Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue and Roger Miller (of the band Mission of Burma, not the "King of the Road"), use computers, clarinets and a wall of percussion instruments known as "the rack of junk" to perform original scores for silent movies. Since 1991, Alloy Orchestra has sonically enhanced cinematic treasures such as Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate and the slapstick comedy shorts of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
For the current tour, Alloy performs with Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 film Blackmail. Released as both a silent movie and a talkie, Blackmail is the story of a young girl who kills her would-be rapist, then finds herself trapped between the police investigator (her boyfriend, no less) and a nefarious blackmailer. These noir story elements and the Hitchcockian flair make it ideal for Alloy accompaniment.
The trio used their standard methodology to score Blackmail: repeated viewings of the film, playing along as the movie unfolds. "It's a bit of a free-for-all," laughs Winokur. "We just play the tape on a studio deck and jam with it, one person or another throwing out ideas, and another person comes in behind it, until you get something good." This process requires multiple viewings, followed by twenty or thirty full rehearsals of the score. "Rehearsals are our secret weapon," Winokur adds. "We end up with a very polished show by rehearsing it a lot, and we do something that's very complex and very intricate and still seems perfect to the audience."
Much of Alloy's success also comes from the orchestra members' commitment to serving the film, and their careful analysis of when they should provide sound effects and when they need to enhance the mood.
"Every scene we think about this," says Winokur. "Comedies and sound effects? You almost can't do too many of them. But when we're doing Blackmail, it's a serious film, and the sound effects tend to shatter the mood of the piece."
Alloy's loyalty to the filmmakers' vision seems as anachronistic as the reality of a live band providing a true soundtrack, i.e., one that buttresses the film rather than overpowering it in this THX Digital Sound era. But the Alloy Orchestra bridges the worlds of film appreciation, musical composition and the avant garde to craft a work of art, a timeless creation that transcends any era. The end result is beautiful whether you love "the movies" or film.