A highlight of each Maryland Film Festival is the Sunday morning screening of a silent movie with a new score composed and performed live by the Alloy Orchestra. Every year since 2003, Alloy has brought a different silent picture to the festival. Off to one side of the screen, Roger Miller sits behind an electric keyboard, while Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue stand behind a wardrobe-sized rack of percussion instruments, both traditional and "junkyard" (their term).
It's a small orchestra—just three Boston musicians—but they make a hell of a racket. Whether it's a Hollywood adventure like "Son of Sheik," an experimental Russian film like "Man with a Movie Camera," or this year's long-lost German masterpiece "Variety," the trio's muscular rhythms and hooky riffs seem to push the screen action ever forward.
The scores resemble neither the music of the 1920s when the films were made nor the music of the 2010s but rather a one-of-a-kind sound that forms a bridge between the two eras.
"Our job, and it seems to be working pretty well, is to translate these films into today, so today's audiences can get them," Miller says. "We're making them come alive now with a modern sensibility. It's the same film, but we're providing a way into it. Most of the music we play, they never would have thought of back then."
What many film-fest goers don't know is that Miller was once the co-founder of Boston's groundbreaking post-punk band Mission of Burma. The original line-up only played for four years and only recorded for two, but their jagged guitar noise, avant-garde subtext, and tumbling momentum created the template for Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Nirvana, among others.
"Mission of Burma sounded extremely different from the Alloy Orchestra," Miller admits. "The first band could go wherever it wanted—and often didn't know where that was—while Alloy has to conform to the picture, which never changes and never responds. I played guitar in Mission and keys with Alloy. On the other hand, both groups are trios, anarchistic democracies without a leader. Given that I'm a headstrong control freak, it's strange that I gravitate to these situations. In Mission, we all wrote, though separately, and in Alloy we compose collectively. The result is very different, but the process is similar."
Mission of Burma disbanded in 1983, when the band's high volume levels were creating ringing sounds in Miller's ears.
"I wanted to be able to still hear when I was 50," says Miller, 31 then and 65 now. "When I turned 51, I could still hear, so I started the band up again."
In its second incarnation, Mission released four more albums. In the meantime, Miller kept himself occupied with quieter rock projects such as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and M2 and with a new career in "soundtracking": creating musical scores and sound design for everything from Slurpee commercials to left-wing documentaries.
Three of his fellow Boston soundtrackers—Winokur, Donahue, and keyboardist Caleb Sampson—had created the Alloy Orchestra in 1991 and had acquired a reputation for creating imaginative new scores for old silent films. Miller was a fan and was shaken when Sampson committed suicide in 1998. A few days later Winokur called and all he said was, "You know what this phone call is about, don't you?" Miller knew, and a short while later he became the new member of the Alloy Orchestra.
"The first thing we did was Eisenstein's 'Strike,'" Miller recalls, "and I was freaking out, because I was used to doing 15-second commercials where every split second counts. They told me, 'Just get a groove going and it will come. It's not like animation where you need a specific sound every time the bird moves its head.' So I relaxed, and it started to come more easily. You get a theme that fits the mood of the movie, and you do variations on that for each scene. We're improvising a lot of the time, which makes some people think we're the Anti-Christs of the silent-film world. But a lot of people didn't like Mission of Burma either."
For this year's Maryland Film Festival, the Alloy Orchestra is bringing a new print and a new score for the 1925 German movie "Variety." It's a legendary film, not only because it includes one of actor Emil Jannings' greatest performances, but also because it contains cinematographer Karl Freund's unprecedentedly mobile camera, which led to his work on "Metropolis" and "Dracula." For a long time, though, the picture was more written about than seen, because no decent print had been located.
"A new version of 'Variety' was found," Miller says. "and it was released in Europe with a new score, which was terrifyingly bad. The Telluride Festival said they'd show the film only if there was a new score and we did it. Jannings is stunning; there's one scene where he's acting with only his back, and you feel this tremendous tension without seeing his face. The story is super-dark and warped, which fits the Alloy Orchestra's sensibility. And it takes place around a circus, which enables us to play some circus music with Ken's clarinet and Terry's accordion."
Winokur is the group's silent-film expert, who's in touch with collectors, festivals, and preservationists. Once he finds a quality print that he thinks will work with the Alloy Orchestra, the trio gathers in a rehearsal space to see it. The second time watching it, they start to improvise music that fits each scene. Out of the improvisation come the thematic melodies that will be refined and harmonized by Miller.
"We never want to walk on the film," Miller insists. "If we distract you from what's happening on the screen, we've failed. If you forget we're there, we've accomplished our mission. It's a strange thing for a musician to want, but that's what it is."
The Alloy Orchestra performs its live score for "Variety" on May 7 at 11 a.m. in Parkway 1.