Sunday, April 1, 2018

April Fool's Day rewinding, fast forwarding:
Past projects, future possibilities

Recording music last month for videos supporting 'The White Mountain,' a new book by author Dan Szczesny.

Back with a blog post after a long silence.

It's not for lack of material—the month just past has actually been full of projects and performances.

Among the highlights: a last-minute score for 'The Lost World' (1925) at the annual 24-hour Boston Sci-Fi Marathon. (At left is a photo by Tony Joe Stemme of me taking a bow); and music for Nazimova's 'Camille' (1921) at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, for which I channeled my inner Rachmaninoff.

Rather, it's more lack of time. With so much going on, there's rarely a chance to sit down and chronicle it.

But as we finish up the first quarter of 2018, time to look back as well as look at what lies ahead.

In April, highlights include a spate of Buster Keaton performances in mid-month, including 'The General' (1926) at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

And the month ends with a particularly big challenge: doing music for Fritz Lang's two 'Die Nibelungen' films over a single weekend. More on that below.

For now, let me take stock. (Never understood this phrase—what am I, soup?)


In the first three months of this year, I've reduced the pace of live accompaniment performances.

This slowdown has been deliberate. It's not because I don't enjoy doing music for films, but because my schedule was leaving little time for anything else.

For one thing, as part-owner of a publishing business that's branching in new directions, my "day job" is more than enough to keep anyone hopping.

Music does remain a necessary artistic outlet. But I need to balance it with all the other things going on in my life, plus leave room for eating (no problem there!) and sleeping. (Sometimes more troublesome.)

Also, I'm now making a concerted effort (pun!) to write down music so that it might be performed by others.

I had a great time putting together the unexpectedly large-scale 'Kilimanjaro Suite' for orchestra, which was performed last year by the New Hampshire Philharmonic.

I'd like to do more. And I find I'm now ready to take the musical vocabulary I've developed (in part by more than a decade of improv-based silent film accompaniment) and put it to work in written-down music.

In the past year, however, I've found precious few opportunities to make progress on a number of written-down projects.

The only recent non-silent-film music I've done was background scoring for some video work by filmmaker Bill Millios in support of 'The White Mountain,' a new book by author Dan Szczesny.

Filmmaker Bill Millios shoots footage during the 'White Mountain' recording session at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Nashua, N.H.

And although I created what I thought was some effective material for this, I never got a chance to sit down and write out exactly what I wanted.

It ended up as usual—going in on the day (or actually night) of the recording session and improvising based on the melodic and harmonic material I'd put together.

And it went okay, I suppose (I never like it when I'm recorded), but it was frustrating because I think the material would make for a good 20-minute or 30-minute written-out score.

Author Dan Szczesny and me.

And I could do it if I had the time, which I still don't, despite reducing my performance schedule. It's been an unusually intense time for our business and that's been taking me away from day-to-day music.

I have been making an effort to get out. This past month, I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Symphony under Andris Nelsons play the rarely heard Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which I think is one of the great 20th century scores and which I've always wanted to hear live.

The concert (on Saturday, March 24) didn't disappoint—in fact, it was so worthwhile I actually went down again on Tuesday, March 27 for a repeat performance.


Although recent weeks haven't been too fruitful regarding music, on this Easter Sunday morning I feel a kind of renewed energy. (Maybe it's no coincidence that it's also April Fool's Day?)

You know how sometimes you encounter something at just the right time? This week, I've had that happen not once but twice.

First encounter: It's a magazine piece from 2010, but I just found it now.

Hopelessly behind the curve as usual, I know—but BOY did I need to hear what author Heather MacDonald had to say: that we actually live in a "golden age" for so-called classical music.

Really! Despite financial troubles, declining attendance, and an ossified playlist dominated by dead white guys, it's an amazing time for anyone who cares about music, performers and listeners alike!

