(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKSTONES'S "BLU-BOP")
AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles we talk to notable artists scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Ken Winokur.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLOY ORCHESTRA’S "ESCAPE FROM UNDERGROUND")
He's a composer, musician, and multi-media producer. But he is probably best known as the director of the three person musical ensemble: Alloy Orchestra. The ensemble creates and performs live accompaniment to classic silent films. Ken mostly plays percussion with the group on its notorious “rack of junk” - an outrageous assemblage of peculiar homemade or found objects. That, plus a few quote unquote "normal" instruments, give Alloy Orchestra the ability to create any sound imaginable; making audiences think they're being contacted by radio signals from Mars, swept up in the Russian Revolution, or mauled by lions. Ken Winokur has helped revive some of the great masterpieces of the silent era at venues like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the National Gallery of Art, and IU cinema, where Alloy Orchestra recently performed. While they were here, Ken Winokur joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios. Ken Winokur, welcome to Profiles. And welcome back to Bloomington.
KEN WINOKUR: Delighted to be here.
AARON CAIN: I'd like to talk about your work with the Alloy Orchestra, of course, but I also want to talk about other projects that you're involved in. And I'm particularly interested in how your musical journey began. Was it private lessons? Was the stereo at home? Or was it, in your case - and I mean no disrespect when I ask this - was it pots and pans?
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) well, a little of all of the above. Well, I took half a year of piano in second grade. Didn't suit me. Didn't like my teacher. Didn't like practicing. It didn't work. I quit. And a couple of years later the band teacher came into the fifth grade, says, “well, we're looking for people for the orchestra. Who wants to be in the band?” And I raised my hand and he says, “okay, come this way. What do you want to play?’ I said, “drums.” “Okay. I got a little test for you.” He goes, “bop bop bop bop bop bop bop.” And I did that back to him. And he goes, “you're in.” So that was my audition. Probably the only one I've ever passed. So I played percussion all of my life, essentially, until I went to college, knowing that being a musician wasn't a serious way of leading one's life. I quit, basically, and didn't play until I graduated from college again and couldn't do without it. Came right back to it.
AARON CAIN: So, what did you “moonlight” as, as a college student, before before you returned to music?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh, I wasted my time as a journalist and English major.
AARON CAIN: Oh, journalism. What a waste of time that is.
KEN WINOKUR: Waste of time. Yes.
AARON CAIN: Yes. Well, music's glad to have you back. Let's talk a little bit about that moment, because that's something that I've come across a number of times with people who tried to do the responsible thing and have a real job and grow up and honor their parents’ wishes to stay the heck away from the performing arts. What drew you back? Do you recall a specific time or a specific incident?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh yeah. Well, absolutely. I graduated from college with a degree in English and kind of a sub-journalism degree. And realized that as an English graduate I was destined to be unemployed the rest of my life. And I'd been living in St. Louis, going to Washington University. And I had grown up in St. Louis and Iowa. And I thought it's time for me to experience a little bit of the rest of the world. And I said, “hey how about this nice city Paris? I hear it's really fun.” So, I went to Paris and had very little money. But I ended up staying for two years, working under the table teaching English, primarily, but doing some photography and anything else - handing out leaflets on the streets, cleaning people's houses. One day I was living and working at a private Catholic high school in the center of Paris and the other American English teacher used to go into the subways with his guitar and make a little spare change. He just casually asked me, he knew I had been a drummer, if I wanted to accompany him. And I said, “well, I don't have an instrument.” He goes, “well, there must be something you can bang on.” And I had this really great resonant iron frying pan which I had in fact been banging on every time I made dinner. I took it into the subway and we played Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs on a frying pan and a guitar. And it was such a ridiculous sight that it attracted a lot of attention. And we actually made good money from it, relatively. So, after a few days of that, and I made a little pocket change, I went out and bought myself a pair of African clay drums; Moroccan, kind of table-like. And I'm feeling pretty cool going out in the subway with a real instrument this time, and nobody paid the slightest attention to us anymore (laughter). And it was like a light bulb went off. Oh, the novelty of unusual percussion attracts people!
AARON CAIN: Now I know you also did study a lot of African and Latin hand drumming. You abandoned the frying pan at one point for actual drums.
KEN WINOKUR: Well unfortunately I did not keep that particular frying pan when it came back to America. It's one of the great regrets of my life because, that was especially good.
AARON CAIN: For its cooking prowess or its acoustic prowess?
KEN WINOKUR: Acoustic properties. It had a ring to it unlike any frying pan I've had since. But, so, I came back to America. I went to Boston, partially because I literally couldn't afford to get beyond the East Coast. I ran into a friend from high school who had been a drummer. And he was working in New York as a drummer. And he was playing some hand drums. And we went to his apartment and he sort of showed me some of the basic techniques of playing a conga. And I was kind of smitten and I went back to Boston and immediately went out and got myself a cheap old conga drum. I started taking lessons.
AARON CAIN: And the gigs followed?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh God no. This was a Friday night kind of class thing and he would just - a group of us would get together, play, and that was really fun. So, fast forward a couple more years. I moved into a loft in Cambridge above a poultry slaughterhouse. Big sign out front says, “Live Poultry, Fresh Killed.” It's kind of a landmark in Boston.
AARON CAIN: And a bit of a contradiction in terms.
KEN WINOKUR: Right. And I finally had a place that you could play music without being arrested while being a drummer is really difficult. I mean, the difficulty of finding a place to practice is almost insurmountable. Who's going to let you do that if you're not in a school or orchestra or something?
AARON CAIN: Or an abandoned warehouse, or something.
KEN WINOKUR: Right. So, I have the abandoned warehouse. So, I was able to practice and play, and got more involved, and I saw in the newspaper someone was looking for a percussionist for a - I don't know how they described it - but it ultimately ended up being kind of a world-beat sort of funk band with a rock and somewhat punk attitude.
AARON CAIN: And I'm hearing the F word, “fusion,” in my brain.
KEN WINOKUR: Oh god no. No, no. A world-beat. No, no, no. Funk. Funk.
