There are many lanes one can take as a composer. You can compose for film, opera, ballet, symphonies – take your pick! You could also take up creating music for silent films. Though, as Donald Sosin is quick to admit, that lane is a little more niche than most.
Sosin has spent a significant chunk of his illustrious career, along with his wife, Joanna Seaton, creating music for classic silent films. From 1922’s “Nosferatu” to a slew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand films from the 1910s, Sosin has seen it all.
During the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Sosin will be playing the Plaza Theatre’s organ live along with a 1919 film called “Broken Barriers (Kahavah).” Based on the works of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, viewers will recognize the character of Tevye the Dairyman, who serves as the central character in the 1964 musical and later film, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The film is presented in partnership with The National Center for Jewish Film, who discovered and restored the film.
Ahead of the screening, which will take place on Feb. 19, Rough Draft Atlanta caught up with Sosin to talk about his path to silent films and how he approaches each work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To get started, I would love to hear about your history as a musician. Did you always know you wanted to be a composer?
Donald Sosin: I started studying piano when I was five, I think, and studied all through high school and college and became a composition student the last two years of college. I went to grad school in New York, I played for the theater. I started playing for silent films while I was an undergrad in Michigan and had the good fortune to meet the guy that was playing the shows on PBS at that point, and also, as it turned out, was the staff pianist at MoMA. When I moved back to New York, even before that, he asked me if I would start subbing for him, since he liked what I was doing. I became his replacement after he left MoMA in the late 1970s, and I’ve been working there ever since off and on. That has led to this wacky international career of recording and playing, and working with wonderful people.
Did you always have an interest in silent film? I’m very interested in how one becomes a composer for silent films, since it seems like a unique track.
Sosin: Yeah, it’s very niche. It’s not anything that I had never planned, you know, and my parents didn’t want me to be a musician to begin with. They wanted me to go into academics. But I was always interested in music, I just didn’t know what form it was going to take. I was writing music criticism in college, I was winning fellowships. I was courted by the New York Times, and I had to make a decision about whether I was going to be a writer or a composer – from their standpoint. It wasn’t a conflict for me, but for them it was a conflict.
I left professional writing for the most part, although I go back to it every now and then, and focused on composing. I was writing theater music, I was writing contemporary serious music, doing arrangements for Warner Brothers for pop songs, and then started, more and more, writing these silent film scores, in addition to improvising. What you’ll be hearing in February, that’ll be an improvised score in a style that’s appropriate for the film.
So, it’s just been this strange, sort of meandering career. At one point, my wife and I thought we were going to write the next big Broadway hit. We have written some shows for this and that, but nothing that one would read in the Art section at The Times [laughs].
I’m very interested in the idea of an improvised score. How do you do that live, and work within the style of the medium but still keep it fresh?
Sosin: Fortunately, I have an ability to play and compose in a whole lot of styles. I mean, my party trick is to take a Beatles song and play it in the style of whatever composer people want – Stravinsky … James Brown, whatever. So that’s never been a problem for me. I can read very well, so I’ve absorbed a lot of different types of music, from ragtime – which is sort of how I got started with silent film in college – and opera and ballet, and the whole nine yards.
When I’m improvising, I’m looking at the film, often just in silence, and just thinking, what’s going to work here? If it’s a comedy, usually I’m in some sort of an early 20th century pop style, whether it’s ragtime, whether it’s 1920s jazz, whether it’s some combination of those things. If it’s an avant garde film, then the sky is kind of the limit. Many of the well-known composers of the early 20th century were writing music for avant garde films – [Francis] Poulenc, and [Erick] Satie … People of that caliber were interested in this mix between music and film. That, I think, in turn inspired other composers, like Vaughn Williams and other English composers to get into writing film music.
Those are my musical touchstones when I’m thinking about what’s appropriate for a film. If it’s a drama, then it’s a question of where’s the drama set, when is the drama set – it is a Roman epic? Is it a Western? Is it a noir? Is it a Chinese film, a Japanese film, a Turkish film? Those are all the things I’m thinking about.
