Had it not been for natural talent, Donald Sosin — now a composer, keyboard player, arranger, conductor, teacher and writer — is positive he would have abandoned music. He’s much too lazy, the pianist admits.
Emory University will be hosting Sosin, a critically acclaimed and world-renown composer and pianist, this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in White Hall, as he provides live piano accompaniment for the screening of silent film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” a film released in 1928 featuring comic genius Buster Keaton.
At the University of Michigan in 1971, Sosin discovered silent film accompaniment “kind of by accident,” he said in a phone interview with the Wheel
. Sosin was playing the piano in his dorm recreationally when someone brought in a projector and started playing a Laurel and Hardy movie. Sosin continued to play and ended up accompanying the silent film with a little ragtime.
This chance encounter sparked his interest in silent films. And when the opportunity arose to accompany “The Phantom of the Opera” for the university’s film society, Sosin developed a real taste for silent film accompaniment.
“In a sort of entrepreneurial move,” as he describes it, Sosin offered to bring in a piano to accompany Ann Arbor’s Cinema Guild silent films. He continued to do this accompaniment for the next two years.
“The silent film part of my work has taken me to places that I never dreamed I would go, like every year to Italy,” said Sosin.
In Italy, Sosin attends the largest silent film festival in the world. Sosin also attends the Boulogne Film Festival in July, a short film festival in Germany in April and May, and will attend a festival in Shanghai at the end of October.
“Who would have thought — from playing Laurel and Hardy in my dorm,” Sosin said.
In June 1972, Sosin struggled with his ability to compose new music.
“By the time I got to be a junior in college, I felt that there was some missing piece of the puzzle because I was having a great deal of difficulty concentrating on my work. I felt completely at a loss as to how to write music,” Sosin said.
When a friend recommended transcendental meditation, Sosin consented to go.
“I was very skeptical, but I went to a lecture and thought, well I’ll give this a try,” he said.
Since that summer, Sosin practices transcendental meditation every day, twice a day. He even recommends it to his music students.
“It had an almost overnight effect on what I was looking for in terms of being able to compose,” Sosin said.
Because silent film accompaniment requires sharp improvisational skills, Sosin uses Transcendental Meditation to access original ideas.
“I have to sit down and be able to access ideas instantly if I’m playing for a film I’ve never seen before,” Sosin said. This meditation process serves as a means to do so.
Sosin’s musical background, however, long precedes his foray into the silent film business. Sosin’s parents kept a piano in the house, and from the age of four onward Sosin started playing with it. And so his parents found him a piano teacher. At nine, while visiting his grandparents in Florida, Sosin composed a three-minute piano piece without a piano or staff paper.
“It didn’t occur to me to just take a ruler and draw lines on a paper,” Sosin said. Consequently, he used a typewriter, hitting the underscore key numerous times.
Sosin’s life has never been without music. He played for silent films at the Museum of Modern Art for five years, spent four years in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, provided accompaniment for many Broadway shows in the mid-'70s, worked as a church organist, led workshops in song writing for elementary school students and taught high school and college students to write their own silent film music.
“I love sharing my passion for music with all different levels of the public,” Sosin said.
With a strong background in musical criticism, Sosin also writes for The Lakeville Journal and occasionally for the City Arts Magazine in New York.
“It’s very important to find work that is spiritually satisfying for you. I’m certainly not the first person who has made this pitch, but it’s pointless to try to get a job for the money,” Sosin said. “If you have a strong desire to do something artistically, I think somewhere there is a place to pursue it.”
— Contact Arianna Skibell.