The horror thriller film A Quiet Place premiered in 2018 to both critical acclaim and box office success. Legendary author Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about the genre, sent out praise for the John Krasinski film in a tweet: “A QUIET PLACE is an extraordinary piece of work. Terrific acting, but the main thing is the SILENCE, and how it makes the camera’s eye open wide in a way few movies manage.”
Silence in a film in 2018 is a choice, and a particularly brave one at that. A hundred years ago there was no option. But that’s not to say attending a movie in the early 20th century was akin to sitting in a library. Usually a pianist or orchestra would play, planned or improvised, along with the film to complement the pictures moving on the screen. A hundred years later husband-and-wife team Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton of Lakeville are at the forefront of the not-so-forgotten art form of playing music to accompany silent films.
“Without speech, without having to focus on what people are saying, I think the brain is acting in a different way, and it slips into this almost-like-dream state,” Sosin says. “You’re listening to the music, and everybody knows how music can just sort of take you somewhere else. And then you’re watching a close-up of Greta Garbo or Rudolph Valentino, and you have an orchestra or the two of us or somewhere in between. It’s a very cool experience.”
Sosin, a pianist, and Seaton, an actor and vocalist, will perform at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for the first time on Aug. 4 in the Music Shed on the grounds of the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate in Norfolk. The free show will feature Sosin and Seaton providing the audio enjoyment for three classic comedy short films featuring Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.
Sosin says he has played for over 4,000 films since his introduction to the genre in his dorm at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. He was playing piano one night and another student set up a Laurel and Hardy movie on a projector. Nowadays Sosin and Seaton will watch a film numerous times before composing the music. Seaton says that as an actor she would have to read a play over and over to understand the material, and it’s no different when making music. “For us, the film influences our music 100 percent,” Seaton says. “We’re very careful about the music that we choose to go with the films.”
Theater people before they were film people, the two first met at a show on 42nd Street in New York City. They eventually moved to Connecticut in 1990. “All of that really prepared us for being good interpreters of film,” Seaton says. “We’re very keyed into what’s going on in the emotional life of the film. We’re always looking for the subtext. Of course with silent film you don’t have anyone talking, so your music becomes really important. What you play for the film can either add to it or take away from it, and we really try to support the intention of the filmmaker and give it a new life.”
However, sometimes Sosin is tasked with playing along with films he has yet to see. He says it takes a few minutes to figure out the story, to feel the mood. At the time of this interview the couple had just returned from Thailand and was packing for Italy. Sosin was scheduled for eight shows in Bologna the following week. He didn’t know a single film for which he’d be playing. “They’ll say, ‘Well, we didn’t have time to get a screener. So it’s about a guy who’s in a bar and meets a girl, you know.’ So I’ll sit down and I’ll have to play for an hour and a half and just make it up as I go along,” Sosin says.
When given time to prepare, they sometimes hire lip-readers. Seaton recounts a particular evening when they were performing for one of D.W. Griffith’s final films and the actress on screen was singing a song. Through intense study Seaton was able to sync with the woman in the film. “It seemed as if she came alive and was actually singing to the audience,” Seaton says. “It created a very emotional moment.”
The art form went through a resurgence in the 1990s because of newfound restorative abilities. Copies began to circulate, college film departments got more serious, people did research and wrote about silent films and festivals started. New generations are being trained in the art of writing and performing music for silent films, with Sosin and Seaton again at the forefront. They’ve conducted workshops across the country and here at home in the Darien public schools.
“We’re fortunate to be in an area where there’s more than a little interest in silent films,” Sosin says. “We’ve played at Yale a lot, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, at the Hill-Stead Museum, Manchester Community College, a lot of local libraries, schools. So this is a very culturally aware area and we’re delighted to be invited to perform at the Norfolk Festival.”