I was watching a little bit of “Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” earlier. It sounds silly, but I was very struck by just how silent it is. You don’t necessarily recognize how much music influences your mood until it’s not there anymore. I imagine when you’re composing for something like a movie coming out now, where the director is alive, there’s a lot of influence from other people. But when writing for silent films, do you ever think about what the director might have wanted?
Sosin: Yeah, all the time. I mean, we few who work in the silent film music trade – I joke that my work is good because I only work with dead directors. But I do feel a responsibility to think about what the director might have wanted. And in some cases we know. [Director] Fritz Lang worked with [composer] Gottfried Huppertz, who in some cases wrote the music for “Metropolis” before the film was shot. Lang was working with that music, so we know exactly what they wanted. We know exactly what [Sergei] Eisenstein wanted for some films, because he made notes about it, and [Dziga] Vertov made notes on the music for “Man with a Movie Camera.”
But, that said, some of the tropes of music from the 1920s and 1930s no longer have the same impact on today’s audiences, and even in some cases can be very cliched.
What do you mean by that?
Sosin: Well, you know – [Begins vocalizing] – like, Cowboy Overture, William Tell Overture. This kind of music by [Felix] Mendelssohn, and [Robert] Schumann, and [Ludwig van] Beethoven, whoever, found their way into the cartoon music of the late 1920s, the 1930s and 1940s. So our ears, if we’ve been watching those things for umpteen years, are suddenly taken into another direction. We think either of where I heard that before, or I’ve heard that so many times before, and it takes us out of the film and into some other space.
I’m careful, unless it’s for comedic effect, to avoid music that is going to be familiar. But at the same time, I think it’s important to give the audience some kind of a platform … something to hang on to so that they know where they are, and when they are.
There are contemporary composers in Europe, particularly, who would look at “Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” or some other Jewish film, like “The Ancient Law” or “The City Without Jews,” and totally disregard the Jewish content. To me, and to my frequent collaborator Alicia Svigals, with whom I have written three scores for Jewish themed films, this is anathema. We think it’s just perverse. Because you have people in a Jewish community onscreen, why would you not write Jewish music for them?
Do you find yourself composing for Jewish silent films quite a bit?
Sosin: Well, I have. I did a score for “Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” for the New York Jewish Film Festival in January three years ago. I could send that to you, if you’re interested in hearing it. But it’s going to be very different. A, because we’re three years later, and I’m a different person. B, I’m playing an organ in Atlanta, and I’m not playing a piano. So that just is going to produce different sounds.
I would love to hear that if you could send it over. I find it interesting how you can write a different score for the same piece.
Fox: It’s not writing. It’s looking at the film and thinking, what’s happening at the moment, you know? I may jot some themes down since I have a month [laughs]. I have two other scores to produce in the meantime, so I have to give those my full attention until I finish them. And then I can think about “Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” again.
I have the recording from 2020. I can use some of those themes, or I can say, well, I could have improved on that and do something else. My wife was playing tambourine and maybe some other percussion on that show, well she’s not going to this time. So that’s another thing that will make a difference between that show and this.
It’s also the fun of saying, well, what else is there? Let’s think about what I could have done, let’s try something else. There are films I’ve been playing for for 50 years, and I never play them the same way twice. I might use some of the same stylistic features, but unless I’m commissioned to write a score – let’s get down to it [laughs] – there’s not a lot of impetus to spend two months working on a film, which is what it takes in some cases.
You’ll be playing live while “Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” is playing. What’s the energy like in the room when you’re doing something like that?
Sosin: Well, depends on how much they’ve eaten. You know, it’s like in the theater – nobody wants to do a Saturday night show, because the audiences have all gone out and had big meals, and you fall asleep. Thursdays are good, Friday is sometimes good.
Audiences are different. Jewish audiences for Jewish films have a lot of energy, usually. And in this particular film, because people are going to come in having seen “Fiddler on the Roof” for a thousand years, they know some of this story. It doesn’t follow exactly what happens in “Fiddler.” No spoilers, but it’s different. It’s the story of Khava who marries Fedka, who’s a Gentile, and the problems that causes for her, for her father and mother, and the community at large. I think the audience will be very engaged in the film.
“Broken Barriers (Kahavah)” is playing on Feb. 19 at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre. The film is presented in partnership with The National Center for Jewish Film, who discovered and restored the film. Tickets can be purchased online.