Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

Talking about music, consciousness, silent film, Italian food, travel, good books, married life, kids, and more

Friday, September 20, 2013



Alfred Hitchcock cut his filmmaking teeth on the nine films he directed in the silent era. He quickly learned how to create fast-paced, visually absorbing dramas, and even produced some light comedies during the 20's. But the one element of filmmaking over which he had no control in those days was the music, which was left to the music directors in whichever theater the films were playing. It would take some time before he was able to hire composers who were able to translate his visions into sound. By the fifties he had achieved a level of sophistication in his films that was completely matched by the scores, by such Hollywood greats as Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann.

Listening to their music accompanying clips from several Hitchcock films at the NY Philharmonic's “Film Week: The Art of the Score” concert Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, I was struck by how much of the music harked back to the silent era in its function. Long passages of perhaps five minutes without dialogue and minimal sound effects drew the listener in, creating an altogether different feeling from sound films. One can appreciate film music in soundtrack albums but it's a pleasure of a higher order to see the images the music was intended to accompany. Great films and music are a combination that makes for a unique artistic experience.

The Philharmonic played superbly under the direction of guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, making his debut with the orchestra. There was no extravagance of gesture on his part, his motions seemed suave and relaxed, in comparison to the nerve-wracking tension of the chases in To Catch A Thief (music by Lyn Murray) and North by Northwest (Herrmann), or the climactic fight on a carousel gone mad in Strangers on a Train. The brass was in top form, and solos and duets emerged from the ensembles with subtle grace. I had heard some of this music played by a good Italian orchestra earlier in the summer, but the Philhamonic is in an entirely different galaxy.

The waltzes of Dial M for Murder, a Tiomkin score, were charming but the effect was less satisfying. In the film the music is mixed well behind the dialogue. Onstage with a big ensemble even playing softly there was no choice but to crank up the dialogue track, as the point of the evening was to hear the music. Dialogue became painfully loud at times. The emotional climax of the evening was the suite from Vertigo. For the love scene between James Stewart and Kim Novak, Hitchcock let Herrmann's expansive, Wagnerian strings take the place of dialogue. Again, hearing the familiar themes in this context was richly satisfying.

A special treat came in the form of home movies with Hitchcock romping with his family, alternating with his wry promo piece for North By Northwest, all underscored by Gounod's “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the theme song of Hitchcock's two TV series. Philharmonic host Alec Baldwin (at Wednesday's repeat performance Sam Waterston presided) introduced each of the film segments with a bit more restraint and dignity than the evening demanded.


Imagine a concert where both the performer and audience members are wearing headsets to measure the synchronicity of their brainwaves. Sounds like sci-fi? Not according to neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, author of Music, Language, and the Brain. He spoke on a panel discussion entitled Mind, Music and the Moving Image co-sponsored by the World Science Festival and the New York Philharmonic on Sept. 21.

The main attraction for the sold-out audience was probably the presence of the Coen brothers, Academy Award-winning screenwriter/directors, and actor/Philharmonic host Alec Baldwin, who moderated the discussion. But for this audience member, the most informative parts of the 90-minute event were the comments from Patel and the Coen's composer of choice for their fifteen films, Carter Burwell. Patel spoke about the cutting-edge field in "neurocinematics" being studied at Princeton, and the possibilities of films that could be designed to "take over the minds of the audience" through artful manipulation of sound and image.

Sounds rather Big-Brother-ish? But film music (as well as advertising jingles) has always been about engaging the audience on a subconscious level, starting with the compilations of the silent era and the romantic wash of Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, proceeding to the wide-ranging styles of Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, the sweeping orchestras of John Williams and James Horner, and the hi-tech sounds of Zimmer and Trent Reznor, the soundscapes of David Lynch, and hundreds of other fine composers including Burwell, whose scores for the Coens include BARTON FINK, MILLER'S CROSSING, and TRUE GRIT.

As a composer of primarily silent film music, I am always thinking about how the music will affect the audience, whether to speed up the tempo to help move a slow scene along, or create a counterpoint to fast-paced action with a postmodernist pullback of the tempo that can give the feeling that the audience is more removed from the action than might be the case with a fast, pulsing rhythm.

