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The Sounds of Silents… Silent Films That Is

July 26, 2019

This year’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival open house features silent films accompanied by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. Learn more about how they create this special music.

The idea of offering silent films as part of this year’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival annual Open House initially seems strange. Silent films at a festival devoted to chamber music? Hmmm.

It all comes together, however, with a closer look at the program, which features pianist/composer Donald Sosin and his wife, singer Joanna Seaton. The musical duo from Lakeville, Connecticut, have made a career of creating music specifically for silent films and performing around the world.

At the open house on Sunday, August 4, the couple will accompany silent film comedies by Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin. The movies, which are part of a day-long celebration that includes an ice cream social, children’s games and musical performances by Norfolk Fellows, begin at 2. All the events are free.

The day’s finale event will feature three shorts: Get Out and Get Under, Laurel and Hardy in Battle of the Century, and Charlie Chaplin in The Count

In Get Out and Get Under, the main character is having trouble with his Model T. “That leads to all kinds of car noises and music,” Sosin says, including a 1913 song called “Get Out and Get Under.”

Battle of the Century involves a boxing match and what Sosin says was the world’s biggest filmed cream pie fight when it was made. “In some performances, presenters actually have cream pie fights with the audience,” says Sosin, who wrote a film score for an 8-piece band for the movie. 

The Count was created in 1916. Sosin wrote his score about four years ago for string quartet, bass and piano. Norfolk Fellows will join Sosin in accompanying the films. “We may sing a few songs also before the films,” Sosin says. “We teach people the chorus. It makes it seems like a very old-fashioned event.”

Sosin got interested in silent movie music while a graduate student in Ann Arbor. He was playing ragtime in his dorm one night and someone brought in Laurel and Hardy on the projector. “I just kept playing,” he says. Not long after he performed for Phantom of the Opera for an event, which in turn led to a longtime gig at the Museum of Modern Art for its silent film series.

Initially Seaton, a professional singer who had a long career in musical theater in New York, would sing before the movies began. Now she’s writing her own songs and adding them to film as it seems appropriate. Seaton also provides percussion and sound effects. 

Today Sosin and Seaton travel around the world, performing for films and giving workshops on how to write for silent films. “There’s a worldwide scene that’s under the radar,” says Seaton. 

Silent films often have more than one more score. If the film went to small theaters in small towns orchestras were too expensive so local pianists did the music. As the silent era progressed, studios got more concerned about controlling the music so they hired people to either compose scores, which were sent out with the films, or they sent cue sheets with suggested songs that people might have in their music library. Today as people are restoring films, they’re hiring composers to write new music. 

The Jazz Singer was the first movie to have sound printed on the film stock, Sosin Says. “After that things changed very quickly,” he says. “Over 30,000 American musicians lost their jobs overnight playing for films.” Typical movie orchestras had 12 members, while in larger cities like New York City and Los Angeles orchestras with 60 members were not uncommon.

The resurgence in silent films started in the ‘70s but continues to grow in popularity. “Silent film is more popular today than 25 years ago,” Sosin says, noting that the digital world has actually helped in that resurgence. “There are new techniques to reformat them and restore terrible prints. From a historical and sociological point of view people have started paying attention.” 

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.