The Alloy Orchestra and a History of Silent Film Music

Alloy Orchestra

If you’ve never watched a classic silent film accompanied by live music, it’s an experience like no other. It’s like going back in time and heading into the future all at the same time. And it brings those great films to a whole new generation.

During the 9th Annual Traverse City Film Festival, you have the opportunity to experience it for yourself with festival regulars the Alloy Orchestra, accompanying Rupert Julian’s silent classic The Phantom of the Opera,” playing on Sunday, Aug. 4, 3:30 p.m. at the State Theatre.

Back when silent films first began, they almost always featured live music, starting with the pianist at the very first public projection of movies by the Lumière Brothers on Dec. 28, 1895 in Paris.

Small town and neighborhood movie theaters usually had a pianist, and beginning in the mid-1910s, large city theaters began featuring organists or ensembles of musicians. Massive theater organs, like the famous “Mighty Wurlitzer,” were designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra. Those organs had the capability of simulating a variety of sounds, from cymbals to rolling thunder to galloping horses.

The music for early silent films was either improvised or consisted of classical or theatrical repertory music. From there, it progressed to original music with cue sheets from the movie studios that included notes about effects and moods to watch for.

The first designated full blown score was composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, for 1908’s “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise,” and by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, for Stenka Razin. By 1915, when Joseph Carl Breil composed a mostly original score for D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking epic “The Birth of a Nation,” it became somewhat common for big-budget films to arrive at the exhibiting theater with original scores.

Jump ahead to current day, and music is once again being composed specifically for those great classic films. Roger Ebert called Alloy Orchestra “the best in the world at accompanying silent films,” and we are very, very fortunate that they’re regulars at the Traverse City Film Festival.

Brigitte Helm in Metropolis

Brigitte Helm in “Metropolis” | Paramount

The group is composed of Terry Donahue (junk, accordion, musical saw, vocals), Ken Winokur (director, junk percussion and clarinet), and Roger Miller (keyboards).

Their impressive career began more than two decades ago on a snow-swept pedestal in the middle of Boston Commons, where they gathered together tons of junk metal, found objects, and homemade instruments. The goal was to create original music and have fun.

Now almost 22 years later, Alloy has showcased their musical magic in more than a thousand performances, visiting a dozen countries and helping to revitalize the medium of live performance for silent film.

In 1991, they wrote their first original score, for 1926’s Fritz Lang-directed film “Metropolis.” Since then, they’ve written scores for 28 feature length film presentations, including 1927’s “The Eagle,” starring Rudolph Valentino; 1922’s “Manslaughter, directed by Cecil B. Demille; and 1927’s “Underworld,” directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The Alloy Orchestra’s unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics gives them the ability to create any sound imaginable, from a French symphony to a simple German bar band of the 1920’s. The group can make the audience think it’s being attacked by tigers, contacted by radio signals from Mars, or swept up in the Russian Revolution.

In addition to the Traverse City Film Festival, the Alloy Orchestra has performed at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center in New York, the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and many more.

Be sure to catch this amazing group at the Traverse City Film Festival. Check out their web site and view video clips from their silent films at

Read more about the classic films playing at the 9th Annual Traverse City Film Festival.