Music elevates the power of silent film

donald sosinViolinist Alicia Svigals and pianist/composer Donald Sosin were scheduled to accompany “The Ancient Law” at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. The 1923 German silent film is based on a true story, in which the son of an orthodox rabbi breaks with tradition and becomes an actor.

With luscious production values and great acting, “The Ancient Law” relates the experience of great theater (Shakespeare) to religious devotion. We chatted one morning about live music and silent film.

DS: It’s an amazing story that people go nuts over, in a way that I’ve not seen before. I’ve played for about 4,000 films. This film produces a reaction that’s over the top.

EH: How does music relate to the structure of storytelling in film?

DS: In classical and pop music, there are different musical forms that are at the composer’s disposal. When you’re working with a film, everything has to be based on what’s going on emotionally and pictorially.

EH: What does live music bring to the experience of the silent movie?

DS: It totally enlivens it. It makes it into more than a film and more than music. It’s a unique art form. People really get into watching film where there’s no talking, where the story is told through images: through wonderful close-ups and the emotions of the characters. It’s more like watching ballet, where suddenly you’re seeing a story, but you’re feeling the story in a deeper way, because your intellect is not so taken over by having to analyze the speech. With music that supports that, it transports the audience to a different place. Then their brains can shift into another mode of appreciation,

AS: That’s what music does, it makes you feel. Especially with old films that are unfamiliar to most people, it’s nice to have a way to reach into people’s souls and bridge that gap for them.

EH: How does the audience relate to the style of acting?

AS: At one point the style disappears from your consciousness, and you’re immersed in the story. That happens very quickly in this film. At the same time, you can start to appreciate that style and its artistry. The acting style was different at the beginning of film history and drew a lot on stage conventions and traditions. It evolved over time to fit the medium.

DS: When directors realized that closeups in film would entirely change people’s appreciation (for how to decode what was going on emotionally) the performance style changed dramatically. By the end of the 1920s, all over the world, you’d see performances that are just riveting. From China, Japan, France, Germany and Russia, people were doing amazing things on the screen.

Then, of course, sound came in, and everything sort of dropped to the bottom, while people tried to accommodate the demands of that medium.

These days, most people’s experience with silent films is through Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and other comics, where the issue is just great humor. In this film, there’s a lot of humor, but there’s deep emotional stuff going on. By the end of the film, we have people coming up in tears and saying, “You don’t know what this film means to me. I saw my life on this film.”

We didn’t know this was going to happen. This was a recording project to begin with. We had no idea that this film would have such a great life in theaters, and that it would evoke the response that we’ve been getting everywhere.

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