“You turned around, screamed at the scene,
Grabbed my hand and leapt out of the screen.”
When Roger Miller sang—or rather, barked—these words on the song “Outlaw,” from Mission of Burma’s seminal 1981 Signals, Calls, and Marches EP, I’m sure nothing was further from his mind than silent films. At the time Mission of Burma was on the cutting edge of the American post-punk scene, vying with bands like the Talking Heads and Devo for critical acclaim (if not market share). Miller was lauded by many as a leading poet of the genre, with lyrics exhibiting a cerebral nature that the previous generation of punk had largely lacked. Jaded art school kids and volatile punks alike gathered for the band’s notoriously loud and raucous shows.
Today, however, Roger Miller’s words have a sense of poignance. For the last two decades Miller has served as one-third of Alloy Orchestra, a collective known the world over for their avant-garde silent film scores. The group’s abrasive, industrial sound is perhaps best suited to horror films, which call to mind Miller’s lyric to a T. Watch Kinugasa’s nightmarish A Page of Madness with Alloy Orchestra’s score, and you too might by tempted to scream at the scene. Lon Chaney’s famous reveal in Phantom of the Opera, or Maria’s transformation in Metropolis, have made countless viewers leap out of their seats, if not the screen.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Roger Miller on the phone from his home in New England. The following conversation will appear in print in a forthcoming issue of Silent Film Quarterly.
SFQ: When were you first introduced to silent films?
RM: My first experience with silent film was growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. University of Michigan had a film series and my family went to see Buster Keaton’s The General when I was 10 years old, which Alloy Orchestra just played yesterday in Beverly, Massachusetts. I was profoundly affected by it as a 10 year old boy, the injustice to Buster Keaton, and people dying—it’s funny, by that point I had seen plenty of westerns with cowboys and Indians shooting each other and dying, but none of those had any effect on me. Whereas the Keaton film had much more depth. It felt to me like these people really died, and Buster was really mistreated. That’s my first recollection of silent film.
The early 20th century is when the modern world kind of became defined. I’m not a gigantic film person, but I’ve always liked film and I’ve always considered silent film to be just as important as “talkies” and CGI. It impresses me a lot more to see what Buster Keaton did than what Keanu Reeves does with CGI. You feel like it’s really happening.
How did you first start scoring silent films?
When I was still living in Ann Arbor I had a girlfriend who was a dancer, and she would bring me to accompany her dance classes. Eventually I started playing for the University of Michigan and was offered a full-time position. I seemed to have a knack at accompanying things, which led me to being a film composer. When Mission of Burma folded in 1983, a good friend of mine, David Kleiler, who actually instigated Alloy Orchestra’s career in silent film a little bit later down the road, had me accompany silent films. He was one of the first promoters—certainly the first in the Boston area—that would do silent films with accompaniment.
I had a piano that had strings on it, that was also electric so you could amplify it, and I would use guitar devices and preparations with alligator clips and bolts Then I would accompany Un Chien Andalou, or a Fatty Arbuckle short called The Waiters’ Ball, which was just hysterical. It was a way to have a gig. I also did Berlin: Symphony of a City, which was my first “symphony of a city” type of piece. I found it was really easy to do and really fun to do. That’s how I came into it—it was like, “Wow, here’s something I can do now that I’m not in Mission of Burma.”
How did you become acquainted with Alloy Orchestra?
Because I toured a lot with other bands—Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and my Maximum Electric Piano solo stuff—I wasn’t around all the time. Metropolis had just been done with a Giorgio Moroder score, which was this great thing that brought the film back into the public eye. And David Kleiler wanted to show this film, but he did not think Loverboy and Pat Benatar was appropriate for the film Metropolis. From what I understand, if I had been around I might have done it as a solo act, but instead the Alloy Orchestra was around. He knew Caleb Sampson, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue, so those guys did it instead. Which is just luck of the draw, and it’s better that they did, because at that time I was touring a lot and they weren’t, so they gave it more than I probably would have given it. And also, their legendary “rack of junk” really fit the industrial theme. So I was not in the Alloy Orchestra at that point, but I was a fan. I had seen them play, and Ken, who had already played in some of my ensembles, said, “You should really come see us do Metropolis. People are really freaking out about it, and I’ll put you on the guest list.”
I was completely blown away by their performance of Metropolis. After the first 15 minutes I forgot they were there, and by the end everyone in the sold-out Coolidge Corner Theatre was on their feet. I couldn’t help it—as soon as it was done, I was on my feet with everybody else. So to put it in perspective, I was a fan of the band before I was in the band.
What impact has modern technology had on silent films?
I think it’s impacted all films, and I’m sure it’s impacted silent films as well, people don’t go to the theater as much, they’ll watch on their puny little iPhone screens and think they’re having a visual experience. It’s been shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. I suspect, though I don’t have the data in front of me, that it’s impacted silent film a little bit less. Part of the charm of silent film is seeing it performed with a live act, because once you put on a silent film on DVD at home, it’s hardly any different from seeing the latest Alien movie where the score is already built in. That’s the thing about silent movies—you have a live ensemble interacting as you are watching, which doesn’t happen in modern films. I’ve scored films that have been at Sundance, and I’ll spend a couple of weeks on one scene. They’ll perfect it, and get the cellos on there, and never actually perform it to the film. It’s a very different scenario.
How does Alloy Orchestra choose which films to score?
In the six years that the band existed before I joined, the band did Metropolis and then Man With A Movie Camera, and these are fast-paced, industrial things which suited the Alloy Orchestra’s “rack of junk” to a T. I’ve talked with Ken and Terry about this quite a bit, and they thought, “We’re set, all we’ve got to do is find endless films that have this kind of crazy sound to them.” But most silent films are not really like that. Even something like Phantom of the Opera, which is a big hit for any number of reasons, doesn’t have any of the banging and clanking stuff at all. It’s very keyboard heavy, I’m playing a lot of organ in that. We’ve covered a lot of the territory, a lot of the really interesting films. The one that we were really very happy to do last year, which both Ken and Terry had seen before, was A Page of Madness. It came up last year, and we were available to score it (which is available on the Blu-ray if you want to watch it on your small screen). That was one they had really wanted to do, and they’d show me little fragments of it, and I’d think, “Yeah, this seems really cool.” Because it’s psychedelic and surrealistic, it was very open towards an improvised score.
Most of our scores, something like Buster Keaton’s The General, are highly scripted. There’s some improvisation, but when he clonks a guy in the head, the music changes. Whereas A Page of Madness, where there’s a lot of literal madness in an insane asylum, is more open to wild improvisation. I’ve used some wild sounds in my keyboards, like pieces of metal that I’ve dropped, or children’s toys two octaves down, that are super evocative to a form of madness. That was one we always wanted to do, and we were very happy that that one came up. That was one on our bucket list, as it were.