Alloy Orchestra backs silent films at the Castro Theatre
by Michael McDonagh
What's the difference between seeing a film without sound, and seeing it with sound? And what does sound – in this case, music – do to film images? These questions came to mind when I watched the DVD of Dziga Vertov's 1929 Soviet silent The Man with the Movie Camera, which Alloy Orchestra's director Ken Winokur sent me, and which the trio (also including Terry Donahue and Roger Miller) will be performing live at the Castro Theatre on July 18, as part of the 15th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Silents were never intended to be received in silence, and Alloy is part of a surge of contemporary composers adding music to new or classic silent films. Alloy's live music with film screenings – their other Castro date is Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis on July 16, with Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail at the Rafael Film Center on July 19 – are continuing a now-venerable tradition of adding sound to silence.
How do they feel about adding this extra layer? "What we do is really kind of manipulative," notes Winokur from Cambridge, MA, in our first phone chat. "I mean, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc would be almost unwatchable without music, and I think Richard Einhorn's score for it is probably the best silent film score ever written."
How did they go about scoring Vertov's classic, which announced in its opening titles that it intended to present "an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events based on the total separation from the language of theater and literature," just as audiences were beginning to "read" a film through these time-tested lenses? "There are no real rules for this kind of thing," Donahue says when we talk on the phone, though he admits that Vertov's extensive notes, which amount to a
But how did Vertov's playing with time – real time, simultaneous time, cut-up time, and superimposed time – influence their approach? Winokur responds via e-mail that "Usai and Tsivian were constantly pushing us to recreate the time effects that are seen in the film. Music is a linear, time-based medium. Where you can easily move time around in a film, it doesn't work as well with music."
There doesn't seem to be anything abstract about experiencing Alloy live. Donahue's keen on the performative nature of their work, as well as their unusual instrumentation – junk, accordion, clarinet, musical saw, percussion, keyboards, and vocals – and stresses "the whole interaction between film and music. The score is ever-changing and ever-organic."
Alloy's performances of The Man with the Movie Camera and Metropolis, in a restored and lengthened print, will surely sound as "basically instinctive" as the way they collaborate on the spot, or as Donahue puts it, "We race from the idea, and everybody jumps in from there."
Screening info at www.silentfilm.org