Getting a bang (or crash) out of silent movies

Sculpture-like racks of radiator pipes, rusty truck parts, saucepans, drums, and a synthesizer stand off to the side of the big screen. Musicians line up behind the equipment, lights go down, curtains part.

As the silent film begins, audiences are amazed at the original sounds emanating from all that junk. It's being played by the Alloy Orchestra, a Cambridge, Mass.-based trio that is revitalizing silent film masterpieces with stunning new musical scores.

"We compose the music in advance and rehearse a lot," says Alloy drummer Ken Winokur. "But sometimes there are so many sound effects or changes in the scenes that we're frantically grabbing at instruments before the scene passes."

The percussionists pound, smash, screech, and ping, as the on-screen action calls for it. They'll also play real instruments like the accordion, clarinet, and glockenspiel.

Mr. Winokur says the trio uses the film as their conductor.

"We watch the film every second during a show," he says. "Our music is written like a storyboard with the scenes described in chronological order. We notate our own parts and just watch the film until a specific scene appears, and then we react to it."

In 1985 drummers Winokur and Terry Donahue, both of whom had experimented with using junk as musical instruments, joined forces with a keyboardist, the late Caleb Sampson (Roger Miller now plays keyboards), to accompany a local production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's avant-garde play, "Marilyn Monroe vs. the Vampire." After its brief run, they began to play together elsewhere in the Boston area.

David Kleiler, program manager of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, a local art-movie house, heard the group's concert at Boston's "First Night" New Year's Eve celebration in 1991.

His theater was showing German director Fritz Lang's 1926 silent epic, "Metropolis." The print he'd booked was a 1984 reissue with a rock 'n' roll soundtrack added. He wasn't fond of the music and asked Alloy to put together a live score in just two weeks. They agreed.

The result was a success, and the group began looking for other silent films to accompany. Since then, Alloy has accompanied 11 classics at vintage movie houses, museums, and film festivals in the United States and abroad.

The sponsors of Colorado's Telluride Film Festival invited the group to perform in 1993 and again in 1994, when Roger Ebert picked the Alloy's presentation of "Lonesome" (Paul Fejos, US, 1929) as his favorite performance. Curiously, just as "Lonesome" began, a storm hit and the power went out. The screen went black.

"The drummers were doing a big drum barrage," Winokur recalls, "so we just continued playing. After a couple of minutes, the power went back on and the film started up again. We segued right back into the original score without missing a beat. People thought the pause in the film was intentional."

The threesome has returned to Telluride each year with a new score. In 1998, it was for Sergei Eisenstein's "Strike."

According to Winokur, the most challenging film to accompany was the six-minute "Plane Crazy," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, because of its fast pace and brevity. "I had to hit 50 or so sound effects in rapid succession," he says.

And what happens when they do flub up? "All musicians make mistakes," he says, "but we try to keep them to a minimum. We like to call the mistakes 'creative improvisations.' They often lead us into interesting and new territories."

* The Alloy Orchestra will accompany 'Strike' at Lincoln Center in New York (part of the Human Rights Festival) June 24. They'll also perform at the Mass MoCA art museum in North Adams, Mass., July 24, and the Telluride (Colo.) Film Festival, Sept. 3-6. Their e-mail address is winokurk@aol.com

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