The Alloy Orchestra

As the 2009 calendar turned the gentle corner from the warm days of summer to the crisp evenings of fall, the Detroit Movie Palaces rolled out their autumn offerings on the weekend of September 11-13.

At the Redford, the September-December 2009 schedule kicked off in 3-D with a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder. At the Michigan, visitors sang along with the 1982 movie Annie, launching the theater’s fall series of musicals.

And at the Detroit Film Theatre, the Autumn 2009 season opened with three performances by the dynamic, eclectic silent film performers The Alloy Orchestra. This powerful three-man combo has brought their very modern sound to the DFT almost every year since 1995. They use keyboards and a wide variety of percussion instruments, including pots and pans, to produce an intensely dramatic experience.

Before the September 11, 2009 showing of The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), the orchestra held a special performance of their music in the Detroit Institute of Arts, allowing visitors to participate. This DIA performance was a good way to promote the DFT, which since the completion of the DIA renovation in 2007 has been more accessible to DIA visitors. While relaxing in the Crystal Gallery Café, I saw different people (including some Alloy Orchestra musicians) carrying the unique musical instruments from the DIA performance to the (of course) orchestra pit of the DFT.

Soon, I moved to main floor of the auditorium, joining a large Friday night crowd for this single performance of The Man with the Movie Camera, which was written and directed by Dziga Vertov, a Russian experimental filmmaker.

The audience included many young people (including children), perhaps seeing a silent film in a theater for the first time. Before the movie, DIA Director of Public Programs Larry Baranski thanked the crowd for its support of the DFT through a recent arts fundraising effort.

The lights went down, and we were plunged into a flashy, accelerated montage of images and scenes from the daily life of Russia in the 1920s. The abstract, dynamic style of the movie might be the perfect match for the style of the Alloy Orchestra. I couldn’t imagine this film being accompanied by the Barton organ of the Michigan or Redford, or the piano-playing of another DFT silent movie musician, David Drazin.

Vertov was one of the most influential Russian filmmakers during the 1920s, an explosively creative time in that country that also included famous films by Sergei M. Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother). Vertov’s work was daring and wildly experimental, and I found many reactions to The Man with the Movie Camera in my library of film books:

“His last film, The Man with the Movie Camera, was a wonderful piece of virtuosity, of montage, of material and of cutting, a perfect exposition of the cinematic values available to the director, but little else.” The Film Till Now (1929), by Paul Rotha

“The city scenes are fleeting and seemingly filmed haphazardly. But the structure is original in conception.” The Film Encyclopedia (2001), by Ephraim Katz, Fred Klein, and Ronald Dean Nolen

“Perhaps if the selection of images was less arbitrary, or if there had been a theme – or related themes – or even a building of images, it would not have been made so completely obsolete (unlike Berlin: die Symphonie einer Grossstadt) by the myriads of feet of film shot since.” The Story of Cinema (1982), by David Shipman

Powerful Music

The signature sound of The Alloy Orchestra seems to be a surging, symphonic sound, driven by military march-style drumming. Another unique technique is the isolation of percussion sounds, like chimes, used for both dramatic and humorous effect. As the film rolled before the opening credits of The Man with the Movie Camera, the group gave a creative imitation of a scratchy film sound, helping pull the audience into their special world of silent film music.

At the Redford and Michigan, the silent movie organists have often said that if they are doing their job right, you won’t notice them during the film. With the Alloy Orchestra, the opposite effect seems to be intended, with the carefully choreographed movements of the two percussionists amidst their creative variety of instruments.

Sometimes the actions of the musicians, positioned right in front of the audience, is as fascinating as the action on the screen. The performers were most prominent at the end of the movie, when the frenetic pace of the edits was matched by the furious movements of the musicians. The balcony gave a particularly good view of the orchestra, with its high angle exposure of all the different instruments.

An irony of hearing The Alloy Orchestra at the DFT is its modern approach to an old film art in a classic theater setting. After seeing many traditional, high quality silent film performances involving organ and piano music at the Redford, Michigan and DFT, I’ve tried to pinpoint the Alloy Orchestra’s unique role in the presentation and preservation of silent film.

They’ve done an outstanding job of introducing many people (including myself) to the live accompaniment of silent movies in theaters, helping lead them to the discovery of the more traditional forms of silent film music. Their amplified, rock-flavored sound has helped bring in the young audience that often stays away from the foreign, independent, documentary, and classic sound films shown at the DFT. And they’ve helped bring back films that might have faded into obscurity, like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) and Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927).

On this near-summer evening at the DFT, it was nice to once again see familiar faces, from the parking lot attendant to the ticket seller to the ticket taker to the servers in the café. The always-informative publicity table in the inner lobby included a catalog of film and television books from the Wayne State University Press, as the DFT continued its productive relationship with WSU.

The new season has a definite musical theme, with several music-related movies in November, and the launch of a series of opera presentations that includes Puccini’s La bohème (October 22 and 24), Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (November 26 and 28), and a holiday season showing of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker on December 27 and January 3.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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