The Alloy Orchestra from left: Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller
Not so silent films
Alloy Orchestra accompanies three classic films at the Winter Garden
By Steven Snyder
For most people, silent movies are little more than grainy, black-and-white films that pop up on obscure cable stations late at night old fashioned images of exaggerated acting set to an old-fashioned, outdated piano score.
Its hard to imagine that this is hardly the way that silent films were meant to be seen. In the era of movie palaces and day-long moviegoing, silent films were brought to life thanks to a live musical score, performed by orchestras in the cities and organists in rural theaters. As the music matched the action on-screen, there was a sense of something spontaneous and kinetic occurring.
In recent years, the art of composing music for silent films and performing this music for live audiences has enjoyed something of a revival, thanks to an annual tradition at the Telluride Film Festival. Each year, the festival brings back a lesser-known or under-appreciated silent film, and for the past 15 years, the event has invited back the same musical group to conceive, compose and perform a score for the movie: The Alloy Orchestra. Comprised of director and film restorer Ken Winokur, vocalist and junk percussionist Terry Donahue and keyboardist Roger Miller (who also plays with the punk-rock band Mission of Burma), the group is best known for its unusual collection of percussion instruments found metal objects which they have dubbed the rack of junk that gives the group a sound unlike any other orchestra on the planet.
Its a modern sound, says Miller, And it offers a modern twist to this old form that audiences have really connected with.
It was a sound that first came together in 1991 at a Boston art house theater, as the orchestra mixed that modern percussive sound with synthesizers, keyboards, drums, clarinet, accordion and vocals for a showing of the Fritz Lang masterpiece Metropolis. As the crowds for subsequent Metropolis screenings grew, word spread about the group, leading to annual appearances at Telluride, which brought them to the attention of film buffs like Roger Ebert, who hailed them as the best in the world at accompanying silent films. Soon after, movie studios, silent film collectors and art house curators took note of their compositions. And in the years since, they have toured the world with prints of their favorite films and regularly return to New York City for appearances both at Lincoln Center and outdoor summer evening appearances at Brooklyns Prospect Park.
In recent years, the group has become so immersed in their passion that they themselves have started purchasing and restoring prints of lesser-known silent titles such as the light-hearted 1927 Rudolph Valentino melodrama The Eagle serving not only as the films composer, but also as its distributor and restorer.
And next week, as part of New Yorks Silent Films/Live Music series, curated by New York Public radios John Schaefer (host and producer of WNYCs popular New Sounds and Soundcheck shows), the Alloy Orchestra will be making a rare, back-to-back-to-back appearance Downtown at the World Financial Centers Winter Garden, bringing with them a trio of amazing silent films.
The three-day stand offers a rare treat for New York City movie fans, not only due to Alloys long stay (they typically perform only once in a city before moving on), but also due to the surprising mix of films that have chosen for the engagement a series that shows the groups full musical range.
Wednesday night, accompanying Alfred Hitchcocks final silent film, Blackmail (1929), is Alloy at its most subdued and brooding. A movie about a murder and sordid love affair, Blackmail tells the story of a woman who wants to leave her boyfriend and whose rendezvous with another man evolves into a disaster.
Thursday night, The Eagle (1925) offers up a tale of unrequited love. Generally considered to be movie star Rudolph Valentinos best work, the film features him as a Cossack who becomes a superhero of sorts, sporting a black mask and rejecting the advances of a would-be lover so he can avenge his fathers death. The light-hearted movie finds the orchestra at its most whimsical, balancing out the percussion with light-hearted clarinet and amusing accordion melodies.
And Friday night, the orchestra lets loose with perhaps its most explosive and bombastic accompaniment as they play along to Buster Keatons 1926 comedic epic The General, one of the greatest films ever made, about a train conductor who unwittingly finds himself the Confederacys last great hope against a surprise attack from the Union army. That films classic image of Keaton riding on the front of a train is also one of Alloys most memorable moments.
The three films offer the full range of what we can do, Miller says, So its not just a sampling of silent films, but a sampling of the orchestra itself.