AARON CAIN: I don't want to say a dirty word or anything.
KEN WINOKUR: And on the way to my audition for this one I only had this one conga drum. I ran across - it's a Portuguese neighborhood so there was a can of Portuguese olives, like a 10 gallon can. The olives had been cleaned out and I brought this metal can, banged on that with some sticks. And the guys in the band just thought this was the greatest thing in the world. And they encouraged me to continue to play. Well I got the job obviously and I continued to kind of build this homemade percussion setup. It has a couple of tripod speaker stands and a big cross piece and it's strung with metal objects – horseshoes, plumbing pipes, truck springs, just a piece of galvanized metal, and lots of cymbals and gongs; bass drums and tom toms underneath homemade xylophones. That kind of thing. So that became my instrument at that point.
AARON CAIN: That “rig,” if you like, was already forming.
KEN WINOKUR: Yes.
AARON CAIN: Already back then, in those first days in Boston.
KEN WINOKUR: We're talking about 1981.
AARON CAIN: Eighty-one. OK. Now, I swear I didn't go fishing for this theme - but it seems that we've uncovered it anyway - which is, at least twice already at this point, the real instruments, or the traditional instrument has been supplanted and preferred by a found object. Not just the novelty, also something about the sound was connecting with people, whether you're busking in Paris or whether you were performing with this funk group. Looking back, then, in the early '80s were you saying, “I'm on to something here?”
KEN WINOKUR: I never had any sense this was going beyond keeping myself happy. But I found playing a drum set, and even more in, kind of, band or orchestral kind of percussion, that I was severely limited in the kind of expressions I could make from the instruments around. I mean, drum sets sound all alike. Not exactly alike but one drum set sounds like another. Everybody uses Zildjian cymbals or Sabian cymbals. Everybody's drums are 20 to 24 inches for the bass drum. Over the years they’ve discovered what actually works in these situations, and so that's what drummers play. So I hear drummers who are amazing drummers doing these solos and it's like, well, it sounds like Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker and Buddy Rich. And there's one sound to a drum set, more or less. And I wanted to expand the palette. I wanted to be able to play different kinds of sounds. And odd instruments, the found objects, the homemade instruments, the junk percussion just provided an unlimited amount of different musical sound.
AARON CAIN: We're also talking about the difference between a received tradition of performing - someone's musical influences and what seems right for a genre - versus the sonic experience, the sound. Maybe there's this link that it's getting kind of squishy with the Alloy Orchestra and a lot of your other work between the influence, the received tradition of performance coming down over the millennia versus the needs of sound in the moment.
KEN WINOKUR: Well, absolutely. The three of us have - three of us in the Alloy Orchestra - have all been inspired by different kinds of music. Terry has always been interested in old-time country music. Roger has more classical training but was also a noted punk rocker in the band Mission of Burma. And I'd done all those Latin and African training and the junk. We think one of our strengths as a band is we actually have all these different musical backgrounds, have absorbed all these influences, and then can let them leak out in any particular show. And I may be playing a West African cowbell part while Roger's doing an orchestral patch on his synthesizer. And Terry is wailing on tom toms, very rock'n'roll fashion. And if you're listening to each other and thinking about it, you can make these things meld together into something that's unusual. Something that is not what you're expecting. Not part of that received tradition. Some hopefully future tradition.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLOY ORCHESTRA’S "METROPOLIS THEME")
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Ken Winokur: composer, musician, and director of Alloy Orchestra.
You alluded a moment ago to your rig, your set up, your mass of percussion instruments that you bring to bear when you perform.
KEN WINOKUR: The rack of junk.
AARON CAIN: The rack of junk. OK. Thank you for the terminology. You were referring earlier to your rack of junk. And this is a question that I don't ever get to ask musicians: Ken Winokur, where do you find your instruments? Or maybe that's not the right question. Maybe the question should be how do you decide something that you found is an instrument?
KEN WINOKUR: Going back again before Alloy really existed, my partner who was the original keyboard player from Alloy who has passed away, Caleb Sampson, and I had done a theatrical performance for a play written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called Marilyn Monroe Versus the Vampires. Something that is not well known among the film community but he did write this theatrical piece. And they hired the set designer from the Boston Opera to build us a set. And we went together. We had access to a friend's brother's junkyard, which is really unusual. People - junkyard - they keep you out of there for safety reasons. This guy let us literally climb through piles of metal junk and select everything we needed. And it was amazing, and he built the set. I mean, it's still my dream. I wish I had the set. It was two stories. There was a staircase of old junk air conditioners. We had found four stainless steel columns that were six or eight feet tall that made this astounding noise. They just wailed when you hit them or scraped or scratched them. And it was just wonderful. But we were playing live with a theatrical performance and people were trying to talk over this. So anytime you're playing percussion you're playing louder essentially than someone speaking. Our whole thing was to just barely touch this little set, you know. We could barely play this. It was kind of frustrating, although we were happy with what we did. We asked the director, “could we do another performance after the theater piece is done of our own writing?” And he said yes. And we called it the Alloy Orchestra. And I wrote a kind of a post-apocalyptic narrative and I stood up at the top of my air conditioner staircase and screamed at the audience for a little while. And we banged and played. My current wife, my only wife, my wife who is currently my wife was doing set design through projections from slide projectors. We loved it. It was 20 or 30 people there. It never happened again but it was the first use of the name Alloy Orchestra and it was the impetus for me to move ahead with this junk thing in a more elaborate than large-scale fashion.
AARON CAIN: When you had that performance after the Fassbinder play what was the response like from the audience?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh, it was really very good. But, like I said, the audience was pretty small. This wasn't like the thunderous crowd at Shea Stadium when the Beatles play but, you know, people really appreciated it. I have one friend currently who I know of who was there. And she actually had the poster from it on her refrigerator for decades afterwards.
AARON CAIN: So, not too long after that I believe you had your first opportunity to do something similar, but this time accompanying the first of many silent films. Am I correct that it was Fritz Lang's Metropolis that kind of got that going?
