One of the biggest misconceptions about silent films is that they were, well, silent. From the beginning of motion pictures in the late 19th century up to the introduction of synchronized sound in the mid 1920s, films were almost always accompanied by live music. These in-house soundtracks—mostly simple piano or organ accompaniment—would often change from screening to screening, making each projection subtly unique and impossible to repeat. If, say, The Artist had actually been made in 1927, its Academy Award chances would have changed from night to night, city to city.
Lap dissolve to the present day, when groups like Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Alloy Orchestra are keeping the spirit of the “silent” era alive by performing live scores to classic films. Alloy Orchestra provided music for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis during the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival, and for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail during last year’s fest. For 2013, however, Milwaukee Film decided to shop local, reaching out to performing arts series Alverno Presents and the city’s own “surly high school orchestra,” Altos. Friday night’s one-off live score for a screening of an ultra-rare film print of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 Soviet classic Earth was billed as a “festival centerpiece”—happily, it managed to live up to that lofty title in every way possible.
The normally 12-piece Altos bumped their numbers up to a staggering 18 for the assignment, though they stayed hidden in the Oriental Theatre organ pit for the duration of the show. That was the right choice, and ensured that from the first thunderous drum hits accompanying the stark opening credits onward, the sold-out crowd could enjoy a seamless melding of sight and sound without distraction. Like the film itself—an at-times lyrical, at-times histrionic tale of Ukrainian farmers embracing the Communist gift of technology and collectivization—Altos’ score veered from quietly unnerving to bombastic. Haunting violins and subtle guitar feedback underscored shots of plowed fields and rain-spattered fruit. Wordless “ahh”s and “ooh”s served as a Greek chorus of sorts for scenes of wailing peasants and distraught lovers. Only in the last 20 minutes does Earth show its true colors (often hilariously so) as a piece of straight-up Communist propaganda, but it was easy to brush politics aside in the presence of such a huge, transcendent score. The music was appropriately loud, expertly mixed, and perfectly suited to the acoustics of the Oriental.
Unlike the live Alloy Orchestra scores of years past, Altos’ score often played against the action on screen, complementing and deepening the film rather than simply underlining it. While slightly disorientating at first, this approach proved to be inspired, and made the moments when the music and on-screen action did link up (an unexpected techno-flavored interlude during a drunken dance scene, for example) all the more enjoyable. Not that the film’s roughly 70 minutes were accompanied by wall-to-wall sound; Altos were just as fascinating in what they didn’t play, often letting sequences end in silence, or pausing for dramatic or comedic effect. A repurposed version of the group’s excellent “Sing (For Trouble)” even crept into the score—just one highlight in a night already bursting with them.
It’s rare that an event as challenging and as niche as Altos: Earth can be called an unqualified success (any event featuring a live avant-garde score for a film about farmers losing their shit over the arrival of a tractor can only be described as niche), but there’s simply no other way to put it. From the first pounding drum pulse to the last, the night was an absolute triumph. It was an artistic high-water mark for Milwaukee Film, Alverno Presents, and, of course, the band. In keeping with Alverno Presents’ dedication to one-time-only events, it was also an impossible-to-replicate experience. You were either there or you weren’t. For the 1,000-plus souls that were there, Altos: Earth was a celebration of not only film and music, but of the power and delicious impermanence of live performance. Sit back, watch, and listen. Things like this only happen once.