October 14, 2005

Live Cinema

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“The effect of live accompaniment is far more dynamic; it’s much more exciting to go to something live because it offers that extra amount of energy,” says composer and musician, Ken Winokur. The idea seems obvious when you think it through. Having composed various scores for both silent and modern films, Winokur is the founding member of the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man musical ensemble with Winokur on junk percussion and clarinet, Roger C. Miller (lead singer from Mission of Burma) on synthesizer and Terry Donahue on junk percussion, accordion, saw, and banjo. Specializing in the writing and performance of live accompaniment to silent films for over 12 years, the group can essentially create any effect or type of music that a movie requires with their unique brand of sound, a combination of percussion and electronics.

Winokur describes the process of scoring a film as initially being extremely improvisational. “First, we watch the movie in its entirely several times. We essentially improvise on each scene and record what we have, repeating this process scene by scene until we finish the movie. Then comes the lengthy process where we take these very rough, very simple thematic ideas and turn them into songs elaborately timed to fit the picture.”

The allure of the Alloy Orchestra lies in the group’s determination to escape all things formulaic. “We’re influenced by everything and nothing,” said Winokur cheerfully. “We don’t refer to original scores and we try not to listen to them in order to keep ourselves fresh and uninfluenced.” The group members’ diverse musical backgrounds are eclectic to say the least, ranging from rock to Senegalese drumming to jazz.

Despite the innovative musical choices the ensemble decides to make, the Alloy Orchestra always try to complement the content of the film being scored. “The goal is always the same: take the ideas that the director had as you can best define them and try to amplify these thematic ideas,” explained Winokur. “In silent films, the actual score is the power because there is no dialogue. This is when background music can actually come to the forefront.”

Armed with two brand new scores for two recently restored films, the Alloy Orchestra is coming to Cornell this weekend (Oct. 14 – 15). Opening the weekend with their rendition of the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail on Saturday, the group will follow up by performing alongside Rupert Julian’s 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Winokur describes Blackmail as “the best of Hitchcock’s silent films” because “it’s fabulous in the way that Hitchcock films are: incredibly tense and on the edge of your seat. The story has a slow development, which inspired one of our first more subtle scores.”

And the score for Phantom? Winokur admits, “This film was unlike any that we had done before.” Because music was already such an established portion of the movie, the ensemble found that they often had to build off of pre-existing, determined aspects of the storyline. According to Winokur, “There was one scene where everyone is dancing to the opera, Faust and it seemed obvious that we needed to utilize that music. So we decided to use several scenes from the opera by Gounod and rendered our own orchestrations to it.”

“The biggest challenge,” explained Winokur, “was not to overwhelm the movie with junk metal procession. We’re playing a lot more melodic stuff but when the big chase scenes come, we’ll definitely bring out the big drums again.”

Winokur’s own involvement with Julian’s film extends far beyond the merely musical. Along with his wife, filmmaker Jane Gillooly, Winokur supervised the restoration of the original print of Phantom. A process with various components, the year-long project included 218 tinting changes, the search for a scene originally shot in early Technicolor, the hand coloring of three different scenes by a woman in France, the digital manipulation of a scene that recreated a black and white scene meant to be in Technicolor and the employment of a wetgate to cover up scratches on negatives, among other things. “It was a very elaborately-colored film,” said Winokur, “and our goal was to put it back in its original form. Even now, we’re still not quite finished.”

With frequent performances and participation in various film festivals the Alloy Orchestra is a thriving, living phenomenon, always on the look out for new film projects, much like the brazen, energetic style of play that it’s known for. Said Winokur, “We’ve found a good niche and we’re not trying to get out of it.”

Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor