The sound of silence

Live music accompanies silent film at cinema series


Erin George

The Alloy Orchestra uses improvised materials such as saws and sheet metal to create soundscapes for silent films.

Celine Gossage, Staff Writer

On a rainy night in Ellis Auditorium, filmgoers were enthralled by a rack of metals and trinkets used to perform live music accompanying a silent film.

Alloy Orchestra, a world-renowned silent film orchestra, performed a live score for a screening of the film “He Who Gets Slapped,” during the Petaluma Cinema Series Dec. 7.

“Every year we do a silent film but so far we’ve only hired piano accompanists,” said Michael Traina, organizer of the Petaluma Cinema Series. “Fortunately the program has been successful enough that I’ve been able to save up a little extra money to produce a special event like this.”
Based in Boston, the three-man musical ensemble writes and performs live accompaniment to classic silent films. It participates in multiple film festivals and cultural centers throughout the US and worldwide. The ensemble’s instruments include a rack of various types of metals and tools and electronic synthesizers, which enables them to create any sound imaginable.

The band members include Ken Winokur, director, who plays percussion and clarinet, Terry Donahue, who plays junk percussion, the accordion and a musical saw, and Roger C. Miller, who plays the keyboard.

“It’s really a community service for Petaluma and for the students to have an inexpensive and very rare opportunity to see something that is really hard to find almost anywhere,” Traina said.

Before the screening of the film, the group spoke of the moment 25 years ago when it was approached by a film producer in Boston to write and perform a song for the silent film “Metropolis.”

“We were thinking it was going to be a weekend’s worth of performances, and we’re still at it today,” Winokur said.

The trio met each other in Boston and got involved in the small music scene around town. “As time went by, when most of the other musicians dropped out to do day jobs, we were the only three left, so we were stuck with each other,” Donahue said.

After that first performance, the trio went on to score 30 silent films. “The thing that makes the Alloy Orchestra unique is that we compose collectively,” miller said.

Once it decides on a film, the ensemble watches it. It then goes into a studio to record improvised music for each scene. The trio often comes up with different themes and repeats a theme throughout the film. The process is completely different from composing a score for a feature, where a composer sits down in front of a computer and talks with the directors. “We don’t have to talk to the directors because they’re dead,” Miller said jokingly.

The group finds the silent era of film inspiring. “What’s really cool about it is that all there is, is the image. There’s no talking, there’s no sound effects, there’s no wind, and so we make all that stuff,” Miller said.

“Ideally what we’re looking for is films that have a rhythm of their own that we can latch onto and help propel and bring up to the modern attention span for modern audiences.” Donahue said. “As a musician it’s really cool to be able to play to these silent films because each film is completely different from the last one that we did. It pushes you in directions that you wouldn’t normally go.”

The film screened at the Petaluma campus, “He Who Gets Slapped,” tells the story of a scientist who suffers a humiliating fall from grace. He then becomes a bitter clown who is repeatedly slapped for the amusement of a circus act.

“Programming this film was a combination of really great visual storytelling combined with the fact that it features some of the greatest actors of the era,” Traina said.

The film stars Lon Chaney, one of the most famous horror actors of the silent era.

“I think for anyone it’s much easier to see how well these films communicate when they’re accompanied by a live performance,” Traina said.