Monday, April 29, 2013

In which I accidentally collaborate
with The Drifters while scoring a silent film

I'm probably one of the few musicians who get compliments on working the "Dies Irae" into my performance. That happened yesterday, following a screening of 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, April 28.

Yes, the "Dies Irae" wound up being a helpful way of communicating doom prior and during the climactic flood scenes, and at least one person noticed the old tune from the Catholic Death Mass.

But then another woman congratulated me on how I used the tune "The Magic Moment" as part of the score. Really? I had just made up the whole thing right there on the spot, so how did she get the impression I was using a 1950s pop tune? I told her I don't really know the song, but maybe a hook in one of my melodies somehow reminded her of it.

When I got home I found the song on YouTube, and sure enough, there's a part of it that really does seem quite similar to one of my own melodies—specifically, the phrase that comes right after the title words ("This magic moment..."), which follows the scale up five notes from the submediant.

Well, that's what happens when you try to keep things simple. You end up accidentally borrowing moves from the Drifters!

Here they are—a magic moment, indeed!

I was actually quite excited about doing 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' with a live audience, as it seemed to have all the elements of a great silent film experience. And it did, mostly, despite a few unexpected things that came up.

First was the weather. After a long New England winter, this past weekend was the first one with A-plus weather since maybe last September. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the grass was green. (And had to be mowed.) So the last thing anyone would have wanted to do on Sunday afternoon was go into a darkened movie theater and watch a film set in the scorching desert. (Me included!) Surprisingly, we actually had a strong turnout of more than 100 folks, I think mostly because of an avalanche of pre-publicity in the local press, which sometimes happens.

Then there was the print, which was on a DVD released by MGM some years ago. While it looked great at home on the small screen, the image wasn't nearly as good when projected onto a big screen. I realize director Henry King was often shooting in direct desert sunlight, and so the contrast would be a little tough. But whole sections of the film seemed fuzzy and thin, and the tinting and toning seemed excessive, too. Parts looked really good, though, so I don't know what was at the root of this inconsistency.

And finally, there was me. Early on in the film, there's an extended party scene in which the Willard Holmes character (played by Ronald Colman) is welcomed to the desert community of Rubio City. Several shots of rustic guitar playing are included, so I felt I'd switch to an acoustic guitar setting for the entire scene, which alternates between light comedy and setting up the romance between Colman and Vilma Banky.

So I deftly switched the setting, and was then going for tenderness. So it was a real disappointment when I touched the keyboard of my Korg digital synthesizer, and out came a preprogrammed electric guitar howl backed by a driving electro-pop beat. It was like I'd stuck my finger in a light socket. Aaah!

I quickly shut the patch down and surfed to the correct setting, which took just long enough to really call attention to lapse. Damn! In the meantime, the movie limped on. It takes a lot of effort to help a film cast its spell and not get in the way, and here I went, throwing a sonic bomb into the mix to destroy any trance that had set in. The film soon reasserted itself, but what a bonehead thing to do at just the wrong moment—exactly when the spell was starting to take hold.

I recovered, and things went pretty well after that, I thought. But audience reaction was somewhat muted, I felt, especially at moments of comedy that King had salted throughout the film. The scene where Clyde Cook and Erwin Connelly tell jokes to an angry mob should have produced a lot more laughter than it did; likewise a post-flood scene where the Cook character flicks some mud into the face of E. J Ratcliffe as James Greenfield. (How odd to name a villain 'Greenfield' in a story about desert irrigation.)

I loved how the flood sequence turned out, with lots of musical drama and energy (yes, including the Dies Irae) swirling around and building until the moment that the raging waters finally swallow up Greenfield, when everything came together on one big unison D in octaves. Powerful stuff, I thought!

But again, not the big reaction that I expected. At the end, applause was polite but not momentous. Maybe I really did kill it with my musical gaffe, but I hope not. I think the story itself has some structural flaws: after the big flood, the Holmes character goes off again to tame the Colorado, and all we get is a title card reading "And Holmes won!" Kind of a let-down, dramatically.

Maybe it's because the Colman character's first name was 'Willard.' Perhaps the silent film community doesn't include a lot of Mitt Romney fans. :)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thanks to Kevin Brownlow for leading me to
'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926)

 
Vilma Banky and Gary Cooper in a scene from 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), to be screened with live music on Sunday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. 

