The Alloy Orchestra: 25 Years of Creating New Music For Old Silent Movies

April 18, 2016
Alloy Orchestra members Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger C. Miller.

The Alloy Orchestra (left to right): Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger C. Miller.

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Live performances of new music for old silent movies have become a niche market in the film business. And the Alloy Orchestra has been a leader in the field for 25 years.

The three-man ensemble performed Friday for a showing of “L’Inhumaine” (“The Inhuman Woman”) at Ebertfest, the annual film festival at Champaign’s Virginia Theater founded by the late film critic Roger Ebert.  It’s the 16th time the Alloy Orchestra has performed at Ebertfest.

The group’s sound check on the morning of their performance goes smoothly. While the Alloy Orchestra prefers to play onstage next to the movie screen, they use the Virginia’s narrow orchestra pit in this case.

“So, let’s play something,” the group’s director, Ken Winokur calls out.

“What do you want to play, sir?” is the response from bandmates Roger C. Miller and Terry Donahue.

“How about, uh, the Gangster Ball, improvised?”

“The Gangster Ball” is the Alloy Orchestra’s name for the music they’ve composed for the big party scene at the beginning of “L’Inhumaine”, a 1924 movie by the French Avant Gard director Marcel L’Herbier. The movie’s title character, a beautiful but heartless singing star, Claire Lescot, holds the party for her many competing suitors. A jazz band is shown in the scene, and the Alloy Orchestra responds to the cue with music that includes throbbing drums, clarinet and piano --- although keyboardist Miller is actually playing an electronic keyboard that will change voices frequently throughout the movie.

Miller says part of what he finds appealing in silent movie music is that it’s the only thing you’ll hear during the movie.

“In a silent film, all there is, is music,” says Miller. “And in a talkie, there’s also talking and sound design and music. So it’s only one third of it. So in silent films, we’re expressing what they’re saying. We’re sometime doing, like, foley work, like when people get hit on the head, there’s a clunking sound, or if there’s waves, you know, the cymbals are rolling along with it. And that makes silent film accompaniment in many ways more exciting, because you’re not subservient to anything.”

Plus, the group specializes in playing their music live for movie showings. You can buy DVD’s of silent movies with the Alloy Orchestra’s music on the soundtrack, including a Blu-Ray edition of “L’Inhumaine’. But Ken Winokur says there’s something special about seeing a silent movie with live music.  

“The combining of visual medium with the sound medium, they have an exponential kind of effect on each other, and it becomes very powerful,” says Winokur. “When you take a movie, which is essentially, typically a canned experience --- it’s something that’s been programmed in advance --- but you add the live band to it, it brings a new level of kind of spontaneity and excitement to a film showing. And audiences just love it.”

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The Alloy Orchestra runs through some of their other themes during the “L’Inhumaine” sound check. An eerie melody on a musical saw fills in for Claire Lescot’s supposedly mesmerizing singing voice. And the movie’s hero, the young engineer Einar Norsen, is given a rapid pattern of odd slightly-off percussion notes that are used to suggest the engine of his sports car in one scene, and the machinery in his laboratory in others.

This music displays another feature of the Alloy Orchestra --- two of its three members are percussionists. And while Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue double on other instruments, most of their energies go towards their percussion lineup, including found objects that Donahue says they call “junk percussion”.

During the sound check, Donahue points to some of the more unusual instruments that he and Winokur uses, along with a conventional array of drums. The list includes horseshoes; “cake pans” which are not actually cake pans but provide an out-of-tune steel drum sound; a set of bells; out-of-tune zithers’ pipe chimes; a piece of sheet metal that produces a sound like a huge rusty door hinge when played with a bow; and a pull-toy featuring several colored bells that’s used during the party scene, when an acrobat is juggling barrels with his feet.

The Alloy Orchestra got its start in 1991 in Boston, where Winokur says they already had a thing for unusual percussion. The love for silent movies began when a movie programmer asked the group to come up with a musical score for Fritz Lang’s silent science fiction classic “Metropolis”. Winokur says it was a sort of reply to a much derided re-release of the movie a few years earlier, that had a score packed with 80s rock stars.  

“That weekend-worth of shows started off with a decent audience, but each day it got more and more people,” says Winokur. “And by the end of the weekend --- I think we did about four shows or something --- we’d sold out this large 600-seat theater. And we knew immediately that there was just something unusually powerful about the combination of this magnificent 35-millimeter projection and a live musical score. And we just said to each other, let’s do more of this.”

The members of the Alloy Orchestra collaborate on composing their music --- so their score for “Metropolis” was jointly conceived by Winokur, Donahue and original keyboardist Caleb Sampson. Roger C. Miller, who succeeded Sampson after his death in 1998, says their scores grow out of improvised musical ideas, which they play and record while watching the film.  

“And usually it takes us no more than two passes to get basically what we think is a good idea,” says Miller. “And then we go to the next scene. And someone will start, like maybe it will be a drum beat, and then I’ll start adding a keyboard, and then Terry says, ‘I think some accordion’s going to be good there’. So we figure out the chords. He lays down the rough track of the accordion and then we go to the next piece. Very, very collaborative.” 

Winokur says the composing process, from initial improvising to final polishing, can take three or four months per movie. In performance, Miller, the keyboardist,  works from a score using standard musical notation. But Winokur and Donahue, the percussionists, work from their personal notes, which Winokur says are highly idiosyncratic. He says one reason why the Alloy Orchestra have yet to publish scores of their music, despite requests to do so.

Although they are the only ones to perform them, the Alloy Orchestra has composed dozens of musical scores for a wide range of mostly silent movies. The group’s website lists  prepared scores for more than 30 films or film programs, with 20 of them currently available for performance.  They include slapstick comedies featuring Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, action and dramatic films starring Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, and European classics such as the German Expressionist film “From Morning to Midnight” and Dziga Vertov’s “Man With A Movie Camera”.

Winokur says the Alloy Orchestra’s success comes on the crest of a revived interest in both old silent movies and new music composed for them. He says that interest has grown since the group first played music for “Metropolis” 25 years ago.  

“There were very few people who were doing music for silent films,” says Winokur about the early 1990’s, when the Alloy Orchestra got its start. “The ones that were, were mostly traditional, either orchestral composers, pianists or organists. And when we started, we sort of introduced people to the concept of a new score to silent film. And I think somewhat due to our participation, but then a lot of other people who started doing this, silent films have come back into the forefront.”

Winokur, Donahue and Miller all have other work as performers, composers and teachers. Miller, for example, was scheduled to leave immediately after the Ebertfest appearance for a short tour with Mission Of Burma, the post-punk rock band he helped found in 1979. And at the Alloy Orchestra concession table in a side room of the Virginia Theater, copies of a new release by another band featuring Miller, Trinary System, were for sale.

But the Alloy Orchestra is a big and steady part of the work schedule for all three of its members. The group is booked to accompany showings of “L’Inhumaine” in Baltimore and New York City over the next two months. And after they finished accompanying “L’Inhumaine” at Ebertfest on Friday afternoon, festival executive producer and host Chaz Ebert came on stage to say she wanted the Alloy Orchestra back for a 17th time at next year’s festival.

Story source: WILL