KEN WINOKUR: It was. Now, I'm going to back up just a little bit. Before we discovered silent films, my partner Caleb and I had been doing a lot of First Night performances, the New Year's Eve celebration that originated in Boston. And we realized that there was this beautiful unused bandstand in the middle of the park in Boston, the Boston Commons. And we applied for a small grant to essentially fill it up with junk instruments. So, this was the largest scale instrument that we had, and still I've ever built myself. And we did this two years in a row. And it was really exciting. Unfortunately, of course, Boston in the wintertime is a difficult time to be working outside. And it took several days to put this thing together. So we were literally working through a nor'easter through one of them. We tried to wrap the columns of the thing with plastic and the rain and snow were leaking in from every side. It was pretty insane. But it was just an inspiring - for the people involved, for us, it was such an inspiring show. Before that happened, I called my friend Terry Donahue who is now and has always been a member of the Alloy Orchestra, who also had done some junk-metal percussion work which I had seen numerous years before and been very inspired by. So, the three of us, and a couple of other musicians who kind of sat in, did these performances. And that was the next appearance of the actual Alloy Orchestra. Then shortly after that - six months, or so - we got a call asking us to do the score for Metropolis.
AARON CAIN: Had someone seen you at the First Night performances, or…?
KEN WINOKUR: I don't think so. I believe that actually he - local film producer David Kleiler, who just passed away last month - was programming this really lovely theater called the Coolidge Corner. He was showing Metropolis, didn't want to use the 1984 rock'n'roll score by Giorgio Moroder, so, as best I've heard, he was trying to decide between calling my partner Caleb and my current partner Roger Miller, who had also done silent film accompanying with him, to do Metropolis. And Caleb walked into the movie theater. So, he just asked him on the spot, “hey you want to do Metropolis in two weeks?”
AARON CAIN: “…since you're here…”
KEN WINOKUR: …He said, “sure! Let me call my pal Ken.” And I called Terry, and we were off to the races.
AARON CAIN: Now, over the years, of course, there have been a few different versions of Metropolis that have come out. So, you've had kind of a long and winding road with this film because it's changed. It makes me think of a band that goes out on the road and keeps having to play from the same album, but they get bored. And they have to keep doing it differently. This is probably a segue into just what your work is like in general as you begin to select and work with the score of silent film. What's it like when even the silent film is changing under your feet?
KEN WINOKUR: Well it's been a road - a long row to hoe with Metropolis. Like I said, I had two weeks to do the first score. You don't write a score for an hour-and-a-half film in two weeks. So, we wrote very rough kind of sketches of music. There would be an interesting kind of core theme and then we'd improvise with that. And then we knew where it needed to change to the next theme. So, we had it storyboarded. We knew where the changes were. And we had some ideas of things to play throughout. But we had a lot of flexibility and we did a lot of improvisation. We have, at this point, done easily over 500 performances of Metropolis.
AARON CAIN: Wow.
KEN WINOKUR: And, as you said, with the band that gets bored with their own music - it's not so much for us getting bored with it, but we started to actually learn what we were doing. We started to write more complicated things and we did a huge number of performances of that first version of the film. But then that film went out of circulation. The copyrights had expired for the so-called Giorgio Moroder restoration and it basically was no longer rentable. We found a bootleg print which we used mercilessly.
AARON CAIN: You know we're recording this, right?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh, I'm sorry. Somebody else found a bootleg print that they forced us to play with.
AARON CAIN: That's more like it.
KEN WINOKUR: We did that for a few years until the legitimate distributor said, “Okay, it's time to stop. We now you've been doing this and we permitted it because we can't offer it, but we're coming out with our own new version.” We said, “oh, great! Can we play to the new version?” And they said yes. So, as you said, we've done four different versions: This original restoration from '84. When that disappeared after a while we discovered that there was an almost unknown version which is called the English language version which was edited…so Fritz Lang used two cameras. Many of the silent film directors would shoot two cameras simultaneously, literally side by side. And it was a backup negative. They didn't know how to copy a negative in those days. So, they made a backup negative. And, also, they would call it the B negative. And it would be often used as the foreign language, or the foreign distribution version. In this particular case, Fritz Lang was never happy with his own edit and a lot of the pressure that had been asserted on him to shorten what had been a three-or-some-hour show into an hour and a half. And so, we said, “sure, let's send the B negative to Paramount in the United States.” And they hired a playwright, whose last name I believe was Channing, to re-edit the film. And it's pretty different than the Metropolis everybody had known at that point: in the typical American fashion, cut out the sexy dance scene, sanitized it a little bit and really played up the kind of Christian imagery and the kind of sanctimonious quality that's unfortunately rife in the movie anyway. But it was very coherent. The previous version we had used was very incoherent. It had been edited so many times that it had lost that sense of story that really propelled it. Still had the most amazing footage and sets and whatever, but it was not a tightly-edited film. So, this was a better edit in some ways. We, I think, got -about two or three shows into this – good ones: Telluride Film Festival, New York Film Festival. They told us, “well, no, you've got to stop that one too, because we are now coming out with another restoration of it.” And we said, “all right, we're gonna sit this one out (laughter).” Right? And it came out. It played well. It was obviously an improvement. It had gone from being an hour and a half to about two hours. But it was a little bit of an odd restoration. It had some very academic choices where they were missing some scenes they would either just slug in text telling you what you were missing or use a still photograph. And it really impeded the flow of the film. And so we essentially did sit that one out but there was one performance where we decided to improvise our score to that one, just to see how it worked. We weren't that happy with it so we kind of let it ride. So, there was a few years where we just didn't play Metropolis, and then we get a call. And we heard they were gonna come up with another restoration. They had found lost footage in Buenos Aires that actually allowed them to approximate the original director's edit that Fritz Lang had shown at the premiere in Berlin in 1927, I think. It was all in 16 millimeter. It was badly degraded and they cleaned it up and put it back in. And we weren't really thinking we were going to do it again. But I picked up the phone one day and they said well we'd like you to play the U.S. premiere for the Turner Classic Movies at the Grauman Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
AARON CAIN: Twist my arm.
