by Justin Senkbile
For over 20 years now, the Alloy Orchestra has been composing and performing their new scores for silent-era classics around the world. Though it's estimated that about three-fourths of all films made during that relatively brief period in film history have been lost forever, there are still a lot of amazing movies that have survived. And from Buster Keaton's “The General” to Dziga Vertov's “Man With a Movie Camera”, Alloy has composed scores for most of them.
They call themselves an orchestra, and live musical performance with movies is an old idea (an essential part of silent-era moviegoing, in fact, and the biggest source of employment for musicians in America until the depression). But there isn't much about The Alloy Orchestra that one could call “classical”. Made up of Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miler (co-founder of and guitarist for post-punk juggernauts Mission of Burma), Alloy composes and performs their distinctive, surprisingly versatile scores using what their website calls“an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects”.
Of those objects, Donahue is responsible for accordion, musical saw, the occasional bit of vocals, and junk – a term used affectionately to describe the group's rather large rack of unusual bits and pieces of percussion. Winokur, the director of the group, plays clarinet and also dabbles with the junk, while Miller mans the synthesizer.
For the first of their two performances this year at The Ross, Alloy is performing their new score for Karl-Heinz Martin's rare “From Morning to Midnight”. I, unfortunately, am one of the many who have not yet been able to see the film. But from all accounts, its a first-rate German Expressionist freakout, one that supposedly exceeds even the gothic hallucinations of its famous cousin, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.
Adapted from Georg Kaiser's play, “From Morning to Midnight” was apparently so unusual that German theaters refused to show it after its release in 1920. It was thought to be a bit too challenging for the average viewer; and the Nazis liked it even less when they showed up. An original negative was found in Tokyo in 1959, and was restored in 1987.
Their second performance will be alongside a compilation of silent shorts collected under the title “Wild and Weird”. Lively one-reel shorts were what film studios churned out most until feature-length movies took hold. Not only are all of these ten movies truly strange, they also provide an interesting look at the variety of subjects and styles in vogue at the time. From stop-motion animation to trick films to flat-out avant-garde exploration, there's a little bit of everything in this program.
The longest of the bunch is “The Cameraman's Revenge”, a marital infidelity tale performed impressively by reanimated bugs that lasts for about 13 minutes. There's also the alternately grotesque and funny “The Acrobatic Fly”, an early experiment with the extreme close up that, since it required so much light, produced a stark, high-contrast image and presumably a few fried flies. There's also a wonderfully creepy magic-trick movie called “The Red Spectre”, which additionally serves as a nice bit of kitsch just in time for Halloween.
There's an unforgettable thrill in seeing films in a theater with live musical accompaniment. No less than Roger Ebert, who's certainly seen this sort of thing a time or two, opines that Alloy is simply “the best in the world at accompanying silent films”. These two performances would qualify as unmissable events, even if the films weren't already so interesting in themselves.
The Alloy Orchestra performs alongside “From Morning to Midnight” on Wednesday, October 5th, and “Wild and Weird” on Thursday, October 6th. Both performances are at 7:30 pm at the Mary Reipma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets.