Silent films were never silent. You’ve heard that old saw reminding us of the pianists, organists and other musicians on hand for just about every motion picture screening until the arrival of The Jazz Singer in 1927. Try this revision: Silent films were never as loud as when accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.
Featuring two percussionists, Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur, and keyboardist Roger Miller (who also plays guitar for seminal Boston band Mission of Burma), Alloy Orchestra’s name befits the copious amount of metal on stage for a typical performance. Though Donahue and Winokur trade off playing snare drums, cymbals, tom toms, and other “traditional” orchestral percussion, they also coax eerie and beautiful sounds out of a so-called “rack of junk” including pipes, gongs, horseshoes, springs, and even sheet metal from an air duct and a steel bedpan. Meanwhile, Miller can simulate full orchestral-style melodies by pounding his conservatory-trained fingers upon the keys of a Kurzweil synthesizer. When the trio lets loose on a film like the science-fiction epic Metropolis or the avant-garde landmark Man with a Movie Camera, a silent film screening can induce the same giddy over-stimulation and pulse-palpitating energy of a great rock concert.
Alloy Orchestra was forged in the fires of Boston’s post-punk club scene, but since its first silent film performances in 1990 they’ve expanded their range of compositional styles in scores for films like Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld and The Last Command, or for Chang, where synths are forsaken and Miller plays a one-stringed banjo to approximate the sound of a Thai-style lute. The best demonstration of Alloy’s range comes from a collection of short films they tour under the title “Wild And Weird” (which plays Ebertfest Friday, April 27, 2012). The 1927 independent film The Life And Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra is a perfect showcase for their signature frenetic style, but D.W. Griffith‘s 1909 novelty Those Awful Hats proves their proficiency in straight ragtime music, and oddities like F. Percy Smith‘s 1912 The Acrobatic Fly and Hans Richter‘s 1926 Filmstudie finds the trio experimenting in stranger directions than they’ve previously traveled. Meanwhile, a French substitution-splice comedy called Artheme Swallows his Clarinet gives Ken Winokur a chance to showcase his skill with the title instrument.
Two years ago, I spoke to Winokur about Alloy’s process for selecting and composing for silent films, especially as it applied to its masterful scores for Man with a Movie Camera and for Metropolis, which they were set to re-premiere with a version of the film more complete than ever before.
Keyframe: How many films had you scored before you took on Man With A Movie Camera?
Ken Winokur: We started with Metropolis. Our second one was The Wind with Lillian Gish, and then we did The Lost World, the dinosaur movie. At that point we got invited to our first Telluride Festival. They had us do a very little known film called Sylvester: New Year’s Eve. The next year after that was Lonesome. That makes Man with a Movie Camera probably our sixth feature-length score.
Keyframe: Can you compare the process of writing for an experimental film like Man with a Movie Camera to that of writing for a more conventional narrative film?
Winokur: Well, Man with a Movie Camera is in some ways ideally suited to Alloy and Alloy’s musical style. Its director, Dziga Vertov, had studied music before he became a film director, and had actually made what they were calling constructivist noise music, which resembles the kind of musique concrete, found-object approach that Alloy typically has.
We worked with notes that Vertov had written up for the original soundtrack that was played with it in 1929. In those notes he specified a variety of found objects that he wanted to be used. You see an orchestra in the film itself. He calls it the bottle and spoon orchestra. The percussionist actually has a set up with wine or beer bottles, a scrub-board, tin plates and a bunch of spoons. We just replicate that. There’s a lot like that in the notes, where he specified the kinds of things that Alloy had been doing all along.
Vertov was interested in experimentation and he took to new technologies, so that gave us the opportunity to be much more experimental ourselves, to try out any kind of crazy idea that would come to us, whenever. Compared to a film like The General, which takes place in the Civil War, or Dans la nuit, which takes place in a specific time in France, Man with a Move Camera, which has a much more abstract quality, allows the musicians to have a lot more freedom.
