Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton

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

Playing Silent Movie Music

Interview with Donald Sosin by Italian journalist Stefano Vaccarino

When and why did you start playing music for silent movies?
I started in 1971 in college as a kind of experiment, and enjoyed it and kept doing it. I had been playing for dance classes so it was a somewhat natural progression.

Do you prefer watching the film beforehand or would you rather deal with it live?
I always prefer seeing film beforehand. Generally I will watch it in silence or play intermittently if I am getting ideas. I make a cue sheet and sometimes write down themes as I'm watching.

If you watch it first, is it only to get a general idea or do you make a draft version of the music? If you deal with it live, do you tend to improvise or are there any pre-established methods for your performance?
When I'm playing at sight I go on my gut feelings. I often am able to intuitively play music appropriate to the coming scene even though I have no idea consciously what is going to happen. I depend on the overall mood of the film and large backlog of similar plots from hundreds of other films in my repertoire to guide me. With avant-garde films and comedies, it's more difficult to play at sight.

Do you try to find out if a score has already been written for the film? And if there is one, do you use it or do you prefer relying on your improvising talent and ability?
If there is a good score that's been written, I am interested in seeing it. I also try to take the time to hunt down songs being sung, if it's possible, from clues in the titles or on gramophone labels. And if people are dancing or playing instruments, I try to match the steps and the feeling of the musicians. It's irritating to me to watch films where the music bears no relation to the tempo or mood of onscreen music (unless there's some good reason, like a dream sequence where a special effect is possibly called for).

Have you ever been commissioned for a composition to be published on videotape or other formats?
KINO commissioned two scores from me in 2002 ? THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and NOSFERATU. In addition I did a score for BLIND HUSBANDS, adding my own music to a long list of library cues from the original release. KINO also released Capra's LONG PANTS with my score. I have written music for films shown on TV and small documentaries, as well. And many serious pieces of music in all media for a variety of instruments and voices.

Does your approach change depending on if you're recording or playing live? How does the relationship between writing and improvising vary?
Playing live is much more fun, because there's the interaction with the audience. But sometimes fine details go by. Working at home at the computer, I have complete control of timing and structure, but often the spontaneity and freshness of the live performance is lost. That said, I have not spent anywhere near the time writing at home as I have improvising in public, so it's not surprising that the latter comes more naturally.

In composing or improvising do you prefer: creating an analytical structure which highlights the film's key parts with a sort of director eye; deal with the film as if you were part of the audience and be guided by your emotions; or do you try to find an ideal balance between the two?
Each film has its own requirements. Some films are highly sectional, others just flow. It depends on what seems to help the audience understand the film most. I find I play more sectionally now than I used to ? changing moods and tempos.

A film musician could be defined as a musician with a passion for movies; are there any other technical attributes that create the distinction between conventional music and film music?
Other film composers speak about the fact that film music is generally simpler in texture ? not so much counterpoint. Melody, accompaniment. Sometimes not even melody is necessary. I often think my scores are too busy. The film is the melody, the music is the accompaniment. When there's a lot of action on the screen, it's not always necessary to play a lot of music. Less is more. Conventional music, to get back to the question, has its own structure, with cadences, climaxes, etc. Film music is utterly dependent on the structure of the film ? how long each scene is, where things shift in mood within a scene, etc. It takes very careful work to make music sound natural and still provide a smooth, effortless, invisible (inaudible?) accompaniment.

Which soundtracks do you consider the best done in film history?
I like John Williams' score for Schindler's List, some of Bruce Broughton's music, Patrick Doyle, Barrington Phelong. And the oldtimers: Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, the usual suspects.

When creating a soundtrack, how much do the images limit the composer's inspiration?
Thank goodness for the images that PROVIDE inspiration. I have always responded strongly to outside stimuli for musical ideas, whether movement, lyrics, or chocolate. I find it much easier to structure music when there's something to work with. Writing abstract music is much more difficult for me.

Can a soundtrack be considered self sufficient once subtracted from its original context: the film?
Well, not really. It's like listening to an entire ballet score; that's why composers make suites of their ballets. There's a lot of repetition and material that only makes sense when the visual element is there.

Have you ever developed a theme or built an orchestration with which you were completely satisfied only to then realize it didn't fulfil the demands of the film? If so could you give us an example?

I have thrown out a lot of music in the process of trying to find the right mood or theme for a film. Sometimes my first impressions give way to a different feeling for the film; sometimes I come up with a better idea a few days (or years!) later.

When making a score, do you prefer writing one theme/melody for the film and then develop it in an array of variations, or compose a quantity of music as rich and diverse as possible?
Both. In THE SHAKEDOWN, there were many variations on a few simple blues themes. And that score has changed over the past two years since I first played for it, and will undoubtedly change again this fall when I do it in Virginia.

Are there any genres, directors or actors that best fit your musical style? Are there any that do not match?
I prefer playing for films that are uplifting, where there is a lot of emotion, where there are fewer titles to interrupt the flow of action. I play in so many different styles, it really doesn't matter what style the film is. All are a challenge.

Is there a particular episode in your career that exemplifies this?

The typical program in Sacile or Bologna that all of us are faced with is a good measure of whether we are able to adjust to different films. To go from TARZAN to L'INVITATION AU VOYAGE to LA BRIERE to DR. JEKYLL is a big stylistic Tour de Monde.

Which are your musical reference styles and languages?
I listen to a very wide variety of music. I began playing classical piano at age 4 and can imitate the music of all the major composers. I enjoy playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Prokofiev, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Scarlatti, Stravinsky, Copland, Bernstein, Faure, Verdi, Joplin, Bolcom, Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers, Sondheim, Lennon and McCartney, the blues, gospel music, folk music, medieval and Renaissance styles, African, Japanese, Spanish, French cabaret, just about anything. Even country sometimes. No gangsta rap.

Which musicians, in film music or in other genres, have influenced you?
The above mentioned film composers, also Steve Reich, Shostakovitch, Holst, Stevie Wonder, James Horner, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman, Alan Menken, Frederick Loewe, Noel Coward, Joni Mitchell, Hildegarde von Bingen, Gerald Finzi, Gandharva-Veda of India (as performed by Debuji Chaudhuri and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasi), Louis Armstrong, Paolo Conte, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Deller Consort, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Winton Marsalis, Philip Glass (way down on the list, but how can one help but be influenced by him, even if you don't like his music?) John Adams, Carl Orff, etc etc

What kind of relationship is there between musicians and clients?
Are you always allowed to express yourself freely? Most of the time I have pretty free rein in writing music. With media clients sometimes they don't know how to explain what they want and it's a process of back and forth sharing ideas and playing things until they hear something they like. I have a wide enough palette that I'm usually able to come up with something.

Is there an aspect of your profession that you dislike?
Oh, the Italian food makes it very difficult to come home and eat the garbage that people serve in restaurants here. Seriously, I'm very lucky in my work to have steady employment, even though it comes in unexpected times and places. But there's always something going on. I don't like the fact that I have to spend long hours in front of the computer to produce soundtracks or communicate with the world. I do it and it seems like I enjoy it, but it makes me kind of spacy and weird. Ask my wife! I much prefer a good Steinway and a big screen to a Kurzweil and a monitor.

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