Alloy Orchestra finds niche by silver screen
By Jeremy D. Goodwin, Special to The Eagle
Posted: 08/04/2011 12:06:00 AM EDT
Thursday August 4, 2011
It's an unlikely set of circumstances. When the near-mythical German silent film "Metropolis" received the highly anticipated United States debut of a significantly expanded and restored version last year at Hollywood's Turner Classic Film Festival, the occasion wasn't complete without the participation of an oddball musical trio from Cambridge with a fondness for instruments forged out of scrap metal.
"I almost would not have expected it to happen, because those sorts of perfect things don't usually happen," reflects Alloy Orchestra founder Ken Winokur in a telephone interview from his home in Somerville. "But it did."
The three-member Alloy Orchestra will perform the definitive incarnation of its score for Fritz Lang's 1927 science-fiction classic alongside a screening of the film at Mass MoCA on Saturday.
Just about everything about Alloy Orchestra is unlikely. For an initial gig on Boston Common during New Year's Eve festivities in 1990, the group created a multi-ton, musical metal sculpture. A leader in the Boston-area film community saw the performance and invited the trio to play a live score for some upcoming screenings of "Metropolis."
The resulting score turned into the group's signature work, spawning a career of over 20 years and over 20 full-length scores to silent-film classics (including Buster Keaton's "The General" and the original "The Lost World"), plus scores for almost as many film shorts. Famed film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the group no less than "the best in the world at accompanying silent films."
"Not having any sense this was more than three or four shows worth of performances, we didn't have any expectations for it," recalls Winokur of the beginnings of the group. "But by the middle of the composition of the score, or certainly by the middle of the first show, I think it dawned on us that there was something unusually good about this combination of playing live music along with really great, classic silent film. The shows went fabulously, and we kept doing it over and over again. So we said to ourselves, we should do more [scores]."
The vintage of their chosen films notwithstanding, these are not your great-grandfather's film scores. The Alloy makes its metallic rumble -- by turns jazzy, ghostly, and thunderous -- from the likes of bedpans, truck springs and its homespun "rack of junk," in addition to more conventional instruments like clarinet and accordion.
Winokur and Terry Donahue take care of the percussion and other odds and ends, while Roger Miller mans the keyboards. (Miller, who in his other musical life is known as the guitarist for legendary Boston punk band Mission of Burma, joined the group after the death of founding member Caleb Sampson in 1990.)
Given the role of Lang's film in launching the Alloy Orchestraís winning concept, it was big news not only to the worldwide community of early-film buffs, but to the Cambridge ensemble as well, when an expanded cut of "Metropolis" was improbably discovered in 2008 in Argentina.
The original version of Lang's dystopian masterpiece -- about a futuristic city divided between upper-class overlords living in towering skyscrapers and the underground-dwelling proletariat -- is believed to have been about two-and-one-half hours long.
In the face of a cool commercial reception, it was quickly re-shaped into a 90-minute version, which became the incarnation that has inspired generations of filmmakers and film-lovers. A.O. Scott of The New York Times has called the film ìone of the strangest, most fascinating films ever made ... Just about every science-fiction movie you can think of pays tribute to its influence, but to date none has matched its strangeness or its prophetic power."
"Metropolis" has occasionally been restored and re-tooled a bit, causing the Alloy to reconfigure its score. But this latest revision, including many extended scenes and 25 minutes of previously unknown footage, comes in at a mere four minutes shorter than the original cut and is seen as almost certainly the definitive version of "Metropolis," as close to its director's original vision as we are likely to ever see.
When word got out about the newly discovered print, Winokur was initially skeptical.
"Oh God, now we have to re-write the score again," he recalls thinking. "Having actually seen it, there's no question. The film is coherent, has more continuity, more beautiful scenery, more complex characters. It's a quantum leap into the plus side," he says.
Beyond adjusting the score to fit the new pacing, Winokur and company also had to respond to elements of the film that had become more pronounced. In particular, the character known as the Thin Man, previously a figure of lesser importance, had emerged as a more fully realized character. So the Alloy wrote a brand-new theme to accompany the Thin Man's appearances.
"I really like the Thin Man's theme," he says. "He is a very creepy figure that kind of comes in periodically, and it's nice to be able to interject that creepy musical stuff when that happens. He's a very menacing kind of character."
Menacing, prophetic, inspirational: "Metropolis" incorporates many moods, and that suits the unconventional Alloy Orchestra just fine.
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