KEN WINOKUR: So, I don't know how many people in Indiana know the Grauman Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, but it is one of the most magnificent movie palaces in the United States. And with the TCM audience and the new restoration it was obviously something we needed to do.
AARON CAIN: Yeah.
KEN WINOKUR: And so - but this one now had gotten to two and a half hours, so that's an hour longer than the score we had written. I mean, it's another 80 percent of music and there's new characters. There's new plotlines and even the stuff that was there had been rearranged to the way it should have originally been, and our score was not really usable in that context. So we re-scored it. Now we used all the same themes, wrote some new themes for the new sections the new characters, but had to write the music so that it actually fit the movie again. It took us a good bit of time to both forget the old one and relearn the new one and come out with the show. We were quite worried that it was going to be ponderously long. If they had stretched that one-and-a-half-hour movie into two and a half hours without substantially improving it, it would have been dreadful. But they didn't. It's so much better. It's so much more coherent. The characters have fleshed out, the storyline just makes sense. And it just took a leap into a much, much more exciting film to work with.
AARON CAIN: You mentioned making the music fit the film. And that, of course, is the task of anyone who scores any kind of film. But you've said about the Alloy Orchestra's composition process that the film is your conductor. And that's a marvelous phrase. It's a poetic phrase. But can we dig into that process and sift through it a bit? And maybe we can use the film that's “conducting” you this most recent visit to IU cinema, Gallery of Monsters from 1924. What musical themes emerge for this piece? How did they emerge? How did they come about? Has the percentage that's improvised increased or decreased over the years as you have scored other films? How do they differ between genres like Buster Keaton films versus Fritz Lang's Metropolis? So, using Gallery of Monsters as a bit of a case study, could you talk a little bit more about how that film “conducted” you?
KEN WINOKUR: Yes. As you said, I mean, if you're playing a Buster Keaton film, this is a comedy. The music should support the film. It should be amusing, or at least should allow the humor of Keaton to come out, even in his deadpan way. Keaton's a little bit of an odd example in this respect because he never cracks a smile. And one of the things we realized, especially when we did The General - which is a very dramatic movie, is that if we play deadpan dramatic music and he's doing this thing deadpan and then he does his incredible stunts and gags, it just gets that much funnier. If you get in the way of his humor with musical humor it can be too much.
AARON CAIN: If you try to vaudeville vaudeville.
KEN WINOKUR: Right. And, you know, they call that Mickey Mousing, for one thing. Mickey Mousing is essentially plaing sound effects. When somebody gets kicked in the butt, you know, you kind of have to honk a horn or hit a wood block. But too much of that can be very distracting. It can actually call too much attention to the musicians and away from the screen. And especially, as I said, in Keaton's way it kind of runs contrary to the style of the acting that's going on. Gallery of Monsters is a circus film. So, I'm gonna be up front about this: There are no monsters in this film.
AARON CAIN: (LAUGHTER)
KEN WINOKUR: Right? This is a circus film. And a love story, and a very romantic and very tender one in parts. The first 20 minutes actually is a young man and a woman. They meet. They fall in love. He's of gypsy origin. She's of a high blooded Spanish family. It takes place in Spain and her grandfather will not allow them to get married. They escape their little town. They run off and they join the circus. It's the archetypical story. And they apparently have great talent. He becomes a pantomime artist. This is a genre that we don't see a lot nowadays. And not Marcel Marceau but really telling a theatrical story through comedic and very clownish acting. And she becomes a dancer. So, the film makes very clear in its titles. Well, the circus is populated by the circus sideshow performers. There's a lot of terms for this now which we cannot use. You can imagine. And I've had to actually school myself as to how to talk about this film in an appropriate way. There's a giant. I think that's okay to say. There's a bearded lady. It's questionable whether she's a lady or not. There's a sort of a rubber person and there's a little person. So, it's the typical sideshow characters you see in a 100-year-old kind of circuses. These are not the monsters. The title - intertitles is what they call them in silent films - specifies that the monster, specifically, is the circus owner who tries to seduce the pretty dancer then molests her, probably is trying to rape her, and then looses the lions on her while she is performing and tries to have her eaten alive. So, it's a pretty dramatic film. This is a long winded way of answering your question about...
AARON CAIN: Well. now I know what the demands are.
KEN WINOKUR: …Right. So what are the demands of this? All right. So, the thing starts off very quiet, kind of bucolic countrysides, whatever. We follow that direction. We play what is hopefully beautiful music, romantic music, in the love scenes. There is a really nice circus parade when they first join the circus entering into the town. So we get to do kind of circusy marching band music. Well, then we get into the lion attack and we're basically required - our contract says we have to do extremely dramatic and hopefully terrifying music while this beautiful girl is being mauled by lions. The cinematography of the lions is totally spectacular in this, so…
AARON CAIN: How did they do it? Have real lions, or…?
KEN WINOKUR: Oh, absolutely real lions all the way through this. I'm not sure how they trick you into believing she's really being attacked. I assume it's just kind of cutting from the threat to the whatever, and they probably have one gumless old lion who's chewing on her arm at the end, but (laughter). No, they're just playing.
AARON CAIN: (Laughter) right.
KEN WINOKUR: We're able to hopefully create the amount of horror when the circus owner attacks the pretty girl and the relief when she survives it. And so our job is to watch this film, try to interpret what the director's ideas are, and then make music that amplifies those ideas. When we said that the film is our conductor, it's exactly that, but it's also: it's our conductor. There's only three of us. There's nobody conducting in this band. Something's gotta give us cues. That conductor is the film. So we're watching the film every minute. At least one of us has always got an eye on the film. And when a scene changes we will have written out our score so that our music will change along with it. We'll watch the film and the film will tell us when to make those changes and, obviously, where to go with the feeling of the music at that point.
AARON CAIN: There's something so fascinating about this juxtaposition just by itself: that there is a performative aspect, a live performance, and at the same time there's something that's not a live performance. You mentioned the film is your conductor, but I'm wondering if you often feel like it's the fourth chamber musician; that it's the other person there that you're interacting with. Because there's so much that's in the moment and is happening right now live. Do you sometimes forget that what you're interacting with is something that's not live?
