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The Sound of Silents

Masters of Slapstick


The noise in the band.
  • The noise in the band.
When the Alloy Orchestra was traveling from Italy to Slovenia, a customs official looked at each musician's box and asked what instrument it contained, to which the group members found themselves answering, "That one has a frying pan in it; that one has an accordion in it; that one has a bedpan and some truck parts in it . . ." The bewildered customs official looked up at them and said, "I don't believe you."

You won't believe it either when the three-man Alloy Orchestra hauls its mountain of scrap metal and electronics to the Cleveland Cimematheque on Thursday night to provide accompaniment to two silent film programs. First up is Masters of Slapstick, three short comedies from Charlie Chaplin (1917's Easy Street), Buster Keaton (1920's One Week), and Laurel and Hardy (1929's Big Business). The second program is Fritz Lang's 1926 masterpiece Metropolis, a futuristic science fiction parable of a city congested with skyscrapers, where the rich lounge in luxury above ground while the poor toil away at machinery underground.

"We love working with the film community," says percussionist Ken Winokur. "They haven't figured out that they can get away with abusing musicians. They think we're real people."

Taken together, the two programs are a romp through an assortment of styles and moods. While the soundtrack for the comedy films sounds something like Carl Stalling -- cult-hero composer of the old Warner Brothers cartoons -- and Spike Jones doing battle in a scrap-metal bin, the score for Metropolis is highly dramatic, with melodic passages tucked between sections of mechanistic drumming and thunderous chase scenes. The group's methods for coming up with fitting accompaniments are as diverse as the instruments used to perform them.

"We always love it when things screw up -- especially things that aren't under our control," explains keyboardist Roger Miller, a former member of Mission of Burma. "One time, when the film broke, we were in the middle of a huge drum barrage. We just kept playing until the film started up again. People thought it was part of the show. But the main thing about our score composing is that it is very collaborative. Through talking, babbling, happy accidents, and occasional bickering, we come to collective decisions about what to do."

"I suppose it's quite unusual that we co-compose everything," Winokur admits. "But it seems like the obvious way to go about song composition."

And it would appear the method of music making is working. Founded in the early 1990s, the Alloy Orchestra is already heralded as one of the leading avant-garde interpreters of silent films -- a reputation firmly established at the 1993 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, where the audience response was so overwhelming that they have been invited to return every year since. The next year, Roger Ebert picked an Alloy Orchestra soundtrack as his favorite performance at the Telluride festival, and in 1999 the group made Entertainment Weekly's "100 Most Creative People in Entertainment" list. The group has now performed all over the world, from the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy to the New Zealand International Arts Festival, and in venues from Lincoln Center to the Louvre.

According to Miller, the group has subsequently found fans in unlikely places. "We played in Budapest in fall '98. After the show, a gentleman came up and shook my hand. I overheard his birth year and realized it was the same as mine, so I made some comment on this, and we "slapped five.' When he walked off, one of the locals pointed out that this was the mayor of Budapest!"

Reminded of the incident with the Slovenian customs official, Winokur adds, "Actually, most of our problems come from trying to get our instruments back into the United States." You would think a guy could reenter his own country without having to explain his musical bedpan.

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