A local screening of Henry King's epic Western 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926) this weekend (on Sunday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.) is due to none other than author, historian, and silent film guru Kevin Brownlow.

First, though, let me tell you that I'm eager to see how this film plays with an audience. I find it fascinating for many reasons—the location photography, the engineering and irrigation angle, all the period detail, and the storyline itself. Most interestingly, the main antagonist is none other than Mother Nature, which lends an epic scale to the proceedings.

But I'm never quite sure if my own personal enthusiasm translates into a successful film in the ultimate forum for silent film greatness: an actual movie theater filled with people. So we'll see. We just need a lot of folks to come out. So pray for lousy weather. :)

Update: The local daily paper, The Nashua Telegraph, has published a nice profile of me as a preview to this screening. Thanks to writer Kathleen Palmer for a great job!

I do have high hopes for this one, which I didn't know about until I had a chance to work with Mr. Brownlow during a program last October at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Kevin was presenting a program called "The Wild West and the Reel West," an evening-long look at how early Hollywood actually helped keep the old West alive somewhat by providing employment for old-time horsemen, cattle-drive veterans, and so on.

Kevin Brownlow and I at the University of Arkansas in October, 2012.

The program, built mostly from material assembled for Brownlow's excellent multi-part 1980 documentary 'Hollywood,' was in need of live music for a few segments. And so I was tapped for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with Kevin, a major figure in the silent film community who was given an Academy Award a few years back for his life's work, which includes restoring Abel Gance's 1927 epic 'Napoleon.'

What surprised me about Brownlow's choice of clips was how much of the film was not "historical" (meaning set in the past, such as in the 19th century) but actually involved contemporary stories set in what was then pretty much the present day. Yes, a lot of it looks like the "Old West" to my 21st-century eyes. But every now and then, you'd see a motor car among the horses and stagecoaches on Main Street, which made me realize these films were even more interesting to us today because they captured day-to-day reality in an America that was rapidly changing. (And it still is.)

It wasn't the first time I'd noticed this. There's a Douglas Fairbanks Sr. comedy, 'Wild and Wooley' (1917), that pokes fun at stereotyped images of the Old West, which even then were seen as clich├ęd. In it, leaders of a progressive Arizona town need to entertain Fairbanks, a New York banker with a romantic fondness for the 'Old West.' So they replace all their modern improvements with old-time bric-a-brac: misspelled saloon signs, etc. How surprising to my modern eyes—and perhaps even funnier now than it was a century ago.

But back to Brownlow. For his presentation, among the films he drew from was 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' which I'd somehow never encountered in a lifetime of silent film viewing. (Shows you how much material there is out there, even with 80 percent of it lost.) Turns out 'Barbara Worth' was one of the ground-breaking pictures that showed Hollywood how to do it right—in this case, how to shoot a Western in the truly wide open spaces, with backgrounds stretching seemingly to infinity.

This was achieved by director King's decision to shoot the entire picture on location in Nevada's immense Black Rock Desert, which stood in for California's pre-irrigation Imperial Valley. The entire cast and crew sweated out three months in the summer of 1926 to make the film under incredibly harsh conditions. There's a fascinating day-by-day account of the effort in the form of a long article by a Nevada historian who pieced together local news accounts of the shooting, which was a huge story at the time.

After seeing the clips of the film in Brownlow's presentation, I knew I had to program it. And thus we come to this weekend's screening of 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. There's more info about the flick in the press release below. But for now, I wanted to tip my cap to Kevin Brownlow for sharing his enthusiasm and passion for this still-lively and vital form of cinema.

FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Rip-roaring epic silent Western to be shown in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, April 28

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), ground-breaking outdoor drama, to be screened with live music

WILTON, N.H.—A film that helped set the stage for Hollywood's love affair with movies set in American West will return to the big screen in Wilton, N.H.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926), a silent drama starring Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, and Vilma Banky, will be shown on Sunday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to defray costs.

Directed by Henry King, 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' chronicles the epic story of pioneer settlers who dreamed of irrigating California's parched Imperial Valley in the early 20th century. Filmed on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert, the movie is noted for its extensive use of vast open spaces and wild scenery.

The story centers on a rivalry for the affections of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), adopted daughter of a powerful rancher. A local cowboy (Gary Cooper) finds himself competing with a newly arrived engineer (Ronald Colman), who has come to the rural valley to work on plans to harness the Colorado River for irrigation.