KEN WINOKUR: Well, I haven't really thought about that. And it is a problem because the three of us are interacting. If one of us launches into a particular theme and it's a little faster than we've rehearsed it, the other guys are going to fall in with him and we're going to play it faster. And then we're going to, when we arrive at the end of our song, before the end of the scene, we're going to improvise a new ending to it. We're going to stretch things out a little bit. Contrary, if it’s - we're playing too slow and our thing runs out you have to learn how to trim your score on the fly. And then all three of us have to be listening to each other and watching the film and trying to figure out how to wrap this up in exactly the right package so we can get to the next cue. The film is inflexible, and it is the boss. So, it's not a musician that you can have a disagreement with. It's the autocrat. It's the dictator. It is telling us what's going to happen and we follow it or risk your peril.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLOY ORCHESTRA’S "MARIA’S THEME")
AARON CAIN: Ken Winokur: percussionist, composer, and director of Alloy Orchestra. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.
The Alloy Orchestra has been doing this for I think upwards of 30 years, if I'm not mistaken.
KEN WINOKUR: Just short of thirty. I think twenty-nine and a half.
AARON CAIN: Twenty-nine and a half years, and you have scored easily as many films, if not more. I mean, is it around 30 at this point?
KEN WINOKUR: It's more like 40. Some of them are collections of short films, so, if you really want to count those, it's more like 80.
AARON CAIN: I know you don't just write the music for them. In many cases you select them. So I'm wondering if that process is something you can talk about for a bit. What are your criteria for selection? Because if the film is going to conduct you, there's got to be something that you see in a film before you choose it. How early in the selection process are you hearing sounds? How long does that composition process typically take for a film that you do choose?
KEN WINOKUR: Well, the choosing is left to me. Terry and Roger allow me to make these decisions. We work with festivals, cultural centers, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, or its sister group the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the AFI in Silver Spring Maryland, or the National Gallery. Or, in this particular case, Indiana University in Bloomington, And, between us, we figure out what movie we're going to do. Sometimes it's a suggestion of one of the festivals, but sometimes it's just research that I've done, digging through my contacts. One of the things I'm most proud of is that 30 years ago when we started doing this I got really excited by the whole concept of scoring these silent films. I love the films. I love the history of the period. I love the history of the films and so I just immersed myself in the reading, watching every film I could watch, and trying to become knowledgeable about the general tenets of silent films. I'm no expert. There's so many people who know so much more than me, but I've seen most of the films that have been restored and are available, and many that haven't been. And so, I have a kind of a knowledge of what's out there. In this particular case of Gallery of Monsters, there was no festival or cultural center or anybody who was suggesting a film for us. It was completely up to us to pick one. So I start beating the bushes. First step is to go to our friend Serge Bromberg in Paris who runs Lobster Films. I always check with Paolo Cherchi Usai, who had been up until very recently the curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester. Milestone Films. Kino in New York. There's a small number of companies that are restoring and distributing these things and some archives. And there's even a smaller number that are easy to work with.
AARON CAIN: (LAUGHTER)
KEN WINOKUR: And those were our favorites there. Serge Bromberg in Paris had previously told me he had a film that nobody'd ever heard of and he just felt that it had Alloy written all over it. And when I heard how obscure it was and what's an obscure director that nobody's ever heard of and was only known basically as an actor previously.
AARON CAIN: Was that this guy Jacques Catelain or is that Marcel L'Herbier?
KEN WINOKUR: Jacques Catelain. Marcel L'Herbier is the producer. Now, Marcel L'Herbier who is probably unknown in America to most of your audience, but he is a well-known and well-respected French silent film director who's done quite a number of really big productions. L'Argent I think is probably his most well-known in France. And he produced it. So, I was a little dubious. I mean, if you're doing Metropolis or Buster Keaton's The General or Phantom of The Opera, audiences just come. They have good associations for this. They are interesting to see what the origins of this were. It's not that hard to get them into the audience. If you're doing something that nobody's ever heard of the movie, the director, the producer…French films are not really that popular in the United States, you're fighting somewhat of an uphill battle. I was going to Paris mostly for a vacation. I contacted my friend Serge Bromberg and said I wanted to meet him and just hang out with him, drink a beer. And before I got the film from him I hadn't had a chance to watch it in the United States. So I get to Paris. I get my train from Charles de Gaulle Airport. I'm in the city. I get through the metro to a friend's borrowed garret on the sixth floor. Walk up in the Marais district. The whole thing is totally romantic. On the way, I had a chance to buy a baguette sandwich and a bottle of really good, I believe, Côtes du Rhône wine. So, I'm sitting in my Paris garret by myself. My wife is going to meet me in a few days, but I have a few days on my own. And feeling pretty good about myself. And I said, “oh, I better watch this film before I meet with Serge tomorrow.” And I watch this film and I'm really transfixed by it. It surprised me in every way. A lot of silent films are slow. They're quirky. And this one is not. This one actually has a vitality to it. It really sucks you into the story. The characters are good, and then the set designs, and the graphics, the pantomime shows, the costumes - and they're crazy. So there's a surrealistic aspect to this as well as a really good story and a good romance film. There's the lions.
AARON CAIN: And then there's the lions.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) right. So anyway I'm watching this. I'm thinking, “oh, this one's great. We've got to do this one.” And I told Serge the next day. And he goes, “oh, it really turned you on?” I said, “yeah,” but I'm wondering was this just that bottle of wine up in my Paris Garret? I'm gonna have to watch this one sober and make a sober decision, or am I going to devote my next year to this film or not? And I watched it the second time and I said: yes. This is that good of a film. This is a really well-directed written acted and designed film. And this should be Alloy. And it has Alloy written all over it, as he said. So I watch films. Sunrise, for instance. One of the most appreciated films of the silent era by Murnau, one of the greatest directors. Beautiful film. Very romantic. Very dark. And not deliberate, but subtle. Quiet and subtle. Alloy, because of our chunk metal, two out of three of us are percussionists, or inclination perhaps, we gravitate toward the more exciting movies. Action, we love wars, catastrophes, murders, fights, lion maulings, cities collapsing. This stuff is kind of second nature for us, and so I look at films when I'm picking a film and I'm trying to decide, “well, is this one gonna work for Alloy? Does this one speak to our talents as musicians, or is this something that's going to be a fight?” We've done some that are fights. And they've actually worked out rather well. I mean, Blackmail by Hitchcock. Most people don't know Hitchcock started as a silent film director. He did 20 films before sound came in. And we did his last silent film which was called Blackmail. And it is a very characteristic Hitchcock film. It's clever. It's subtle. It's - nothing is ever black and white in it. Everything has got this shade of - I'm not sure whether this is a good person, or is this the proper way for a good person to act, and whatever. And that kind of subtlety made it difficult for us. We couldn't crash and bang through those.
