The Music of Silent Movies: Interview with Donald Sosin

It’s a cliche that bears repeating: Silent films were not really silent. Music remains an essential aspect of the silent movie experience and a great score will elevate any film it accompanies.

Donald Sosin has been creating silent movie music since 1971 and his work can be found on dozens of home video releases. He and his talented wife, Joanna Seaton, perform live accompaniment to silent movies of every genre.

Mr. Sosin has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the art of the silent film score.

Movies Silently: How did you become interested in silent film music?

Donald Sosin: Someone set up a projector in my dorm in Ann Arbor in 1971 and showed a Laurel and Hardy movie. I happened to be there, playing some dinner music and TV show themes for fun (Leave It to Beaver, Mickey Mouse Club, the Flintstones, and other favorites of that era). I kept playing when the movie went on, switched to some ragtime or whatever came to mind. Shortly after that my composition teacher said he’d been asked to play for a campus screening of Phantom of the Opera, and suggested I do it instead, as I already had some experience. That was the beginning of my career in this unusual niche of the entertainment world. It has taken me to twenty states, to Italy every year and sometimes twice a year since 1993, to Germany and Austria and Romania and China. After Ann Arbor I moved to Manhattan and began playing for small shows, dance classes, accompanying singers, and eventually playing on Broadway and becoming the house pianist at the Museum of Modern Art, thanks to my friendship with William Perry, composer/pianist, who scored many silents for PBS in the 70’s, and was the pianist at MoMA at that time. My first gig there at his invitation was Wild Oranges by King Vidor, in 1973. After that I played hundreds of films of all kinds and also began playing at other venues.

Would you mind giving some insight into your creative process?

I owe all my creative work to the fact that I started practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique in college. Before that, I was really blocked creatively, despite my fumbling

attempts to write music as a composition major at Michigan. After I began TM everything got a lot easier and I found that a) I had lots of ideas, and b) I could bring them to fruition much quicker than previously. This has only grown over the years. I often have to sit down in a theater with hundreds of people in the audience, some of them film scholars, directors, etc. and I may be watching the film for the first time. I have to be able to create instantly and keep going for up to three hours sometimes, playing music that both fits the film and hopefully has some intrinsic interest.

What silent film score did you have the most fun developing?

Recently: The Count (Chaplin, 1916) Upstream (Ford, 1927) and Unter der Lanterne (Lamprecht, 1927)

Is there a silent film genre that you particularly enjoy scoring?

Improvising comedies is not as much fun as taking the time to score them moment by moment as I did with Now or Never and The Count. The piano improv I did for the Kino release of NOW OR NEVER is much inferior to the wind/brass version that I spent a lot of time on.

What do you feel are the advantages of seeing a silent film with live accompaniment?

First of all it’s a unique art form that takes an audience into a different place than sound films where there is so much verbal processing going on in the brain. A study by a Princeton neuroscientist reveals that the brain responds differently to music and image than to speech and image.

Secondly, live music brings an excitement to the screening that recorded music lacks, as with any live event, whether it is theater, ballet, opera, or a concert. As the musician, I feel a connection to the audience and a responsibility to help them enjoy the film to the max. For the audience, their knowledge that this is a one-time event (in the case of improvised performances) often heightens their enjoyment.

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If you want to learn more about Donald Sosin’s music and see a complete list films on DVD that feature his scores, check out his official website.

2 Replies to “The Music of Silent Movies: Interview with Donald Sosin”

  1. Such a cool piece. I remember the first time I saw a silent film was when our college hosted a silent film organist. I think we saw THE GENERAL. It was an unforgettable experience that I credit with really inspiring my interest in the silents.

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