Will the local ranchhand prevail over the city slicker engineer? Can citizens of the parched region prevail over nature and transform their lands into an agricultural paradise? Will rumors of shortcuts taken in constructing a massive dam lead to disaster?

All these questions combine to create a film that showed Hollywood and movie-goers the power of a drama set in the rural American west. The film is also noted for its camerawork by Greg Toland, who would later go on to do principal photography for 'Citizen Kane' in 1941.

For 'The Winning of Barbara Worth,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he composes beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.

"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 80 or 90 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' is the latest in a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming silent film screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre include:

• Sunday, May 26, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926). In honor of Memorial Day: U.S. Marine Sergeant O'Hara (Lon Chaney) has his hands full training raw recruits, one of whom, 'Skeets' Burns, is a particular thorn in his side...especially when it comes to romancing nurse Nora Dale.

• Sunday, June 30, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Yankee Clipper' (1926). Set sail in the era of the great clipper ships in a thrilling race between American and British vessels speeding from China to Boston, with rival crews using only the wind and their wits to win. But will a romantic rivalry complicate the competition? Part of a summer series of seagoing silent films with live music.

• Sunday, July 28, 2013: 4:30 p.m.: 'The Sea Hawk' (1924). Swashbuckling historical adventure on the high seas about an English noble sold into slavery who escapes and turns himself into a pirate king. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini; later remade into a talkie starring Errol Flynn. Part of a summer series of seagoing silent films with live music.

'The Winning of Barbara Worth' will be shown on Sunday, April 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to defray expenses. For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com; for more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'Silents Please' series, 35mm with live music
to start on Sunday, May 12 in Somerville, Mass.


I'm ramping up to do music for several silent film series this summer, and I'm particularly excited about the one above.

First, the films are all great. Second, we're using only 35mm prints for this series. And finally, there's the venue: the Somerville is a terrific theater for movies of all eras, with a management and staff committed to the highest standards of presentation.

Yes, they installed digital projection to continue to run new first-run flicks. But they kept their high-end 35mm systems in place in order to continue to present actual film.

And that's what we'll be doing this summer and fall, in a monthly series that the Somerville is calling "Silents Please." We're getting prints from collectors and vaults and libraries and putting them in the care of head projectionist David Kornfeld, who knows how to coax the very best image out of anything on film, new or old.

In the next few weeks, I'll be posting a more material on these films and the music I'm preparing. But for now, I just wanted to post the above image because it's so darned impressive. Note that each of the dates is a Sunday, and that all screenings will start at 1 p.m. For more info (and to get tickets for the first show, which is on Mother's Day), go to the Somerville's Web site at www.somervilletheatreonline.com.

Hey, for this Mother's Day, give her endless images of a bare-chested Douglas Fairbanks!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A screening of 'Wings' at a small school
provides a big reminder of why I do this

Until recently, I had never heard of Magdalen College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Warner, N.H. But there I was this past Friday, driving up Kearsarge Mountain Road, looking for the campus, home to another silent film adventure.

I had used Google Maps to get directions, and at first I thought Google hadn't heard of Magdalen College, either, until I realized that I had mistakenly typed in "Magadan," the city in Siberia where the notorious Russian prison camps of the Gulag Archipeligo were located. Oops!

Thankfully, Magadan College was a lot closer—not even an hour's drive from my home base in New Hampshire. And yes, there it was: off to the left, a handsome collection of neat buildings on a wooded campus that looked attractive even in the gloom of mud-season twilight.

I was there at the invitation of Father Neil Roy, a faculty member and movie buff who's attended several previous performances of mine. At Father Roy's request, I was there to provide live music for a screening of 'Wings' (1927) as part of a "Faith and Film" Honors Colloquium that he leads.

So at about 6:30 p.m., I pulled up to the school's St. Paul's Multi-Purpose Facility and went looking for Chris, my appoointed student helper. He wasn't hard to find, as the school is small by design and currently enrolls less than 100 students. Everyone I encountered was friendly, upbeat, and actually called me "sir."

We set up in a large room that serves as a theater and rehearsal space. Instead of a screen, we had an immense white wall, which worked great! I wasn't sure what to expect for turnout, but the screening was open to the public and we did get a good number of "outside" folks. I think we had 50 people altogether.

