Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Alloy Orchestra shows its chops with Chang
Five minutes on the Internet was all the members of the Alloy Orchestra needed to get the feel of Thai traditional music to accompany the 1927 silent classic Chang: A Drama in the Wilderness.
"We could have spent a lot longer, and really studied the music," said Terry Donahue, one third of the trio. "But it still would have sounded like three white guys."
So the Alloys opted to just get a brief taste of Thai music, and then branch off with their own, highly original, imaginative sound.
The instrumentation contributes to the music's uniqueness. There's banjo, wood blocks, cymbals, gongs, and an array of tuned vessels that look like pots and pans out of the kitchen. The group's famous "rack of junk" also contains horseshoes, a hunk of sheet metal and automotive springs. But the crowning touch for Chang is strings of bells worn on Donahue's ankles, filling up the sound spectrum even more, though Donahue has to be careful about how and when he moves his legs. More "Thainess" comes from a xylophone, also played by Donahue, which approximates the role of the ranad ek in Thai traditional orchestra.
And a good deal of the Oriental sound is achieved through the unorthodox banjo playing by Roger Miller, who ordinarily plays keyboard. Miller admits that though he's a guitar player, as well as pianist, the banjo isn't really his instrument. The banjo isn't so much picked but drummed on. Or, just one string is strummed. And, at one point, it's sawed on Jimmy Page-style, with a violin bow.
Filmed in Thailand in 1927 by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Chang is a transitional film from 1925's Grass, the pair's documentary on the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of Persia, and the outright fantasy of 1933's King Kong.
Purporting to be a documentary about a farmer and his family struggling to carve out a life in the jungles of Siam, most of the events in the action-packed comedy-drama were staged. The farmer Kru and his "wife" Chantui were not really married. Elephants, tigers, leopards, Malayan sun bears and other animals were wrangled (and killed!) for the production, which was made with the assistance of HRH Prince Yugala Dighambara, grandfather of MC Chatrichalerm Yukol. It remains a landmark film in Thailand's cinematic history and set the tone for how foreign productions are filmed in the Kingdom.
With the Alloys, Kru's chopping down trees and leopard-killing rifle shots, are given emphasis, though they do not do sound effects for every instance of gunfire or axe blow -- you'd hate them if they did. It's only when the sound is needed for dramatic effect. The highest compliment for the orchestra is when their told by audience members,"we forgot you were there", because the music and silent action on the screen becomes seamless.
At a recent two-day stint in at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, the Alloy Orchestra performed Chang and Josef von Sternberg's Underworld. While Chang was the Alloys expanding the limits of their experimentation, the important 1927 gangster film Underworld was more typical of an Alloy Orchestra performance, with Miller on synthesizer. Donahue plays accordion and shares junk percussion duties with the group's musical director, Ken Winokur, who also played wooden flute on Chang and clarinet on Underworld.
Winokur said the Alloy Orchestra got the rights to create a new score for Chang in 2005, when Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong was released and there was renewed interest in Cooper's and Schoedsack's films. They first performed Chang that year at the Telluride Film Festival.
It's not the first time Chang has been scored. For a DVD released in 2000 by Image Entertainment, composer Bruce Gaston and the Fong Naam orchestra recorded a soundtrack of mostly Thai traditional music.
Winokur wondered how Chang would be received by Thai audiences.
Most likely, Chang would please Thai crowds just as it pleased the audience at Hamilton College. It's highly entertaining, and the style of sight gags -- especially those involving the real star of the movie, the anthropomorphized white gibbon Bimbo -- is about the same as Thai comedy films being produced today.
But how would the Alloy Orchestra's approximation of Thai music be received? Probably, because the Alloys are truly great musicians and recognized authorities -- film critic Roger Ebert has called them "the best in the world at accompanying silent film" -- their accompaniment would at least be politely tolerated, with the understanding that, hey, it's just three white guys.