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Finding Gold in Silents

When the Alloy Orchestra sets up its array of paraphernalia at the Nuart Theatre Monday and Tuesday nights to accompany Fritz Lang’s 1926 classic “Metropolis,” they’ll be using whatever it takes to get the job done. Junk metal, ethnic instruments, industrial machinery, electronic gizmos and state-of-the-art synthesizers.

“We just grab whatever we can find,” says Ken Winokur, one of Alloy’s two percussionists. “We make periodic trips to the junkyard and pick up old truck springs, hubcaps, fire extinguishers, bed pans--virtually anything that’ll make noise. We even have a large xylophone made out of two-by-four wood beams.”

The resulting sounds are not as bizarre as one might expect. The Alloy Orchestra, a Cambridge, Mass.-based trio--percussionist Terry Donahue and keyboardist Caleb Sampson are the other members--has been highly praised for the remarkably evocative, rich orchestral timbres of their film music.

At last year’s Telluride Festival, Times movie critic Kenneth Turan described the ensemble’s scoring for the 1923 German film “Sylvester” as “ominous and riveting . . . silent film music of such power and passion it made everyone feel as if they had never heard anything like it before.” Film critic Roger Ebert characterized it as a “whirlwind of ominous portents.”

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Heady praise for a trio of musicians who, a few years ago, were struggling to make ends meet in Boston’s eclectic stewpot of music and performance art. Winokur and Donahue had been working in the offbeat and aptly named pop/performance group the Concussion Ensemble, and Sampson was scoring music for HBO and “Sesame Street.”

Winokur had discovered the attractions of unconventional percussion early, while living in Paris.

“I was short of funds, so I took a frying pan down into the Metro and started playing rhythms on it,” he recalls. “The crowd loved it, and I did pretty well. But when I foolishly used some of my donations to go out and buy a real drum, the money dropped off real fast. There was a message there, and I listened to it.”

The trio got together when a local film programmer asked Sampson if he would consider doing some live music for a screening of “Metropolis.”

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“I asked Ken if he’d like to be a part of it,” says Sampson. “It seemed like a perfect match for all the machinery and stuff he plays. Then we asked Terry to join us, and we just did it. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that it just kind of started our film music career.”

The group’s name actually traced to an earlier partnership in which Winokur and Sampson provided the soundtrack for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play “Marilyn Monroe Versus the Vampires.”

“Ken and I built a giant room full of junk metal, air conditioners and stuff like that,” recalls Sampson. “We scrapped and banged and hammered on all this metal throughout the course of the play, and that’s how we came up with the name ‘the Alloy Orchestra.’ ”

“Metropolis” provided an unusual initiation into film scoring. Donahue is convinced that the trio was chosen to do the work because “the film programmer had a print with the Giorgio Moroder score, and he couldn’t stand it, and wanted to shut it off.”

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But “Metropolis” was not an easy task. In addition to the highly visible--and much criticized--Moroder rock-disco rendering (with Freddie Mercury and Bonnie Tyler) of 1984, it has been a prime subject for composers’ tinkering for years. Recently it has emerged as the centerpiece in the repertoire of the West Coast’s best-known silent film ensemble, the San Francisco-based Club Foot Orchestra.

“We knew we were doing the film that Club Foot made their reputation on,” explains Winokur. “But we really didn’t want--and we don’t want--to start any sort of rivalry. There’s plenty of room for different perspectives on these works.”

Conceived for a far smaller ensemble, but with considerably more dense percussion resources, Alloy’s score bears both striking similarities to, as well as dramatic dissimilarities with, Club Foot’s version. Where Club Foot always retains a piquant sense of German cabaret style, colorfully blended with avant-garde spontaneity and turn of the century classical devices, Alloy provides a pointedly more modern viewpoint.

One of the most notable differences, for example, is the way the orgiastic nightclub scene with the false Maria (actress Brigitte Helm) is handled.

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“We do it with a very lounge-y sort of slinky thing,” says Sampson, “almost like a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll lounge act.”

Club Foot, on the other hand, in near-classical style, applies a recurring melodic leitmotif to describe the character’s differing qualities.

“The way we approached the film,” says Club Foot’s principal composer, trombonist Richard Marriott, “was to use a lot of little parts, instead of having instruments carry through entire lines, and with strong references to some of the classical music of the period--Georges Antheil, Erik Satie, and so forth.”

The Alloy Orchestra takes a somewhat different path.

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“We’re not trying to do anything historical,” says Sampson. “The way we work on these films is by sitting down, and playing together to see what we can come up with. We work toward making the music in sync with the film stylistically, but with a completely contemporary sensibility.”

The result is a refreshingly unusual sound ambience--especially important in silent films since music is so much in the forefront. Sampson believes that the key to working with such classic material is to view the films as continuously living artistic entities.

“We really take silent films seriously as dramatic vehicles rather than as nostalgic period pieces,” he explains. “So we don’t just try to do something that sounds appropriate for the period--like, you know, a piano player doing background music in the style.”

Alloy’s “Metropolis” will be performed live in their debut appearance at the Nuart in a program that also includes their takes on Harry Hoyt’s 1925 dinosaur film, “Lost World” (based on a script by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with animation by Willis O’Brien, who later did “King Kong”), and George Melies’ classic 1902 short, “Trip to the Moon.”

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“We know we have a specific style, with specific strengths,” says Winokur. “So when we were planning this year’s tour, we looked at a lot of movies to find one that seemed appropriate. A lot of silent movies are very laid back and slow, which doesn’t quite work for us.

“But ‘The Lost World’ takes place in the Amazon, with a lot of jungle settings and large animals, all of which plays to our strengths. So we do a lot of jungle rhythms, with Latin and African percussion, but still allowing room for some lyrical orchestra sounds, as well.”

At best, producing music for silent films is a fringe area of the creative world. The members of the Alloy and the Club Foot Orchestras are obliged to supplement incomes with other musical activities. But Sampson and Marriott anticipate that the release of enhanced prints of classic films with newly composed, digital audio soundtracks is just around the corner.

In the meantime, both ensembles try to keep busy--Club Foot with performance engagements as well as film work, and Alloy with occasional touring. An Alloy program at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, followed by performances in Denver, Italy and Slovenia, will feature the screening of a new as yet undisclosed film.

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However, the added inclusion of “Lonesome” in the post-Telluride Festival programs--a work Sampson describes as “a real change of pace for us, a light romantic film"--suggests that it will, in fact, be the surprise Telluride item.

“We’ve done about 50 performances of ‘Metropolis’ now,” Winokur says. “And as we do it over and over, I’ve begun to see all kinds of different things in the films. Lately I’ve been noticing the wallpaper in some of the scenes. And the furnishings. The Art Deco lamps. Isn’t that wild? And I know that the different things I see affect how I play different sections, so making this music is like a kind of continuously unfolding organic process.”

Sampson agrees. “And, best of all,” he says, “there are no account executives sitting around listening, and saying, ‘Oh no, that music’s not going to sell those Fords the way we wanted it to do.’ "*


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