rapsis will finish the tour by accompanying Fritz Lang’s early sci-fi adventure "Woman in the Moon" (1929) in Toronto on Sunday, Dec. 13.

Rapsis, 51, is associate publisher and co-owner of the Hippo, a weekly publication based in Manchester. He’s a native of Nashua.

A lifelong interest in vintage film and music led him to begin accompanying silent films in 2006.

He has since worked to re-create the silent film experience for audiences in local theaters, churches, university classrooms, town halls and the occasional unheated barn.

To Rapsis, it’s worth it.

"These are films that caused people to first fall in love with the movies," Rapsis said. "And they still maintain power to entertain and inspire audiences, if shown the way their creators intended: on a big screen, with live music and in a theater with a live audience.

"Put those elements back together and the films come to life, sometimes in surprising ways. Because the stories are told visually, it’s really quite a different art form than what we have today in movies and television."

The tour completes a year that saw Rapsis perform in a wide range of venues from coast to coast, including the Library of Congress Packard Theatre in Culpeper, Va.; the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka; and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in San Francisco.

For more information, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.