I'll let you read it yourself if you want Heather's full low-down. But one thing I got from her piece was the sense that there really is a need for new new music.

I don't agree with her that concert-goers or music directors will be satisfied with mining the archives for forgotten works instead of finding new music that actually connects with audiences and fully expresses the experience of living in our times, now.

Second encounter: This weekend the New York Times ran a profile of Saul Lipshutz, an astonishing violin prodigy who gave up on music at age 16. Fifty years later, the Times tracked him down.

It's a terrific read. And it was especially interesting to me because of what Lipshutz did. Facing the classical music infrastructure at an early age, rejected almost as if by instinct. He said he didn't want to be "a trained monkey."

I felt a shock of recognition. I'm no prodigy, but even as I was sensing a growing passion for music in my high school years, something about pursuing it at the university level put me off.

For one thing, it was lack of confidence in my own talent. Not to make too much of this, but I once heard a high school music teacher, not knowing I was standing behind him, as "That Jeffrey would light the world on fire—if he only had a match!"

Wow! But more significantly, I sensed that with the academic study of music, something was off. Composition departments at schools like Boston University seemed full of teachers and students devoted to atonalism, serialism, and other 'isms' that left me cold.

So I majored in English and went into journalism and publishing, steering clear of the classical music infrastructure that seemed so daunting to Saul Lipshutz, although for other reasons.

And here it is, three decades later, and I've found my own extremely unorthodox path to where I feel I'm ready to do music that I want to do, and I'm just not hearing from anyone else.

Rather than continue to stay away, I've come back to it having never been put through the process of whatever the classical music infrastructure would have done.

It wasn't like I chose the road less traveled. Instead, I've bushwhacked my way through a ragged landscape with no road at all. And with apologies to Robert Frost, will that make any difference?

Time will tell—and I hope to devote more of it to writing things down in the months to come.

But upcoming silent film shows beckon, including a screening of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) on Thursday, April 12 at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.; Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Saturday, April 14 at the Antrim (N.H.) Grange Hall; and then 'Peter Pan' (1924) on Sunday, April 15 at the TCAN Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

The 'Peter Pan' screening is the first in a new series of silent films with live music in a terrific arts facility in downtown Natick, Mass. Housed in a former fire station, the Center for the Arts boasts first-class screening facilities plus a terrific grand piano that I hope to make plentiful use of.

But first up is 'The General,' so here's the press release. More about the other screenings as the days roll by.

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'The General' with live music at Capitol Theatre on Thursday, April 12

Civil War railroading adventure film lauded as comic moviemmaker's masterpiece

ARLINGTON, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

Acclaimed for their originality and timeless visual humor, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Thursday, April 12 at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

Showtime is 8 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

The screening, the latest in the Capitol's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he recapture his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great railroad films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'The General' live as the film is shown.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

With the Capitol's screening of 'The General,' audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

Rapsis performs on a digital keyboard that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

Upcoming titles in the Capitol's silent film series include:

• Thursday, May 17, 8 p.m.: 'The Black Pirate' (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The granddaddy of all pirate films, with Fairbanks as an athletic young aristrocrat who seeks revenge by joining the pirate band responsible for his father's death.

• Thursday, June 14, 8 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). Young director John Ford's breakthrough film tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad through the untamed West.

• Thursday, July 5, 8 p.m.: 'The Beloved Rogue' (1926) starring John Barrymore. Epic costume adventure based on the life of the 15th century French poet, François Villon

• Thursday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m.: 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman. Talmadge in top form playing two very different sisters in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

• Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m.: 'The Last Laugh' (1924). In this ground-breaking character study from director F. W. Murnau, Emil Jannings delivers a tour-de-force performance as a doorman in a swanky Berlin hotel.

• Thursday, Oct 18, 8 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). Just in time for Halloween: Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in this sprawling silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story.

‘The General’ (1926) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Thursday, April 12 at 8 p.m. Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit For more information on the music, visit

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