Chopin in the Dark: An Interview with Donald Sosin

Photo courtesy of Pamela Gentile

By any estimation, Donald Sosin has a pretty terrific job. “It beats selling vacuum cleaners,” he joyfully admits. As one of the most accomplished, in-demand, and highly respected composers and performers of silent film scores, his fingers have danced over the piano’s 88 keys in ideal accompaniment to beloved classics and obscure gems alike at international venues and festivals. He also frequently collaborates with a host of gifted musicians, including his wife, singer Joanna Seaton, and has written, recorded, and performed more than a thousand scores for silent films. This year, in addition to playing for Song of the Fishermen, The Good Bad Man, Seven Years Bad Luck, and The Sign of Four, he joins fellow musicians Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen to accompany Under the Lantern.

What is your earliest musical memory? My mother and grandmother singing Russian and Yiddish lullabies, as well as the children’s songs that my father and uncle wrote, which my wife and I still sing to our children. My parents were not professional musicians but were very fond of all kinds of music. I grew up steeped in it, taking piano lessons for many years and listening to everything from chamber and folk to theater and choral.

When I was 14, my family moved to Germany and I was exposed to classical and Gilbert and Sullivan, then Donovan, Ravi Shankar, and all kinds of other things that expanded my musical horizons. I joined a German rock band and continued to study music theory and composition.
Were you a film buff from early on as well? Television and theater were more formative than film in my early years. It wasn’t until I arrived at the University of Michigan that I began to see classic silent films. One night in my dorm room a friend brought over a Laurel and Hardy film and, just for fun, I began to play along, improvising some rags. I enjoyed it and told my composition teacher about it. He asked me to step in for him on a job playing along to The Phantom of the Opera, and that’s really how it all began.

In those early days, did you compose scores ahead of time or rely on your improvisational skills? I didn’t write out any full scores but kept notebooks filled with musical themes and continued to improvise on them. I was inspired at that time by William Perry, who wrote music for the PBS series The Silent Years. I wrote to him and we became friends and learned a lot by listening to his treatments of films like Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm, and The General. He had a job playing along with silent films at the Museum of Modern Art and asked me one time if I wanted to sub for him. Of course, I said yes and, when Perry moved on to do other things, I took on the permanent job. In a very short time, I went from being a student musician to being at the top of what you could do with silent films in the late 1970s. It was quite fortuitous.

Is the creative process relatively easy for you, or do you labor intensely over every score and performance? Before, it was like a faucet with just a little drip that I couldn’t get any water out of but, when I started meditating, whatever stress was in the way of the flow of musical creativity was unblocked, and suddenly the faucet was wide open. I still meditate twice daily, and when you spend that amount of time basking in silence and in the depth of unboundedness that is the core of that experience, then you can go in any direction. I’m able to play music that is stylistically appropriate for the 1920s or the 1600s, or for science-fiction films.

Considering that type of range, do you approach each project differently? My approach always depends on the specific film. Under the Lantern is the third Lamprecht film that I’ve been commissioned to score by Deutsche Kinemathek. A famous German drinking song runs through the film, and I knew that I had to use it as the basis for different themes, to create various moods. Sometimes I play it straight, and sometimes as if the characters in the singing and dancing scenes are drunk. I spend a lot of time counting beats, watching the dancers’ feet, trying to match the music style, tempo, and rhythm to the action as much as possible and not just provide wallpaper music.

The films I score are generally very traditional, so they demand traditional sounds. As a composer and performer, you might choose to go in another direction. Say you add weird ambient music to something like Broken Blossoms, you’re putting the music ahead of the film. Everyone has his or her own opinion about these things. I always try to be in service to the director, with the music being part of the film along with lighting, costume design, and all other elements. I think about the film much more than trying to impress audiences with, “Look at what nice music I can make.”
How aware of the audience are you while performing? It depends on the venue and the film. For comedies, if there’s a lot of laughter, my tendency is to play less, but if they’re not laughing, I feel like I have to be a tour guide, helping them get the comedy. With very dramatic films, where the emotional level is very high and you can feel there’s a lot of silence in the audience, I play quietly and let the film speak for itself. For many scenes in Under the Lantern, when the characters are just looking at each other in a room, there’s no need for music.

How do you deal with the often unpredictable variables of silent film? I like the challenge and pressure of working in a live situation. Frame rates vary from theater to theater and print to print. In the old days at MoMA, I had a telephone next to the piano and could call the projectionist and ask for the film to be speeded up or slowed down. With digital projection, you can’t do anything. If the DCP gets stuck, I try to keep the audience entertained with a bit of Chopin in the dark, or Beatles songs in the styles of different composers. The pianist, now as in the old days, has to be prepared for any contingency. Anything is possible in the world of silent film.