Knowing the score in film, Alloy Orchestra will return to Englert

Alloy Orchestra will make an appearance at the Englert, giving a string twist to film scores.

Jack Howard and Naomi Hofferber

The Cambridge, Massachusetts, film-score group Alloy Orchestra will return to the Englert on Saturday, catching some local flavor for the traveling found-sound ensemble. The group will score Edwald Andre Dupont’s Varieté, a 1925 German silent feature, as well as a short film from the Brinton Collection, a series of early silent films recently unearthed, restored, and donated to the University of Iowa Libraries by Iowa historian Michael Zahs.

The Alloy Orchestra played its first show in Boston in 1991, a live score to Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis, and since then, the ensemble has amassed an impressive repertoire of film soundtrack compositions, accompanying films ranging from the classic American slapstick comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the revolutionary Soviet montage films of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.

As a three-piece group, Alloy Orchestra is unconventional by film-scoring standards; the group has made a name for itself through using heavy, percussive instrumentation and a wide array of found-sounds to evoke a variety of musical styles for the films it scores. The orchestra has been on tour throughout the U.S. the past year.

“The tour is going great,” Alloy Orchestra Director Ken Winokur said. “Varieté is one of my favorite films of all time; the direction is so magnificent. The acting is subtle and realistic. The cinematography is just unbelievable.”

Winokur said the percussive nature of the band allows it to reflect the film’s energy. When the members truly enjoy a film, he said, composing something to go along with it becomes easier.

“This one kind of wrote itself,” Winokur said. “It sounds crazy, but the films speak to us. The films tell us what they need to help export the plot and amplify the emotion.”

He said that while there is always some improvisation in each performance, the main improvisation comes when the members compose — they all work together to compose bit by bit while watching the film.

The performance is co-hosted by FilmScene, which helped to bring Alloy Orchestra to Iowa City the first time, during the early days of FilmScene in 2011. Andrew Sherburne, the founder of FilmScene, said each performance by Alloy is consistently great as well as unique. This time, Alloy prepared a unique, local touch to precede the main event.

“For this particular event, Alloy pulled a silent film from the Brinton Collection, which is housed at the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections,” Sherburne said. “So they chose a film from that collection as an introductory, warm-up film. They’ve had short films preceding the main film on a number of occasions, but we thought this would be a fun one to celebrate our local connection to silent film.”

The Brinton Collection contains a number of silent films from the early film era, collected by William Franklin Brinton, who initially introduced the films to the area. A 2017 documentary Sherburne directed, Saving Brinton, outlined the history of the Brinton Collection and the rediscovery of the films, which were donated to the UI Special Collections in 2014.