We love playing for Man with a Movie Camera. We’ve done a lot of fairly subtle films lately, like Blackmail or The Last Command or Underworld. They were films that we couldn’t play loudly, and aggressively to. When we started doing Man with a Movie Camera again (it was something we hadn’t done for some years) at the first rehearsal, Terry and I, the percussionists, had these big smiles on our faces. It was like, ‘Wow, we can really play drums again!’
Keyframe: Why was your score for Man with a Movie Camera shelved for several years? It’s surely one of your most popular scores.
Winokur: It was originally written with our keyboard player [Caleb Sampson] at the time. He unfortunately passed away very suddenly. We had always thought about bringing it back into the repertoire and getting Roger to learn Caleb’s older part. But the print came from an archive that didn’t allow us to tour with it. You could only do an occasional show. The combination of a) not knowing the score as a whole band and b) having a hard time getting the print, we put it on the back shelf. Until a Russian woman who lives in Boston but runs a dance/film festival in St. Petersburg started talking to us about doing Movie Camera in Russia. We of course said, ‘We’d love to go to Russia, especially with this film. But we can’t undertake this fairly major project without having better access to the print.’ She went to Gosfilmofond, the Moscow Film Archive. Literally knocked on the door. They were very co-operative and sold us a print.
Keyframe: Shortly after its premiere in 1929, the film was suppressed by Stalin’s regime and Vertov’s career soon went into decline. How was your performance received at the recent St. Petersburg festival?
Winokur: For the most part Russians still don’t know this film. It hasn’t come back to them with the reputation that it’s got in the United States. It’s not like it’s banned anymore. But they haven’t seen it, and they certainly don’t revere it as American filmmakers and historians do. So we brought this film to them; we did our performance. We ended up using another, different print so we didn’t have to ship ours, and we were sent two copies of Reel 5 and no Reel 6. They literally had to put Reel 6 on the train, and that arrived about a half an hour before the screening. That was a real knuckle-biter. We played, and the audience erupted into this ear-splitting cheering and clapping. They were so excited by this film. It was really gratifying. They were appreciative that this group of Americans had brought it back to them and reintroduced their own culture back to the country.
The next day we played The General, by Buster Keaton. We all think of that as one of the greatest films of all time. I absolutely love this film. There was a good response to it but it was substantially less enthusiastic than Man with a Movie Camera. That seemed totally wrong. I’m curious, we expected this to go over really well. We were told, ‘Well, for one thing, it’s a foreign film.’ We didn’t think of it in those terms, but of course it is. Some were saying, ‘We want to see more avant-garde films not this kind of Hollywood stuff’.’ It was funny to be in a place where they’re demanding more avant-garde films.
Keyframe: Is that unique to Russia? Man with a Movie Camera can be analyzed as an avant-garde film, but it doesn’t have to be viewed as one. Do you think other audiences find it an inaccessible film?
Winokur: No! Avant-garde filmmaking, which I tend to appreciate, doesn’t go over very well with most audiences. But this film, which definitely is stretching boundaries in every way, shape, and form on film, is just so magnificently assembled, so well-put-together, that it overcomes the reluctance that people might normally have about watching avant-garde films. They get swept up in its kinetic energy. It doesn’t require the kind of patience that so much avant-garde filmmaking does. You can just sit back in your seat and let the images wash over you, and it’s very effective. I think that it actually doesn’t reward a more literal, critical approach. Start looking for the connections between the scenes, and you’re gonna be frustrated, because the connections are either obvious, or not at all. A shot of a spinning bike tire looks like the spinning train wheel that comes next. It’s an obvious optical similarity. It’s sort of impossible to enter into it with too cerebral a point of view, in a way.
Keyframe: Can you talk a bit about the document that director Dziga Vertov prepared to guide the three original composers for Man with a Movie Camera’s premieres?