AARON CAIN: You had to create ambiguous music.
KEN WINOKUR: Yes. And I think we were very successful. I love the film. But it was hard. It's still hard. It's hard to play it.
AARON CAIN: Now, the silent film, of course, is something of a misnamed genre. These films nearly always had musical accompaniment and nearly all of that musical accompaniment is now lost, in most cases. But it's a good bet that none of these films had the sort of musical accompaniment that you are capable of producing in the configuration of the Alloy Orchestra. But I'm wondering to what extent you take the sound world of the early 20th century into account when you were creating your scores, or is it always about reimagining the film, or do you think of it as your own restoration process? To what extent do you try to embody what you think the musical style that accompanied the original film would be?
KEN WINOKUR: We typically do not try to do that. When we first started with Metropolis, we were very naive. We had no idea what silent film soundtracks might have sounded like. We didn't know what the other people in the field were doing contemporaneously. We just played the music that seemed to us to speak to the film. And, as I said, we've had these various backgrounds of avant-garde to punk rock to jazz to performance art, and we bring them all together and hopefully create – and the word ambiguous is coming back in again - a music that's of an ambiguous time and style. We're not going to do rock'n'roll. We're not going to play swing jazz, but we're also not going to play Tin Pan Alley or ragtime music for you. Or, maybe a little bit, but not much. We try to find music that we think explicates the scene without nailing it into a specific timeframe. We're not as thrilled by the music of the era as some others in our field are, and we believe that the audiences sort of agree with us about this. And that they have another 75 or 100 years of musical experience that wouldn't have been known in 1920. They have listened to everything from the most dissonant contemporary composers to the Beatles or Art Blakey or, I mean, we've heard all these things and it's hard to forget them. And it's hard to go back to a very innocent style of music and say this is what we need to force you to listen to.
AARON CAIN: We've also heard so many film scores. We've heard John Williams…
KEN WINOKUR: …Exactly.
AARON CAIN: …We've heard Ennio Morricone. We've heard all these people, and that's rattling around in there too.
KEN WINOKUR: Let me just say that this decision of ours is not universally applauded.
AARON CAIN: I was going to ask: do you get pushback from purists?
KEN WINOKUR: We get - I mean more than pushback. We get knife fights.
AARON CAIN: Wow.
KEN WINOKUR: We have attracted some of the most hostile and aggressive Internet criticism that you can possibly imagine - some of it even persona,l from people who have never met us and clearly have never heard about us.
AARON CAIN: Personal attacks on the Internet? I'll not believe it.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) right. Exactly. And so, we've learned to sort of explain and justify what we do, but in retrospect. Because we weren't trying to do traditional music. At the time, the time the films were coming out, was one of the most fruitful exciting renaissances of music. Music was going from Beethoven to Stravinsky. It was going from - well let's back up because Beethoven's pretty experimental in its own right. But classical music had a canon. It had a way things were supposed to be. And this was all being thrown asunder by modernism. It was happening in painting. It was happening in writing. And it was definitely happening in music. So, this serial music of the Germans – Schoenberg, Webern and Berg - which was to kind of throw out the whole idea of tonality and say you're going to pick twelve notes. You're going to play them in order, not exactly repetitively, and you're not going to really deviate from that. I mean, some deviation is acceptable but it was a whole different way of organizing the music. And it was a revolution. And even before that, Wagner, for instance, was doing these super-percussive scores, very big and bold in a way that nobody had done before, a lot of what we think of as dissonance. Even Satie and Ravel. So there'd been this whole experimentation of music that was happening simultaneous to the development of movies. So it turns out that some of the modernist composers such as Stravinsky, Milhaud - a French composer - or Shostakovich had also done a lot of film scores. So when people tell me now that what we're doing is not appropriate, I say, “oh, you think we're too radical for Shostakovich? For Stravinsky?” No. These guys were the giants of experimentation. So we're only following in their footsteps.
AARON CAIN: Roger Ebert once described Alloy Orchestra's sound as classical with a rock'n'roll attitude, to speak of genre bending and blending. And the group had a relationship with the late writer and film critic. Could you talk a bit about how your paths crossed?
KEN WINOKUR: The Telluride Film Festival brought us together. He would come almost every year and so he saw many of our performances. We were introduced to him at a show, chatted with him a little bit, made a fool of myself which I won't go into. (Laughter) and then I got a phone call saying that they would really like us to come and perform at their festival. So we've been there virtually every year since that. It's getting close to 20 years.
AARON CAIN: Wow.
KEN WINOKUR: And hopefully we're gonna be doing Gallery of Monsters there in Champaign Illinois in a few months.
AARON CAIN: Do you find that, performing at these festivals, that the response is consistent? Do you think that people are digging it, so to speak, more and more, or…?
KEN WINOKUR: Well there's a consistency that's undeniable. I mean, when you're in a regular old band, you know, one night you can be playing and the audience can be totally swept up with what you're doing. You could have a giant audience, or whateve,r and then the next night you can end up in that backroom bar. I always like to say - I would be in bands playing in New York City, which was always the big place outside of town, and there would be three people in the audience pushed against the back wall trying to pretend that you didn't exist. Well, we have the luxury of after a hundred or so years of saying, “well, this movie is great.” Everybody knows Metropolis is great. Everybody knows The General, Phantom of The Opera, Son of the Sheik. These are well-known, great movies. It doesn't take a genius to say people are going to enjoy these movies. They always have. So it's a very consistent response we get. Even when we find inconsistencies in our own performance,s and like any musicians we'll come off and say, “man, that was like the best thing we've ever done. We really nailed it,” or this one's like, “you know, it was a little looser than we'd like,” but the audience always seems to really enjoy it.
