CAMBRIDGE — The film historian David Thomson has heard Alloy Orchestra accompany silent films on several occasions. The most recent was at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, for “Metropolis.”
Fritz Lang’s classic was the first score the Alloys did. That was 23 years ago. They’ve since done nearly two dozen other features — epics and slapstick and even documentaries — and numerous shorts.
“Metropolis” remains their “bread and butter,” said percussionist-accordionist Terry Donahue, 51, in a joint interview earlier this month at the East Cambridge-based trio’s rehearsal space. The other members are percussionist-clarinetist Ken Winokur, 58, and keyboardist Roger C. Miller, 59, who when not Alloying is guitarist of Mission of Burma. Winokur estimates they’ve performed the “Metropolis” score 400 to 500 times.
Thomson, recalling that San Francisco performance, wrote in an e-mail, “The film had never been as crazy or compelling, and a lot of that was due to the live music by and from the Alloy Orchestra. It was so exciting I think Lang’s monocle would have popped out.”
The Alloys tend to have that effect, and not just on eyewear. Sheldon Mirowitz, who teaches film composing at Berklee College of Music, called them in an e-mail “the gold standard in contemporary scores for silent films.” Mirowitz hailed the ensemble as “thoroughly original, bracingly contemporary and always right cinematically. Unlike so many contemporary musicians who use silent films as an excuse for making their music, the Alloys are dedicated storytellers who always get it right narratively and emotionally, improving the movies that they score.”
This Saturday, Alloy Orchestra accompanies the local premiere of a triple bill of newly restored digital prints of Buster Keaton shorts at the Somerville Theatre: Keaton’s screen debut, “The Butcher Boy”; “Good Night, Nurse!”; and “The Play House.” Fatty Arbuckle directed the first two, Keaton the third.
The band wrote the first two scores a dozen years ago for a DVD release. “The Play House” score is on their latest disc, “Wild and Weird.”
“Early on, our modern approach raised some eyebrows.” Donahue said. “People were afraid we were making fun of these movies, that we were doing a ‘Mystery Science Theater’ thing. That’s never been our approach at all.”
The Alloys average 60 engagements a year, and every winter one of them tends to be at the Somerville. “I don’t know how,” Winokur said, “but we started doing these late January, February shows, and they worked really good. It’s nice because we can get to Somerville.”
“It all fits in a Ford van,” Winokur said of the post-industrial array of instruments the band uses, which includes pots and pans as well as standard percussion and Miller’s synthesizer. The appeal of short travel time notwithstanding, the band has played venues as distant as the Louvre, the Maui Film Festival, and the New Zealand International Arts Festival.
“Sometimes people will come to see us, regardless of the movie,” Donahue said. “Other people will come because of the movie. It can be a difficult thing to explain until you’ve seen or heard [what the band does]. You tell somebody you want to go see a silent movie. ‘Well, I don’t know.’ It has live music. ‘Well, I don’t know.’ They play, like, pots and pans and stuff. ‘Well, definitely not!’ But no, it actually works.”
Sometimes an Alloy score will be commissioned by a film festival. Sometimes the band does a score on its own.
“What we do is multilayered,” Donahue explained. “We are doing the underscoring. We are trying, in some cases, to take the place of the dialogue and help propel the film along. Then we’re adding our own sound effects and Foley effects. So it’s three-pronged.”
It took Winokur, Donahue, and original keyboardist Caleb Sampson two weeks to do the “Metropolis” music. (After Sampson’s death, in 1998, Miller joined the band.) The Alloys now take two to three months to compose a score.
The procedure for each score is “very collaborative,” Winokur said. “It starts usually as an improvisation based on what we’re seeing on the screen. Somebody will throw out an idea. Someone else will then put his own spin on it.”
“Coming up with the original themes is usually pretty easy,” Miller added. “Developing them, that’s what gets hard.”
Once a theme is developed it gets shaped and put into place. “We mold it to fit the scene,” Donahue said. “So it goes scene by scene by scene. Now we go back to those 150, 200 different cues and blend them, hopefully, into one seamless performance.”
The challenges posed by a film as long and complex as “Metropolis” are fairly obvious, starting with sheer stamina. What about the Keaton triple bill?
“Comedies are always that much more fast-paced,” Donahue said. “So they are generally the hardest thing that we do. With the shorts, you’re squeezing a whole film into 20 minutes. That’s hard enough. Then you instantly have to get into a next one and a next one. So the shorts programs are the most difficult for us to do. All the cues are so fast. The tunes are generally very fast. It’s a frenetic experience.”
Winokur made a mock grimace. “Shorts aren’t that short! In fact, you kind of have to score them like a whole movie.”
Shorts aren’t better than features, per se, Miller added, nor features better than shorts. But they do have their differences. “When you have a feature-length film, say [Josef] von Sternberg’s ‘Underworld,’ you have a general feel for the whole film. Themes will recur, with variations. It unfolds in a more graceful way. I like the shorts a lot, actually. But from a musical point of view features unfold more naturally.”
Donahue laughed. “So you can have your leitmotifs, but they come or go in six to eight seconds.”
Ultimately, Donahue said, the issue isn’t whether a film is a short or a feature. It’s the work’s quality. “We try to start with a great film, regardless of length or style. That makes our job a lot easier. One, we have to see it over and over again. Two, from an audience point of view, their focus is on the film. So a lot of times they’ll say they forgot we were there, which is a great compliment.”