© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
Public Files Contact · ATSC 3.0 FAQ
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lakeville Couple's Musical Journey Into The Silent Film Era

Donald Sosin
Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, who are married, have written music and songs for about two dozen silent films.

During the silent film era, motion pictures were often accompanied by a local organist or a pianist. The player would watch along with the audience and improvise, creating an on the spot movie score for the audience's enjoyment. 

But many times, composers wrote music scores and songs for blockbuster silent films, and theaters in larger cities would actually hire singers a small orchestra to play along with the film.

Silent films were eclipsed by "talkies" in the late 1920s, but the art of improvising and writing for silent films continues to this day.

Lakeville resident Donald Sosin, and his wife, singer Joanna Seaton, have written music and songs for about two dozen silent films.

Sosin was a music student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s when he first improvised music to a silent film.

"It was a serendipitous thing," he said. "I was playing in my dorm one night, and someone brought a projector and screen in, and showed a Laurel and Hardy movie. And then after that, since it was fun, I did a screening of 'Phantom of the Opera.'"

Sosin's passion for silent films continued after school. He eventually became the resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art, and started writing his own music for silent films. 

Credit Facebook
Donald Sosin accompanying the film "The Lady from Shanghai" live in Bologna, Italy.

"When I began scoring films, it was mostly improvised," Sosin said, "and I would keep notebooks full of themes and phrases and so forth. Now, these days, things have gotten much more elaborate."

Take for instance, the recently recovered 1916 film "Sherlock Holmes," starring Connecticut's own William Gillette.

The film was thought to be lost forever, but a copy was found, mislabeled in the France's immense Cinémathèque Française archives.

Sosin was commissioned to write music for the premiere of the restored "Sherlock Holmes" at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival using a string quartet. His music was eventually orchestrated for a 45-piece orchestra, and was performed last summer by the Orchestra of the Odessa Opera and Ballet.

Sosin and Seaton admitted that when it comes to writing for silent films, the devil is in the details.

For instance, many silent films featured actors singing onscreen. Often, the songs were published and sold as sheet music to the public. For songs that were not, the couple will compose a new song, writing lyrics by lip-reading what's being mouthed onscreen by the actor or actress.

"So what we've learned to do is figure out what the singer is actually doing on the screen, and I watch her mouth extremely closely, and I match it," said Seaton.

On Sunday afternoon, the Salisbury Sinfonietta will perform two films scored by Donald Sosin: Charlie Chaplin's 1916 short "The Pawnshop," and Buster Keaton's 1921 comedy "The High Sign."

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.

Related Content