Winokur: It’s more like a storyboard. It’s only three pages long. It gives titles of stock music, folkloric music that Russians would know. Of course we didn’t, and we substituted new compositions in the spirit or of the style that they were supposed to be. It mostly gives a description of the type of music it wants: the attitude, or more likely the kind of sound effect quality. It doesn’t really specify actual music. It’s more imagistic. When we were asked to do this film, it came along with the rather remarkable benefit of having Paolo Cherchi Usai, the senior curator of the George Eastman House, and Yuri Tsivian, who is now at the University of Chicago, and who is one of the couple Vertov experts in the world. The two of them came to our studio and actually worked with us while we did the basic composition. Over a long weekend we went through each cue with them. They kept goading us on. They kept saying, ‘Go crazy here. Be yourselves! Don’t treat this one like subtle, plotted films that you’re always pushed to do.’ So having Yuri and Paolo there to interpret Vertov’s ideas and theories, and read us bits and pieces from his manifestos (and Yuri knew all the references to stock Russian songs) was invaluable in the creation of this score. And fun!
Keyframe: Poring over a film so many times to prepare a score must give you insights about them that all but the most scholarly cinephiles would miss.
Winokur: There are some films you get to play enough that you get to actually pay attention to the minutiae. We did more than five hundred shows of Metropolis, almost all the Georgio Moroder cut. At some point it becomes a little less exciting to watch the film, or even to play, and I’m always fighting. My not-too-sharp mind likes to wander, so I keep my interest by examining the film and thinking about it. As time went on, I started watching the wallpapers in Metropolis. In that film, the set designs are unbelievable. There’s just one amazing wallpaper after another. After I’d done that, I thought ‘What else is there?’ Look at some of the furnishings, and particularly the lamps. There are amazing art deco lamps throughout the whole thing. Then at some point I turned my attention on the numerology. There’s numbers all the way through it, so I tried to figure out what these numbers mean and what’s the symbolism or the organization. But that one stumped me. Maybe with the Argentine print it will all fall into place!
Keyframe: Have you been watching that one yet?
Absolutely! We’re having to rewrite our score. Not completely, but it’s an hour longer than the Moroder version! There’s a lot of work to be done. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it straight through. I’d seen it too much. So I skipped through and looked at all the new footage, and did a storyboard. Just today, in fact, we finished the rough composing. Going through each scene and getting a rough idea of what music we’re gonna play. How do you take a piece of music that was 39 seconds last time, and is now 59 seconds; how do you extend it? So interesting.
Keyframe: Have you considered scoring another Vertov film?
Winokur: I was in Pordenone a few years ago when they did a major Vertov retrospective. I watched a huge number of the Kino-Pravdas, as many of them as I could. They’re all pretty fascinating, but they don’t sing in the way that Man with a Movie Camera does. It’s justifiably his most famous work. I’m not saying we’d never do one, but they haven’t motivated me to start work on the next one.
Keyframe: How do you select the films you score?
Winokur: It depends. We start with films that we like. Often somebody essentially commissions us or invites us to write a score. More often the Telluride Film Festival than anybody else.
Keyframe: They suggest the score?
Winokur: It goes both ways. They suggest one, or I suggest one, and it goes back and forth. The festival director and I talk about films for three quarters of a year, and finally settle on one that’s really good and really suitable for an Alloy score. I watch every film I can. I choose for the Alloys. I follow all the recommendations by people who we get to talk to, whether it’s David Shephard or Dennis Doros of Milestone, or Don Krim at Kino. [Krim passed away in 2011.] The issue is always: Can we get this film in some kind of regular fashion? When it comes from a foreign country or some of the archives, or some of the big film studios, we’ve learned that doing an awful lot of work in writing a score and then having it shelved… It’s beyond your control. So the first thing we try to do is make these arrangements. Figure out whether or not this is something that we can access on a regular basis.
Postscript: Since our interview, the Alloy Orchestra has performed its score for the restored Metropolis dozens of times around the world, and made a new recording that was disappointingly left off the latest home video release. They’ve also added three more programs to their touring repertoire: Wild and Weird, the German Expressionist rarity From Morning to Midnight, and, set to premiere at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the 1926 Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg version of Nikolai Gogol’s novel The Overcoat. Check their website for the latest tour dates and locations.