And I can't exactly say why, but for some reason I was in the zone almost completely and right from the beginning. By "in the zone," I mean that place where I can draw music that seems to come naturally from a film as it screens. It just all held together really well.

I think it helped that the audience was into it right from the start. The comical character of Herman Schwimpff (played by El Brendel) got more laughs than I'd ever heard before at a screening of this film. And that audience engagement set the stage for the drama that was to come, I think.

By advance agreement, we showed the version of the film that comes with an intermission. (Those folding chairs can take a toll.) But I found compelled to keep playing (switching to a strings-only setting), even as everyone filed out during the break, leaving me at one point entirely alone! But I didn't want to lose the state of mind that I'd achieved, which would likely happen if I took a break or came up for air. So on I played.

What was nice, however, was that as the crowd filed in, I began incorporating scraps of Offenbach's 'Can Can' melody, knowing that the Paris party scenes would be up next. It really helped tie things together and worked well in the room, I thought. Once the second half began, things continued to go well, and at some point I got to that state of mind where I felt I had nailed it.

So for maybe the final third of the movie, I felt absolutely confident, and with that state of mind, was able to do more than I usually can. I found a little fanfare figure to intersperse among the busy "flying music" that I usually play in 'Wings,' which my wife later pointed out sounding like part of the 'Superman' theme that John Williams created. Hey, I steal only from the best!

But I was also able to do things like incorporate the "Teddy Bear" motif (alternating major and minor chords an augmented 4th apart) into the trimphant march music that occurs when the action shifts state-side at the very end.

And best of all, I felt, was how the very ending of the picture came together, with just the right sense of softness and wonder growing out of the themes that I'd been using all throughout the score. It was so satisfying to be in that space and sense that I had a clear path, musically, to a satisfying ending. Talk about faith in film!

I was actually confident enough to go out on a mezzo-forte held chord (A Major) in the style of the ending of Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony, something I usually don't have the discipline to pull off, but which seemed to be just right for 'Wings' on Friday night. But I couldn't help punctuating it with a final "button" to finally end it. Bang!

And then I just sat there for a moment, overcome by the film's drama ('Wings' never fails to get to me, even after a dozen screenings) but also feeling this wonderful sense of creativity and energy that I had tapped into at just that time, at just that moment, that had just helped make something that everyone in the room had shared. There was also the wonder that we had brought to life the work and vision of hundreds of people no longer among us. At the time, I didn't think this. I just felt it.

Such moments have become one of the reasons I do this. I savored it all for just a moment, and then stood and turned around to a very generous ovation. And with this, I was overcome in an entirely different way, which happens when you climb out of that very tight space (not unlike a cockpit) that you inhabit while doing a live score, and rejoining everyone with whom you shared this communal experience.

So it just all really great. It seemed nearly everyone wanted my card afterwards, and I wound up standing by the door greeting everyone like I was part of a reception line.

Leave it to me, an altar boy with six years experience, to finish things off with a dumb inappropriate joke. At the end, I noticed the Magdalen students were taking my cards in a very polite fashion, using both hands. So, in a jovial mood, I quipped something along the lines of hey, it's not the Eucharist, folks, ho ho!

No reaction. And thus I learned one more thing: that God wants me to stick to silent film music.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013):
A great friend to silent film


No film critic did more to champion the enduring value of silent cinema than Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at age 70.

Check out his writings. I know of no one else who spoke (or wrote) more eloquently on silent film. In many cases, he's helped me understand things that I otherwise would have missed.

Example: When it was time to show 'The Birth of a Nation,' I was looking for commentary to put the picture's blatant racism in context for screening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Here's what Roger had written in 2003:
"Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.
But beyond film, Roger had a sensibility that reflected my own, perhaps because we both grew up in the now vanishing world of daily newspapers. And so I find I respond quite readily to other things he's written. His recent blog post pondering at a family funeral, about how he might have been the only living person to have remembered and known an obscure relative in an old family photo, was haunting and beautiful and thought-provoking all at the same time.

There are two books of his I want to read. One is about wandering the streets of London. The other is his recent autobiography, "Life Itself," which contains passages such as this one that I found excerpted, fittingly, at the end of the obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times, his paper:
"“ 'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs,” he wrote, at the end of his memoirs. “No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Joan of Arc to Tillie's Punctured Romance:
From the sublime to the ridiculous


If I start showing symptoms of schizophrenia, blame it on silent film.

