Clip: Alloy Orchestra
This is too late for Pittsburghers to see Mr. Miller & company, but I
thought it might be of interest.
Alloy Orchestra decorates a classic silent film with its sound
By Michael Machosky
Friday, November 1, 2002
Last year, the Three Rivers Film Festival showed up for Halloween dressed
as a vampire. This year, it's going as a pirate.
In what's fast becoming a Three Rivers Film Festival tradition, the Alloy
Orchestra is coming to town with a new old silent movie: Douglas Fairbanks'
1926 silent epic, "The Black Pirate."
Long before "multimedia" was a word, theater orchestras performed live
accompaniment for the movies of the silent era - a wonderfully expressive
way to illustrate and comment on the mood, action and emotions in a film.
And Alloy goes a step further, dressing up these antique films with its own
brilliantly modern, heavily percussive scores.
"Selecting a film is the hardest thing we do," percussionist Ken Winokur
says. "We're looking for a film that's great. But for our particular
purposes, we're looking for something very dramatic, that requires the
power that our ensemble can muster. This film is obviously a pirate film
that's exciting and filled with action - fights scenes, things blowing up."
"We're great with things blowing up!" Winokur adds, laughing.
He's right. Alloy isn't an orchestra in the traditional sense - it's two
percussionists (Winokur and Terry Donahue) and a synthesizer player (Roger
Miller, from indie rock legends Mission of Burma). The percussionists pound
away on the infamous "Rack of Junk," a giant drum set featuring
conventional drums, homemade instruments and "found objects" such as
horseshoes, plumbing pipes, air-conditioning ductwork, electrical conduit,
hubcaps, even a bedpan. In other words, just about anything that makes an
interesting noise when you bang on it.
Last year, Alloy performed with a staple of the silent canon - the
legendary masterpiece of skin-crawling horror, "Nosferatu." The music
magnified this archetypal vampire's aura of evil tenfold with thundering,
clamorous climaxes and tense, unsettling interludes.
"The 'Black Pirate' is a much more warm, dramatic-sounding movie," Winokur
says. "Lots of orchestral sounds out of the keyboard, lots of bass drums
and tom-toms. We avoid the harsh-sounding metal percussion - it doesn't
have that Dracula edge to it."
"Unlike most groups who do what we do, we follow the action and the tone of
the film much more specifically. We don't just play a two- or three-minute
piece and change to the next one," Winokur says. "For instance, there's a
scene where Douglas Fairbanks grabs hold of the rope on the sail. So we
stop, and have a sound effect where he's raised to the top of the mast. He
pulls out his knife, and slides down the sail on the point of his knife. We
have kind of a downward arpeggio on the keyboard and a snare drum roll
while he's doing that."
That famous scene is just one of many in "The Black Pirate" that have
stayed in the minds of filmgoers for nearly 80 years. Although the plot is
typically absurd and overblown, the sheer spectacle of the film and
larger-than-life presence of Fairbanks make it a captivating visual
complement to Alloy's music.
But all of the prints of the film available were faded and scratched.
So Alloy decided to finance the creation of a new print. This, they'll
bring to the Byham Theater tonight.
"It's just astonishingly gorgeous, completely without scratches. It looks
as good as it did in 1926," Winokur says. "It's important for us to work
with the very best print, so we realized that we had to put the money into
it to get it made. It's a funny role for the band to play, but somebody had
to do it, and nobody was stepping up to the plate."