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SILENT MUSIC

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Despite a revival of interest in recent years, the phrase "silent movie" still conjures for many 21st century folk a moth-eaten image. The Alloy Orchestra is doing their best to change that.

The three-man ensemble has earned international acclaim composing and performing musical scores for classic silents, opening the eyes and, paradoxically, the ears of modern audiences: "They realize that they’re not just these dusty old archive pieces," says orchestra member Terry Donahue. "They’re actually beautiful pieces of art that stand the test of time."

This Thursday, July 19, Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger C. Miller will make their annual visit to the Celebrate Brooklyn festival in Prospect Park - this time to play their original score to Fritz Lang’s futuristic classic "Metropolis."

"We look forward to it every year," says Donahue. "It’s outside, and the atmosphere is so laid back and relaxed [with] a very excited and friendly audience. The whole drive-in feel that you get from it makes it really great."

With them come the usual synthesizers, drums and, well, "a bedpan, a couple varied pieces of sheet metal, a set of horseshoes, a couple of truck springs, some pots and pans, hubcaps and cow bells and ratchets, air conditioning ducts and now I play the musical saw. People are generally surprised when playing junk can actually sound like beautiful music."

Adds Winokur, "We have a whole storage room filled with stuff and we’re always dipping into it. It’s not a totally original idea. There have been people doing this since - well, I don’t know, people like to say that the first instrument was probably somebody beating on a hollow log. It’s kind of a logical way of pursuing music."

Brooklynites will glimpse Alloy’s beginnings as the band provides the live musical accompaniment to their signature movie, "Metropolis," the hugely influential 1926 science fiction epic from Germany. In 1991, the Boston-based group was already established in the area music scene (with original keyboard player Caleb Sampson, who died three years ago and was succeeded by Miller). A local film and music booker was planning to screen the 1984 restoration of "Metropolis" - then the most complete version available - but he was less than enthusiastic about its soundtrack of contemporary Top 40 acts.

"It clicked in his brain that we would be a logical accompaniment to the film, both visually and thematically," Winokur recalls. "He asked us fairly casually to throw together a score. We just as casually said, ’Sure, why not? We’ll do anything once,’" Winokur said with a chuckle. "They invited us back again and again and again. And we began to realize that this was a really wonderfully rich field that wasn’t being exploited."

Alloy has since scored about 15 other feature films and roughly that many shorts, performing around the world, both live and in the recording studio for video releases. But their first movie is their mainstay - Winokur estimates that they’ve accompanied "Metropolis" roughly 400 times (with names like Pat Benatar and Adam Ant still lingering in the closing credits to puzzle audiences).

Alloy’s music - a blend of the metallic and melodic, the handcrafted and the state of the art - echoes Lang’s vision of a futuristic mega-city where mechanized, dehumanized tyranny clashes with simple human compassion.

However well matched Alloy seems with a film, achieving that synergy between image and score is a painstaking process. Composing starts with scene-by-scene improvisations in front of a video playback of the film. Once the music emerges, extensive rehearsals are necessary to sync the group to the onscreen action.

"For the most part we spend an entire summer working on a new film and then premiere it in September," explains Winokur.

This process will soon be applied to "Speedy," a now little-noted 1928 feature by bespectacled comic superstar Harold Lloyd. Winokur observes that it seems to have been "made with the Alloy Orchestra in mind. It’s got all these wonderful, fast-paced chase scenes and these great fight gags." Thanksgiving weekend will find them at a favorite venue, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, performing live for the first time with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton comedy shorts they originally accompanied for video.

For all this, their biggest coup in the near future may be to revisit "Metropolis" once again. "They located the original English-language print in Australia in a film archive," says Winokur. "It’s got all the original titles and it’s a very intact print relative to the previous one that has been pieced together from lots of different sources. It follows so much more easily. It’s really engrossing and the English titles are so much more elucidating of what’s really going on in the film. So we decided it was worth the effort to go back and take our score and rework it so that it fits the new cut."

Everything old is new again. It could be the Alloy Orchestra’s motto.

 

Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra will be screened July 19 at 7:30 pm in the Prospect Park Bandshell [Ninth Street at Prospect Park West in Park Slope, (718) 855-7882, ext. 45]. Suggested donation, $3. For a complete schedule of Celebrate Brooklyn events go to www.celebratebrooklyn.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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