"The landscape is changing for how we measure responses to art,” says Patel. And it looks as though the rate of change is increasing every moment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

UPSTREAM, ORLAC and other silent projects

Just after my last entry I finished scoring 41 Mack Sennett shorts for Paul Gierucki that played on TCM shortly afterwards. Joanna and I accompanied the wonderful Raymond Griffith feature HANDS UP! at the Telluride Festival, and then taught a workshop for U. Colorado Denver students who collaborated with us to produce a fine score for THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. But right after that a bizarre medical situation put me in the hospital—a pituitary tumor, benign but scary—and I was forced to cancel my appearance at the Pordenone festival for the first time in years. Fortunately I was back on my feet in a few weeks, and have spent the past several months conducting three musicals in our area—JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, PETER PAN, and OLIVER! while working on the score for John Ford's UPSTREAM for the National Film Preservation Foundation. That lovely film will be on DVD in the fall, and also on TCM. And as I write I am on my way to Vienna for the premiere of my score for THE HANDS OF ORLAC, by Robert Wiene (who directed CALIGARI). Dennis James, the fabulous organist, had asked me to write this for both of us to play at the Konzerthaus, one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. We will rehearse and record the score and then perform on Thursday night. More soon about this!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

MIDI images, images into MIDI

Our son Nick noticed that the pattern of the MIDI graph I was editing looked like a picture. This morning he showed me his rendition in MIDI of the Batman symbol.
I told him I had done a project in 10th grade called Geometric Music, in which I drew various symbols—a square, a triangle, a parallelogram—and put them on a musical grid, exactly as a MIDI chart would have done, with pitch as the x-axis and time as the y-axis. I also charted an electrocardiogram. Years later I read that Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked on this idea also, crafting musical lines to the images in ALEXANDER NEVSKY. Peter Lehman in his book, DEFINING CINEMA, writes,

In looking at Nick's Batman logo, I wondered if anyone had created an app to convert images to MIDI, and lo and behold, he discovered photosounder.

Check it out, it's amazing.

There's also Nicolas Fournel's AudioPaint. And a reverse program that generates images from a MIDI guitar controller, also called Audiopaint. It would be great to take the Lumia Suite of Thomas Wilfred, a beautiful animated light piece that used to be on display in the theater lobby at MoMA, and hear what it sounds like. Although I used to enjoy just watching it in silence. Obviously the whole idea of looking at images and converting them to sound is part and parcel of my everyday work, but this is somewhat different.

After the Silence

Hi friends, It's been a long time since the last blog, due to some technical glitches. I'm back in action here, though I have posted various things on FB in the interim. It's been a busy year, with new scores coming out soon from Criterion (THE LAST PERFORMANCE, with Conrad Veidt, a powerful Paul Fejos film; from Milestone (CAPTAIN JANUARY, with Baby Peggy) and the forthcoming monumental Mack Sennett retrospective on TCM that will also be on DVD from Laughsmith. Every Thursday night in September starting at 8pm it will be nonstop Mack Sennett into the wee hours, and I will have a bunch of new scores and a few earlier ones there with these highly entertaining films, newly restored by Paul Gierucki and his crew. Visit our website at for details later this month. Have a great summer! D

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ESTHER, a one-act opera for families

Hi, it's been a while, and I'll have more to say soon about the festivals I've been performing at: Denver, Pordenone, and the coming shows at MoMA, MOMI and the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, but right now I'd like to invite readers to click on this link to my current Kickstarter project and pledge any amount, large or small, towards the production and DVD of my opera ESTHER, which will return to the stage next year in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the founding of Hadassah.

ESTHER Is a very kid-friendly opera, and tells in simple terms the well-known Bible story of a Jewish girl who risks her life to reveal her identity to the Persian king Ahashuerus to save her people. Watch a video introduction and hear excerpts here:

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Happy 90th, Dad!

Gene Sosin, May 25, 1925

July 24, 2011. Hard to believe it's been 90 years since my dad was born. He has lived through the Roaring 20's, the Depression, World War II, the Howdy Doody show (my folks got me into the Peanut Gallery when I was 5), Tic-Tac-Dough (he won some good money, then was a casualty of the quiz-show scandals as his opponent was fed answers), the Beatles (Dad donned a great wig at one memorable party). Owned an Austin, a Dodge, a Chevy, a Rambler, a few Peugeots, Oldsmobiles, He grew a beard and ditched it. He got a toupee and ditched it. But he never ditched his youthful outlook on life. He looks nowhere near his age, and though he walks with a cane a lot these days, his mind is sharp and his wit quick. He takes pride in the captions he regularly submits to the New Yorker cartoon competitions, and is a whiz at the Sunday puzzle on NPR, writing song lyrics for family get-togethers, and telling great jokes. He played bridge and tennis for years, and has a phenomenal memory for music, poetry, details of conversations and memories of the many trips we took abroad.

He and Mom took us to Munich for a few years in the mid-60's with his longtime job at Radio Liberty, and thanks to him and Mom we learned some German, how to ski, traveled all over Europe, went to innumerable fantastic concerts, met Rostropovich, Marceau, Jessye Norman, Stokowski, and other notables.