AARON CAIN: I wonder if there's ever a problem taking in too much the reaction of an audience, because usually with an ensemble, especially in a chamber music kind of situation, that you've heard the cliché that the audience is the other musician on the stage. And when you have a film, a rather meticulous conductor, that is rather unforgiving, do you ever have trouble not getting swept up in how an audience is reacting to you?
KEN WINOKUR: Audiences are usually more quiet, and little more well-behaved at movie screenings than they are in music performances. So, you get a sense of whether you've got them with you. You can definitely hear in the comedies that they're laughing along, or sometimes in the dramas when they're laughing along, which is usually the most horrifying part - when they laugh in the wrong sections of things. But for the most part, our eyes are pretty much glued to the movie and each other. The audience isn't telegraphing that much to us so it's not usually until after the fact we start to really get a sense of how it went over.
(SOUNDBITE OF PSYCHEDELIC CINEMA ORCHESTRA’S "XTAPE")
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Ken Winokur: composer, musician, and director of Alloy Orchestra.
As interesting as your work with the Alloy Orchestra is, it's not the only thing that you do. I was wondering if you could talk about some of your other projects, for example, Psychedelic Cinema Orchestra?
KEN WINOKUR: Psychedelic Cinema Orchestra is another orchestra that works with films. It's a somewhat flexible crew of people, unlike Alloy, which is always the same guys. It started with my very good friend who lives in New York who's a filmmaker named Ken Brown who in the late '60s - 1967 to 69 - was working with the - they called it the Light Show. It was called the Road Light Show and it would be the liquid lights, the bubbling lights and stuff that would be projected at rock concerts. So he was employed at the biggest rock club in Boston called the Boston Tea Party, and other clubs in the area. And they would throw up the beautiful lights, and the flashing, and the strobes, and whatever. But my friend Ken was making Super 8 films every day or every week. And every week he'd come in with another reel of three minutes of these amazing psychedelic montages. It was all done on Super 8. So, this is a little bit in the weeds, technically, but Super 8 was foolproofed by Kodak so you couldn't double expose it. It was impossible. You couldn't rewind the film and screw it up, which was great for most people. But filmmakers do like that double exposure. So there was a company called Fuji that made a camera that could actually be rewound. And once you rewind it you can expose that same piece of film a second time.
AARON CAIN: So, wait. It was un-foolproof Super 8?
KEN WINOKUR: Yes.
AARON CAIN: OK. I’m with you now.
KEN WINOKUR: Which really comes from cutting a piece of 60 millimeter in two. But, so, he was able to do, in-camera, these elaborate montages - psychedelic lights of girls dancing in silhouette on the hilltop with their long flowing hair. And he had a fascination for natural scene - the aspen trees in western Massachusetts. And he's an animator and an illustrator. So, he was doing a lot of cutting and pasting of Life magazine into satiric or really funny, sometimes political collages, and then animating them. And one of my favorites is Nixon riding on a rocket and zooms through a piece of - the every major character in the news is in this film at some point. And he did about probably an hour and a half of these total over a period of several years, edited down to about an hour. He invited me and some other musicians to accompany it about eight years ago. And we did that once. And we let it sit for a little while, but I kept coming back to it in my mind and thinking this was an unusually powerful, interesting, intriguing icon of the '60s. And, you know, we all look at the '60s as this amazing time. It's mythical but it's real. I actually was just old enough to have experienced it in junior high school. It's got an excitement level for the young audiences who can only dream of having been there in the '60s. The older audiences who actually were there, they come and they watch this film and they just kind of melt. They're so excited by this film. So, this film is so rapidly paced, a scene in this film lasts a second, maybe two seconds, three or four at the most. It's just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of flashing little images and scenes. No narration to it. No characters. So, that, we realized early, made it virtually impossible to score.
AARON CAIN: Like, beat for beat.
KEN WINOKUR: Right.
KEN WINOKUR: It's what we do with Alloy. It's what I expect to do. I know what's going to happen in that next scene. You couldn't even figure out what a scene was in this thing. And even if you did, if you glance down at your instrument you might miss a cue. And so, we kept trying to break it up into cues, and realized I missed it. I'm now just winging it again. So it became a totally improvisational kind of experience. As you do improvisations over and over again they tend to gel a little bit and you get to know what you're doing. Ken Brown, the filmmaker, had always wanted us to use the '60s music or something as a touchstone, but I didn't really want to write '60s music. It's been written. So I went to the Internet and I started pulling soundbites of quotes of every famous or infamous figure of the '60s. I mean Spiro Agnew's in there and Angela Davis. I went through all the black power people. Malcolm X then to Martin Luther King. Certainly, all of the politicians - LBJ, Nixon, and Agnew are in there. Then the rock'n'roll figures. There's The Grateful Dead talking about doing their stuff, and there's Led Zeppelin talking about losing their drummer. And so, I took these little quotes and I edited them in a fashion that - it gives me road maps through the film. When I hear the sound bites come in - I put it in 10 minute intervals. Basically, five divisions in there. When I hear them come back again I know, OK, we're now in section two.
AARON CAIN: For unity cues, sort of.
KEN WINOKUR: Exactly. And I keep a clock with me by my side, and I have my computer actually playing the movie which I might not always be able to see easily. And so, I'm thinking, “all right. I got about 30 seconds until this next big cue.” And when the sound bites come in, we basically stop or we bring the volume way down so you can hear them, but it's a new section. So, each 10-minute section tends to build and build and build and build and build and crescendo and then stop. And then we start at the bottom again and build and build and build.
