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Metal Machine Music 

Boston's Alloy Orchestra clangs, bangs and crunches out soundtracks for classic silent films

Imagine yourself seated in a crowded theater in Berlin, circa 1927. The film you're watching is a silent masterpiece, directed by an innovator of the still young and unformed medium. The images are enthralling, weaving together a tale of flesh versus machinery, thought versus labor. While visually stunning, the piece is undermined by the jingle-jangle sound of an out-of-tune piano, standard accompaniment in the pre-Dolby Surround Sound days of filmmaking's infancy.

Flash forward seven decades. The same images--Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis, flicker across the screen of a modern theater. But this time, the crowd has come not only to view a classic piece of celluloid history, but also to take in the sounds of Alloy Orchestra, a unique trio that has breathed new life into this and many other marvelous silent films.

The orchestra was born out of the ashes of the Concussion Ensemble, a four-piece percussion group native to the Boston area. Inspired by the work of composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Concussion Ensemble utilized an odd collection of what they termed "found percussion," instruments created out of ordinary junk, albeit junk that made an interesting sound when struck with a mallet or other pieces of junk.

During a performance at a New Year's Eve function in Boston Commons, Ensemble member Ken Winokur met a film programmer who had plans to screen Metropolis. The programmer asked if Winokur and his fellows might be able to add something new to the showing by creating a musical score. Not only did Winokur and company write an original score for the film, but they performed it live, to the delight of audiences. Thus, Alloy Orchestra was born.

Ten years later, the trio--Winokur on junk percussion and clarinet, Roger C. Miller on synthesizer and Terry Donahue on junk percussion, accordion, banjo and the mystical, ethereal saw (otherwise known as the "organic theremin")--has composed music for 13 feature-length films as well as numerous shorts. Among the films the group has scored are Lost World, an early dinosaur film featuring the stop motion animation of Willis O'Brien; South, a documentary on the ill-fated Antarctic voyage of Earnest Shackelton and his ship, the Endurance; and a variety of slapstick comedy shorts, including pieces from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. They've even worked with enigmatic documentary filmmaker and fellow Bostonian Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, A Brief History of Time and Vernon, Florida).

When asked how Alloy fits into the current group of junk percussion performers such as Stomp and Blue Man Group, Winokur is somewhat dismissive. "There's a junk thing going on right now, but I personally have been performing this type of music for over 25 years," he says. Influenced by novelty acts such as Spike Jones, Winokur has been a longtime aficionado of clanging, banging and clunking objects together to create new and interesting sounds. This talent leads to perhaps the most interesting aspect of the group's live performances: the incidental touches that are thrown in on top of the mood music created for the overall effect of the piece. Utilizing their patented percussion collection--eloquently titled the "rack of junk"--Winokur and Donahue create every collision, explosion and animal noise that you'll hear. "We do all the sound effects, so it gets pretty hairy," he says.

Juggling over 140 instruments is not only demanding mentally, but also requires serious physical exertion--just moving their set-up from one place to another is a challenge. "Airlines allow a certain number of checked pieces of luggage," says Winokur, "so we load up seven equipment cases with the maximum allowable weight. Sometimes we have to pay a fee in addition, but it's worth it to have everything there."

For Alloy's shows this weekend at the North Carolina Museum of Art's summer film series, the aforementioned Metropolis, a dystopian story of a civilization divided into thinkers and workers, will screen Friday night. Still relevant after nearly 75 years, Metropolis is a sci-fi classic that inspired such futurists as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

Saturday's show begins with a short film titled Dragonflies, The Baby Cries, produced by Winokur and directed by his wife, Jane Gilooly. The film revolves around a group of children playing in a forest, but as their singsong nursery rhymes evolve into a creepy incantation, strange and unusual things begin to occur. This will be followed by German director F.W. Murnau's horror classic, Nosferatu, the making of which was the inspiration for the recent art house film, Shadow of the Vampire. When Shadow of the Vampire premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Alloy premiered its current version of the silent classic. Nosferatu, a horrifying film for its era, is still capable of eliciting a chill within even the most jaded filmgoer.

The Telluride festival was also the site of one of Alloy's most famous incidents. While performing at an outdoor venue, a thunderstorm caused the power to go out. Undeterred, the orchestra continued to bang away at the "rack of junk" with the same pace and ferocity they would have otherwise. When the film resumed minutes later, the trio slid perfectly back into the world of the movie, leading audience members to think it was part of the act--a solo if you will--evidence, indeed, of the power of improvisation and of the talent of these three musicians.

While the summer season offers filmgoers a steady diet of "blockbusters" for their consumption, these screenings offer the chance to take in a film that has had decades to prove its importance. And, if the power should go out, simply sit back and enjoy the clang. EndBlock

  • Boston's Alloy Orchestra, using real instruments and "junk," provides live accompaniment for classic silent films.

More by Zach Hanner

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