“What does it sound like when someone’s talking with a clarinet jammed in his skull?” asks Alloy Orchestra’s Ken Winokur. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based trio brings antic humor, off-beat perspective, and consummate professionalism to the task of scoring silent films. With their latest endeavor, “Wild and Weird: The Alloy Orchestra Plays 10 Fascinating and Innovative Films 1906-1926” in Ebertfest (Roger Ebert’s 14th annual showcase in Champaign, Illinois) this month, Keyframe caught up with Winokur for a video essay tribute to the wild, weird, and fascinating process that has Alloy (Winokur, along with Roger Miller and Terry Donahue) opening up silent films to broader audiences.
(Interview excerpts, Ken Winokur)
The Red Spectre (Segundo de Chomón, Ferdinand Zecca, 1907)
Every time the Spectre makes something appear or disappear there’s a sound effect for it. Lots of fire and smoke sounds. Every time the smoke appears, I started rolling the gong. At one point Terry said,’Ken, smoke doesn’t make any noise!” I said, ‘Clearly it does! Listen!’
The Thieving Hand (Paul Panzer, 1908)
When they are getting the replacement arm, we used a musical saw to convey the surreal quality of the scene. When they wind up the arm, it made us think of the sound of a wind-up a toy. We have a ratchet from the 1910s or ’20s, which trap drummers in pit orchestras would use back in those days for sound effects, that we used for this effect.
Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (Ernest Servaès, 1912)
When the character is walking around with a clarinet stuck in his head, and he’s talking, we asked, ‘What does it sound like when someone’s talking with a clarinet jammed in his skull?’ And the answer is: a really bad clarinet player playing random sour notes on a clarinet, which is something I’m uniquely qualified to do. I love playing crazy random notes.
The Acrobatic Fly (Percy Smith, 1908)
This was a one-take improvisation; it’s just what erupted from us while watching. We used metal pans stripped from restaurant plate carts. We played them melodically, which is a trick we love to do with percussion. It sounds like a melody but there’s no real tonality to it.
Filmstudie (Hans Richter, 1920)
Hans Richter being a Dada artist, it almost begged us to take license with anything we did with that film. We took some poetry from one of the other Zurich Dadaists, Hugo Ball. I read it a number of times, overlaid various versions of it, and even played it backwards. It was a spontaneously generated concept.
The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, 1927)
This is one of my favorite films of all time; it sends a chill every time we play it. When 9413 is resurrected and climbs up to heaven, I always feel an emotional bond with him. The theme we play here is not very intricate but I find it very moving.