AARON CAIN: Hearing you describe this process, and kind of, in my brain, comparing and contrasting it with what I know of Alloy Orchestra, I'm struck by something. I'm wondering if with either of these, with Psychedelic Cinema Orchestra or Alloy Orchestra, you have more a sense that you were restoring or more a sense that you're creating something new?
KEN WINOKUR: I'm an entertainer. I'm there to entertain the audience. I mean, that is my primary goal. And I will do anything - and believe me, I've tried a few - to get that audience.
AARON CAIN: We don't have to talk about anything you're not proud of.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) there are a few we're not going to talk to. And so, if it is playing the traditional music that comes along with something, or if it's playing the contrary to that to make an effect, whatever works in my little small mind that's - to me that's fine. That's going to do it. So, we are not a dusty artifact. Not in the Psychedelic Cinema, not in Alloy Orchestra. We're trying to create a new piece of artwork from pieces of traditional artwork and some new music.
AARON CAIN: Another group that you're involved with - I find the name irresistible, especially for an aural medium. Could you tell me about Lookie Lookie?
KEN WINOKUR: I got to say, it's not my favorite name. I got outvoted on this one.
AARON CAIN: (Laughter) well, I like it.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) so, this one is great because I am not the director of this one. I am the percussionist, one of four percussionists. I don't have to book shows. I don't have to pay the band. I don't have to do the taxes at the end of the year. And I don't have to clean up the studio at the end. Lookie Lookie is a Latin band - 8 piece - that is exploring the music from the 1960s that was known as boogaloo, or Latin boogaloo. Boogaloo was a music invented in New York City by the Puerto Ricans, who had been involved in the mambo scene, which had been a really huge kind of movement of music, especially in New York, but certainly in Cuba and Puerto Rico. And the Puerto Ricans were not thought of as the originators of mambo, but they were Latin musicians. Some great great great ones, I mean, Mongo Santamaria. I mean, there's so many of them. They started doing a music that was somewhat different from mambo. It picked up that Latin rhythm section, the multi-percussionists thing of congas, bongos, shakers, timbales…
AARON CAIN: It's pretty dense.
KEN WINOKUR: It's very dense. Usually there's two or three or four or five or more of the percussionists in the group. And then they grafted on something that was a little more akin to rock'n'roll. And their intent was to cross over into the Anglo crowd and actually make a little money off of these things. And Joe Cuba had a hit with a song called Bang Bang which the lyrics are, “bang bang, bang bang, bang bang bang,” over and over again (laughter).
AARON CAIN: Wait a minute. Let me make sure I've got that. Hold on.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) so, again, this was all the Puerto Ricans and it was not well taken by the Cubans living in New York. And the Cuban record label which had morphed into salsa at that point - and I believe it was Vanya records - threatened the boogaloo musicians that if they ever did a session with the boogaloo that they would never play for salsa. And they were able to kill boogaloo in its tracks in a very short period of time. And boogaloo just kind of evaporated. But boogaloo is wonderful because it's mostly sung in English, because these were, in fact, Americans. They may have been of Puerto Rican origin, but they probably grew up in the Bronx or in Harlem or something. They were drawing from soul music. They were drawing from rock'n'roll. And they were putting out this powerful music with a totally propulsive Latin beat, but in some really beautiful, accessible kind of lyrical fashions and a lot of amusing stuff too. They had a real sense of humor.
AARON CAIN: And so, are these original compositions that you perform with Lookie Lookie, or are you playing some of the…boogaloo hits?
KEN WINOKUR: Almost all of our stuff covers, up to a point. We've started to get creative. Most recent and most exciting one is a combination of a traditional song called Cumbanchero with Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman.
AARON CAIN: Wow. Now, what instrument you play in Lookie Lookie?
KEN WINOKUR: Well, the funny thing about this is I sort of helped form this band, and so I was the conga player. And the conga drummer is usually kind of the centerpiece of this. At some point, I needed to go off and do Alloy stuff and the guys wanted to keep playing, so I kind of moved down the bench a little bit. And I ended up at the last part of the bench because I was very busy. And I'm gone about half the time, so they needed to be able to do these things without me. So, I had to have a part that they could do without at a show. I am now playing güiro, which is a real challenge. Güiro is a gourd with, just, etched into kind of stripes, and you...
AARON CAIN: …It makes that great ratchet sound.
KEN WINOKUR: …Aa great ratchet sound, but it's actually a very interestingly fluid and artistic thing in which I am only scratching the surface of.
AARON CAIN: Oh, you had to say it.
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) but I play a lot of tambourine. So, one of the things about the boogaloo, as opposed to Latin stuff, is it has got a lot of tambourine in it - shakers, maracas, shekeres, claves, sort of traditional Latin instruments. And it's usually - at least, I call it - I'm the downbeat guy. So, Latin music is, for anybody who knows it, what's amazing to Americans is there's no beat to it. How do you even know where you are in this music? It's so complex. And there's so many people playing off of the beat. But there is always a guy or two on that beat, in there as kind of a reference. And I am that reference in a way.
AARON CAIN: You know, I had to ask, you haven't yet been tempted to bring a frying pan to that rehearsal?
KEN WINOKUR: You know what I want? I want a machete. So, that's a traditional Cuban instrument that you play with a wrench, or something. And it's like a cowbell kind of thing. After, you know, a night's work I'm not sure I can be trusted with a machete in my hands.
AARON CAIN: But on the other hand, how could you be anything other than cutting edge?
KEN WINOKUR: (Laughter) there we go.
AARON CAIN: Ken Winokur, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
AARON CAIN: Oh, my pleasure. It's such a pleasure to be here in Bloomington too, I must say.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOOKIE LOOKIE’S "BANANA FREAK OUT")
AARON CAIN: Ken Winokur: musician, composer, director of Alloy Orchestra, and currently the güiro player in the band you're hearing now, Lookie Lookie. Ken Winokur and Alloy Orchestra were recently in Bloomington performing their soundtracks to classic silent films as guests of IU cinema.
I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKSTONES'S "BLU-BOP")
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling (812) 855-1357. Information about Profiles including archives of past shows can be found at our website WFIU.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.