This past Sunday, we ran 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), an intense drama that was emotionally draining for everyone, accompanist included. Then, two nights later, we ran 'Tillie's Punctured Romance' (1914), the slapstick comedy feature starring Marie Dressler and a non-tramp Charlie Chaplin.

About all they had in common was that they were both silent films. Otherwise, it was like they were from different planets. And that dichotomy extended to the musical challenges that each film presented.

'Joan of Arc' in Wilton, N.H. drew an audience of about 50 people on Easter Sunday—an appropriate day for a film, I thought, that attempts parallels with the Passion of Christ. To score it, I stuck with strings only, to go along with director Carl Dreyer's intentionally limited visual palette of mostly close-ups. I thought that alone would help signal to the audience that this was something different, the same way Bernard Herrmann used strings for Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960). (I recall somewhere Herrmann described that music as "a black and white score for a black and white film.")

Complicating things was the fact that I had only just returned that day at 2 a.m. from a week in Mexico with my wife's family. So going into it, I hadn't prepared anything elaborate. All I had were two motifs that I thought would be enough: a series of rising chords that alternated between C minor and Eb minor, with added notes on top, and then a little downward cell of three staccato notes in C minor (D, C, G) that could be spun into something rapid or dramatic or whatever the occasion required.

Well, I should probably go to Mexico more often, because it turned out to be one of those times when everything fell into place. Somehow I was in synch with the film's dramatic rhythms right from the start, building up the texture when it was most effective and then backing off at what turned out to be just the right time, and so was able to create music that I felt really enhanced the visuals.


And I got caught up in it. 'Joan of Arc,' with its extreme close-ups and weird angles and stark visuals and abrupt cutting, is a film that really does work best on a big screen in a theater, I think. Seeing it all on a large screen somehow opens up vistas (and emotions) in a way that impossible in other formats. It's like the George Seurat painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which in real life is a huge thing. You don't get it by looking at a plate in a book. You have to go to Chicago and see it in person to get it.

So at the end, I was more than a little drained. We seemed to have a higher number of first-timers in the audience for this one, and many approached me afterwards with kind comments. As intense and rewarding as it was, I was left wondering if they thought all silent film was like this!

About the music: By intention, I did not listen to the Richard Einhorn's 'Voices of Light' oratorio that is often used for this film. I wanted to develop my own material and approach without reference to other music, as I feel that helps in the originality department. Now that I've done that, I'm looking forward to watching 'Joan of Arc' with Einhorn's score, which I understand is very effective and moving.

And then, two days later, it was time for 'Tillie's Punctured Romance,' the early slapstick epic from Mack Sennett's Keystone studios. I had never done this film before, but somehow felt that the full orchestral texture that I usually use for features would be too much. So, for our screening at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, I settled on a harpsichord and strings texture as a way to keep up with the film and not step on the laughs.


It's not an easy film to play for. In fact, it was a lot more difficult than 'Joan of Arc,' in that it was tough to hit the mark and punch up the comedy with just the right kind of music. But then, it's all slapstick, so you can get away with barreling through without missing too many moments. I recall telling people that 'Tillie' is comedy in the sense that in scene after scene, it's just any excuse for someone to kick someone else in the pants or push someone or throw something at someone.

I mean, when a film opens with a woman throwing a brick for her dog to catch, you get a pretty good idea right away of what you're in for. I watched and accompanied Tillie's with the growing sense that the story was not really about people. With everyone always fighting or bickering or finding any excuse to attach each other, it was more like dogs than people.

For Tillie's, I really did show up with nothing in mind, and had only watched the film on fast forward the night before (on my night off after 'Joan of Arc.') So off I went, and the Gods were not too cruel to me, allowing me to spin out a few fun melodic ideas right away and then draw upon them for the rest of the picture.

To my surprise, the audience of about 40 people stayed with the picture and actually laughed out loud at odd moments. I honestly didn't think it would produce any—an hour of slapstick is like eating the same flavor of ice cream every day for a month. But then again, a few moments that I felt sure would produce a reaction fell flat—for instance, the scene in the movie theater when it turns out Charlie and Mabel Normand are sitting next to a guy wearing a badge. It should be a highlight, but Tuesday night produced not a titter.


That man on the right has a surprise under his lapel...

I then did 'The Mask of Zorro' (1920) in North Andover, Mass. last night, which is verging on too much. Three screenings in four nights after being out of town for a week. I need a vacation!