But Dad himself is notable. Born in Brooklyn, he was the valedictorian of his Flushing High School class, a Latin scholar, Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia where he majored in French. During the war he joined the Navy, went to the Japanese Language School in Boulder and worked in D.C. decoding secret messages. After the war he went back to Columbia and got a Masters in Russian, meeting my mom in a Dosteovsky class, as they have often recounted. After a short stint at the Voice of America, he joined the fledgling station Radio Liberation in 1952. It went on the air on March 5, 1953, coincidentally the day that both Stalin and Prokofiev died. In 1959 he resigned so he could go to Russia to do research for his dissertation on Soviet children's theater. Of course he got his job back; it was a precautionary measure, as he had been attacked personally in both Pravda and Izvestia!

Dad was one of the main figures at Radio Liberty for 30 years, first in programming and then Director of Broadcast Planning. Under his leadership the station broadcast in sixteen languages to the people of the Soviet Union. His book, Sparks of Liberty, is a remarkable account of his time at the station, which spanned the entire duration of the Cold War, and includes photos of the many personalities that broadcast on RL over the years, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Louis Armstrong.

He has contributed many book reviews and articles to such publications as the New Leader, the NY TImes, and the Saturday Review. But I think his most important contribution during his long lifetime has been the work he and Mom have done in helping emigrés, many of them Soviet Jews, many of whom became dear friends. Mom and Dad interviewed displaced persons for the Army during their first stay in Munich from 1950-1951, just after they got married and just before I was born. They were on the board of NYANA, the New York Association of New Americans, and have always been extremely generous and gracious hosts to dozens, if not hundreds, of immigrants and exiles.

No dinner at their house, either in Rye, Munich or White Plains, has ever been bereft of talk of people they have just met, or have corresponded with, or heard at a lecture (they are both intrepid lecture and concert attendees, sometimes three a day, in addition to having lectured in many different arenas themselves). I can't count the number of times my sister and I sat (and sometimes fidgeted) at the dining room table while my folks conversed in animated Russian (or German, or French) with the latest arrival, or a colleague from a university language department.

As a son, I have wonderful memories of our family trips to Florida, Williamsburg, and over to England, Holland, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austira, Israel, and Greece. I remember well our childhood games, from baseball in the back yard, to sledding down Hill Street in Rye and being pulled back up to our house at the top of the hill, which at one point gave Dad a nice case of bursitis. He commuted into NYC for many years and I would wait for him on a stone ledge outside our house, running to meet him when he walked up the hill. He told great bedtime stories, which I absorbed and then carried on the tradition with our son Nick, and am starting to do with our baby Mollie. Dad and Mom love being grandparents to both of them, and we have been fortunate to have them near enough to visit often these past two decades, sleeping over, hanging out, being fed delicious meals, and watching the latest clips that Dad has taped from his TV interview show, or an installment of Jeopardy, or a classic mystery.
Dad is always ready with clippings from the print media: the Times, the New Leader, and his comments are always insightful and informed.

My folks have been members of Community Synagogue in Rye NY since its founding in 1950 by my grandparents among others, and have been active in all phases of its religious and social life. Dad did not have a religious upbringing but was Bar Mitzvah at the age of 83, and studied Hebrew in adult ed classes.

His 90th birthday is in no way a culmination of his long, productive life, it's an important milestone but only a momentary pause in what seems could continue to be a joyous and fruitful life for many years to come, even, as we always say in our family, biz hunderd zwanzig yor!

Here he is at home a month ago, telling some of his favorite Soviet jokes at my request. Happy Birthday, Dad, I love you always.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Now or Never premieres in San Francisco

After three days of rehearsals by the members of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, NOW OR NEVER received its first performance Friday night at the Herbst Theater in San Fran. Conductor Ben Simon led eight excellent wind and brass players for the 40-minute silent comedy with Harold Lloyd, and I got to sit back for a change and enjoy the film with the several hundred concertgoers who came out on a miserable night to hear sublime music by Stravinsky, a lovely, delicate, new piece by Berkeley composer Cindy Cox, and then my octet. It went marvelously, and I heard that the next two performances were even better, in Palo Alto and Berkeley. Tonight they finish the series in Vallejo. I hope to have a recording to post soon.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011


Friday night I loaded the Outback with two each of Rolands, keyboard stands, music stands, lights, cables, one new lovely Groove Tube stereo amp, and drove to Yale for a marathon screening of Feuillade's 1913 serial FANTOMAS. Nicole Thomas, who is my new colleague and neighbor in NW CT, packed her lovely French accordion, drove down with her partner Malcolm and met me there. And together we improvised for something like 6 hours of intrigue, murder, robbery, and other dirty doings. An audience of film scholars and local folks filled the Whitney Humanities Building for the first few hours, and by midnight the crowd had thinned, but everyone enjoyed the event, which included a superb dinner, and many donned masks or beards and mustaches supplied by Prof. Dudley Andrew, who headed the weekend-long seminar. Tom Gunning spoke with illustrated slides about Fantomas at the beginning of the afternoon.

Here's an excerpt from the screening: video