Alloy Orchestra creates a radical soundtrack for three silent-film masterpieces

With everything from spoons to horseshoes, the Alloy Orchestra creates a radical soundtrack for three silent-film masterpieces

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      A fast-paced exercise in Soviet futurism, the original pirate movie, and a dark look at thug life, circa 1927: the three silent films that the Alloy Orchestra will accompany at the Vancity Theatre this weekend couldn't be more different. Yet they also have a lot in common. They're all cinematic masterpieces, they all set the stage for further movies, and they'll all be brought to modern-day life by the stimulating soundtrack music of Ken Winokur, Roger Miller, and Terry Donahue.

      “How do you create the flow? That's what we always ask ourselves,” says Alloy's percussionist Winokur, reached at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “How do you create the kind of energy that's going to really keep the audience focused on the screen?”

      Those questions have fascinated the three musicians for nearly 20 years, ever since they were first asked to provide a score for Fritz Lang's expressionist masterpiece Metropolis. They'd played together before in other projects (and, as a sound engineer, Winokur had recorded Miller's pioneering avant-rock band Mission of Burma), but it wasn't until they were faced with the challenge of accompanying a silent film that they found their real common purpose.

      “It was just one of those projects that we did without thinking too much about,” Winokur explains. “But sometime in the middle of this first show it hit all of us simultaneously that the combination of this powerful, beautiful 35-millimetre image with live music was greater than the sum of its parts. It was an amazing multimedia event, and all of us, almost instantly, fell in love with the concept.”

      Since then, the Alloy Orchestra—named for the assorted spoons, bedpans, plumbing pipes, horseshoes, and sheets of scrap metal that multi-instrumentalists Donahue and Winokur use to augment Miller's synthesizer—has scored almost 30 silent films, crafting a unique sonic signature for each.

      “We're very much slaves to the film,” says Winokur. “We really look at the film as our conductor and our director, giving us the ideas of what the mood or the pacing or the feeling of a scene should be. And that's what's great about it: each film is wildly different. We've gone from period music from the 19th century to the science-fiction feel in Metropolis, to a kind of film-noir quality in our gangster film, Underworld. Some of them are much more orchestral and some are percussive and loud, and it's all because the films themselves suggest that. We just kind of follow along.”

      Understandably, the percussionist has a soft spot for Metropolis, but he's just as enthusiastic about the three films that the Alloy Orchestra is bringing to Vancouver.

      The trio's two-day run opens on Saturday (July 24) with Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, arguably the first of the gangster movies that remain a Hollywood staple to this day.

      “It may not be the absolute first, but it became the template that other films were made from,” Winokur explains. “From the spinning-newspaper scenes that place it in time to the very stark black-and-white look, to the characters—the hooker with a heart of gold, the bigger-than-life gangster who's filled with charm and charisma, the drunk who tries to salvage himself—many absolutely archetypical elements were introduced in this film.”

      Given that Underworld is as much a sophisticated study of the criminal mind as a shoot-'em-up blockbuster, Winokur and his Alloy colleagues are taking a relatively subtle approach to its score. That will change, though, for Sunday's matinee screening of The Black Pirate, a 1926 experiment in colour cinematography that might look oddly familiar to fans of Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

      “It's a rollicking film, and we get to be big and hearty,” says Winokur. “I actually noted, once we'd written this, that we'd come up with a soundtrack that was beyond bombastic and furious to the point that we were almost making fun of ourselves, very much as [Black Pirate star and stunt master] Douglas Fairbanks was making fun of himself. I mean, it's a very serious and overblown film, which was their joke on the whole thing. They knew exactly what they were doing: they were just exaggerating these characters to the point where they were just a little bit funny. And I think our music really nails that same thing.”

      More serious, though fast-paced, is Dziga Vertov's quasi-documentary exploration of Soviet life, Man With a Movie Camera, which screens Sunday night (July 25).

      “It's one of the most influential films in film history,” says Winokur. “Vertov was so innovative in his approach to film, and especially to film editing, that it's widely studied in film schools. A notable fact is that as the film progresses, the tempo speeds up, so that by the end of the film he's literally splicing single frames in. It was the first time, as far as I know, that anybody came up with that. With a computer you can program this in and do it very easily, but at the time his wife, who was also his editor, had to glue every singe frame together—and there's a lot of frames and a lot of cuts in this movie.”

      More than 80 years later, he adds, Man With a Movie Camera still looks so contemporary that it provides the perfect excuse for the Alloy Orchestra to take a similarly radical approach to sound.

      “Sometimes people who are not all that knowledgeable say, ”˜You're playing all this modern music! These notes are too jarring and modern!' ” he says, laughing. “And I'll just say, ”˜Go listen to some [Arnold] Schoenberg. What we're doing is as conservative as it could possibly be.' ”