The term "silent film" is really a misnomer, for films of the era prior to the advent of the "talkies" were always accompanied by music. Composers wrote scores for silent films that might be played by an entire live orchestra, and even at a small neighborhood theater an organist or piano player would improvise an accompaniment to the onscreen action. Boston's Alloy Orchestra is an ensemble that creates and performs its own live accompaniments to silent films. Although they have forged a new and innovative sound marked by the use of discarded objects for musical instruments, their music blends in with the films they accompany. "I've had people come up afterwards and say, 'I got so involved in the film, I forgot that you guys were there playing live,'" founding keyboardist Caleb Sampson told the Rocky Mountain News. "That's when we know we've done our job right."
The three original members of the Alloy Orchestra—Sampson and percussionists Ken Winokur and Terry Donohue—were all experimentally-minded musicians (Sampson had several television soundtrack credits) working in the Boston area in the 1980s, when they came together in 1985 to play background music for the production of a play, Marilyn Monroe vs. the Vampire, by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. They continued performing together after that, and in 1991 the manager of the Coolidge Corner Theater, a local art film cinema, heard them perform at Boston's First Night New Year's Eve celebration.
The theater manager had booked the classic German silent film Metropolis, which had been reissued in the 1970s with a rock soundtrack produced by European hitmaker Giorgio Moroder. Feeling that the score was inappropriate to the film's spirit, he asked the three to put together a new live score. With only two weeks to work on the music, they agreed. Sampson was motivated by his own dislike of the Moroder soundtrack. "The lyrics don't make any sense with the action of the film," he explained to the Boston Globe. "So there'll be this love song happening while the city is exploding." The group took the Alloy Orchestra name to highlight their collection of metal instruments, some of them made from discarded objects. They played conventional instruments as well, and odd hybrids such as a musical saw.
The Metropolis project turned out so well that the group began putting out feelers for chances to accompany other silent films. They got their chance in 1993 with a presentation of The Wind, a classic melodrama featuring silent film star Lillian Gish, as a woman suffering psychological stress caused by living in the isolated environment of the West Texas plains. The film forced the Alloy Orchestra to adapt its percussion-based sound. "There's this 10-minute sequence where Gish is in her cabin in the middle of the desert and there's a raging windstorm and the wind has driven her gradually mad," Sampson told the Globe. The group responded with an effective score heavy on wind sounds and thunder, and soon silent film presenters from beyond Boston began to take notice of the Alloy Orchestra. The group has performed at Colorado's Telluride Festival each year since 1993, and in 1994 nationally syndicated film critic Roger Ebert named the 1929 film Lonesome, with the Alloy Orchestra as accompaniment, as his favorite performance of the festival.
As the Alloy Orchestra took on more and more film scoring projects, their music became more intricate. The Metropolis score came together in two weeks, with the bulk of the group's work done in one marathon viewing session. But by the year 1999, when the group released its Masters of Slapstick CD, the Boston Herald reported that an Alloy Orchestra score distilled "weeks of improvisation." What remained constant was their sensitivity to the films they accompanied and their genius for accomplishing a familiar effect in an unexpected way, as with the tuned horseshoes they used to create delicate romantic music for the appearances of a young couple in one of two scores they created for the famous 1922 German vampire film Nosferatu.
Following Caleb Sampson's death by suicide in 1999, the Alloy Orchestra was able to replace him with former Mission of Burma keyboardist Roger Miller. That same year the group was named to Entertainment Weekly's "It List" of the 100 most creative people or groupings in the entertainment world. By 2002, when they completed their new score for the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Black Pirate, they had created scores for 16 silent features, as well as several for shorter films.
As their career developed, the Alloy Orchestra took on a wider variety of films. At first identified with the classic dramas of silent film and with experimental films like the 1928 Russian silent The Man with a Movie Camera, they branched out into slapstick comedies like Harold Lloyd's Speedy. Audiences for Alloy Orchestra performances grew as a result. In fact, the group was one of the few in the entertainment industry that could legitimately claim to have an appeal to all ages. "We play a lot of children's shows, and they're thrilled," Winokur told the Albuquerque Journal. "But our average age is 47, and we also play to our peers. And then, there are those who went to silent films when they originally came out."
The group has augmented their income with work on videos and commercials for IBM, the National Park Service, and other organizations. Winokur told the Albuquerque Journal that they "kind of three-quarters make a living doing these scores. "Although they might face the threat of a diluted market, the Alloy Orchestra can take satisfaction from the fact that they have started a trend. By the early 2000s, several other groups, including the rock band Yo La Tengo, had entered the silent film soundtrack business, and New York's fashionable Knitting Factory nightclub had instituted a live soundtrack series. The Alloy Orchestra, meanwhile, had performed at nearly 40 theaters and museums in the United States, and had appeared in France, Italy, Spain, Finland, Sweden, England, and New Zealand. With a new score for comedian Buster Keaton's The General ready for touring at the end of 2003, the group that had redefined the art of silent-film accompaniment showed no sign of slowing down.
For the Record …
Members include Terry Donahue , percussion; Roger C. Miller , keyboards; Caleb Sampson (deceased), keyboards; Ken Winokur , percussion, clarinet.
Group formed in Boston, MA, to provide accompaniment for a play, 1985; performed independently; began accompanying silent films, 1991; created scores for more than 15 silent films; also scored videos and television commercials.
Addresses: Office—Alloy Orchestra, 613 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02141. Website—Alloy Orchestra Official Website: http://www.alloyorchestra.com.
New Music for Silent Films, Accurate, 1994.
Lonesome, Bib, 1995.
Silents, Accurate, 1997.
Masters of Slapstick, Accurate, 1999.
Albuquerque Journal, September 6, 2002, p. 1.
Boston Globe, May 7, 1993, Living section, p. 25; March 29, 2002, p. F1; December 21, 2003, p. N11.
Boston Herald, January 14, 2000, p. S6; January 26, 2000, p. 51.
Christian Science Monitor, May 14, 1999, p. 20.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 21, 2001, p. 2.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 27, 2000, p. E6.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), September 4, 1994, p. A66.
Seattle Times, May 25, 1997, p. M4.
Alloy Orchestra Official Website, http://www.alloyorchestra.com (August 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Alloy Orchestra." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/alloy-orchestra
"Alloy Orchestra." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/alloy-orchestra
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