Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton

Music for silent films
Keyboard, voice, percussion and more!

The Sound of Silents

Donald Sosin Scores Big-Time

By Sharon Nichols

Mary Pickford lay sleeping upon the leaves of the forest floor, surrounded by little fairy folk, only moments before encountering her then-husband, Owen Moore.

She's playing the role of Cinderella and Moore is her Prince Charming. The year is 1914. This is a silent film, but not really so silent. The merry couple's chance meeting amongst the trees nearly a century ago is embellished by a fitting new score of synth, harp, and chant.

This charming version of Cinderella was released earlier this year on DVD. The return to the enchantment of silent film is big business these days, as more and more of these vintage treasures are being unearthed. What most people don't know, however, is where the music that accompanies the images originates. In bygone days, silent films were orchestrated with live instruments in theaters. But who scores these films when they're directly released into the marketplace or premiered to live audiences? One such composer is Donald Sosin, who lives in Lakeville, Connecticut.

"Silent films were first presented from around 1895 until 1929," says Sosin. "In Asia, they went into the 1930s because technology for sound films didn't develop there as fast as it did here. When all of those films were first shown, there was musical accompaniment, a single piano in small theaters. There was no way until the very late 1920s to synchronize a recorded accompaniment on phonograph. So any musical accompaniment that was done at the time generally got lost."

According to Sosin, many films were accidentally thrown out or destroyed after the advent of talkies, as were many scores written by major composers of the era. Only about a third of all the silent films ever made are still in existence, and they continue to turn up in attics and warehouses all over the globe. "Film archives are in existence in every country of the world," he explains. "They have a vital interest in finding this material and preserving it as best as they can, sometimes going to enormous lengths. I read recently about this film that was in such a state of deterioration that it could no longer be projected, but the guy who found the film went through and snipped about two frames out of every single shot so he could digitally scan them and restore the film in some version because it was considered to be of such historical value."

When these films are uncovered, they need new music, and Sosin and his wife, singer/actress Joanna Seaton, provide just that. Most contemporary silent-film music doesn't contain vocals (though popular a century ago), so the instrumental/vocal work that goes into these scores makes this talented couple quite unique. Sosin and Seaton provide both the live music for public film viewings and that for DVD releases on the marketplace.

"When people hear that we do silent films," says Seaton, "they look at me like, what are you talking about?" She continues, "When Donald was playing at museums down in the city, he felt there wasn't much of a future in playing for silent films. Then all of a sudden in the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of new work being done with silents, partly because of the change in technology. What's happened is that instead of allowing films to deteriorate at the rate they were, they can go back and reexamine these films, save them, reconstruct them. The field has just exploded wide open. So, instead of getting the few bookings that he was 10 years ago, he's now being called constantly to play for reconstructed films."

"Last year or the year before, a film that was thought to be lost forever with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, called Beyond the Rocks, surfaced in the Danish film archives and was restored and shown publicly for the first time this year," says Sosin. "Now it's out on DVD. I played for it live this year. That kind of thing happens all the time."

Sosin mentions another wonderful find, the so-called "factory-gate films." From 1909 to 1910, a couple from northern Britain photographed people coming out of factories at the end of the day. They would later take the films to county fairs and show people themselves onscreen, knowing it was a great way to sell tickets. These films were made by the hundreds, and seven or eight years ago approximately 800 of these alluring social documentaries showed up in pristine condition in a warehouse in Britain.

"Little boys are running in circles around the cameraman, again and again and again, so they would get into the film," says Seaton, recalling her first reaction upon viewing the film. "It was 'Wow, look at those hundreds of people in Edwardian costumes, aren't they charming?' Then I reminded myself, no, they're not in costumes, this is what they wore every day. This is the past moving before my eyes, seeing how they moved, the expressions on their faces, many of them very serious, coming out of factory conditions in those days, all dressed probably in shades of gray and black, every man and woman wearing a hat. It's historical time travel."

Sosin remarks that some of these films were shown commercially in New York earlier this year. "They're just so precious, particularly when you consider that probably most of the boys grew up and a few years later went off and got killed in World War I."

Sosin began his current profession 35 years ago as a fluke. He was in his dorm at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor playing piano for some dinner music, and someone with a projector put on a Laurel and Hardy film. Sosin started playing music for it. When Phantom of the Opera played at the university's film society, Sosin's composition teacher asked him to accompany it. Eventually, he was playing regularly for the many, many silent films being shown on campus. He got his early education in all the classic silent films from this experience, sitting down with a film professor who taught Sosin what to look for.

When Sosin came to New York, he befriended the pianist at the Museum of Modern Art and was brought in to substitute for him from time to time. Eventually, he got the job and was the regular pianist there for seven years. He later worked at the American Museum of Moving Image and played at venues all over New York, including Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The explosion of film restoration coincided seamlessly with Sosin's growing reputation.

Seaton has been in show business since her stint as an Ivory Soap baby, today holding a theater arts degree from Cornell University. She's performed in more than 70 stage productions, many of them off-Broadway. It was at one of these theaters that  she met Sosin. He began using her vocals before or after live silent-film productions, the first being a Charlie Chaplin film. Before long, she was singing over titles and in appropriate segments during the film.

When the couple performs live, they generally use keyboards and vocals, sometimes bringing in their 16-year-old son Nick for additional vocals. They also occasionally work with small bands or mixed chamber ensembles, taking the film's style and country of origin into consideration. Sosin has played tag team with other keyboardists, jamming and going with the moment. "I try to give the audience the best interpretation of the film that I can. It seems these days there are people who think that the music comes first and the film is incidental. Our approach is absolutely not that. We really honor the films. Some of them are truly great works of art and need to be treated as that. There's all this silence and I'm trying to enliven it. That's a very powerful way of communicating. You see these beautiful faces on the screen, and there's a spiritual quality to it, the fact that these people have been dead for so long. When I'm playing live, I feel I'm going into another zone, just channeling the music."

The music that Sosin channels has greatly changed over the years, morphing from honky-tonk piano to jazz, crazy electronica, and romantic orchestral scores. He's recorded more than 30 hours of background scores for DVDs in the past year alone. There's an enormous variety of films that come across Sosin's desk, a few of the more recent ones being Alice in Wonderland, several Oz films, and some avant-garde films that Variety magazine claims will rewrite the history of cinema.

Recordings and Live Performances

For information on recordings and booking live performance, contact:

41 Horseshoe Lane
Lakeville CT 06039
Tel: (860) 435-4687
Fax: (928) 752-3417