Opera: Smash splash ding-dong

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The Independent Culture
OVER TO one side of the cinema screen lurked a clutter of instruments and drums, plus a jolly rig festooned with bits of metal and a chrome lavatory seat. I hoped the musicians would not turn out to be piss-artists. But perhaps the generalised metallic fetish explained why this trio of silent-film accompanists from Boston call themselves the Alloy Orchestra. Tonight they were playing their new score to Eisenstein's Strike, the 1924 film about a group of factory workers taking on the bloated might of capitalism, screened in a fabulously crisp new print

The keyboard player sat down and diffidently inserted a pair of ear-plugs before nodding at his colleagues; true to the film's title, they went on to spend a lot of time striking things with sticks. Martial snare-drums, chaotic pots and pans, fat old timpani; there was little respite from the massive drum frenzy, and though this was impressive for the opening scenes in the factory, I began to wonder how much the Alloy boys had left in reserve for a finale

Most of the non-banging content, meanwhile, was handled heroically by the hearing-impaired keyboard player. His brass samples were tragically farty, there was a silly choir "Ooh" sound, and he couldn't be expected to overcome the problem that anyone with only two hands cannot play a properly orchestrated string ensemble on the keyboard. Nevertheless, the first few themes were splendidly dark omens, riffs that ebbed and flowed in time with the film's editing.

Most of the time, the compositions were inventively illustrative, although the music seemed always to offer external precis across the length of a scene, lacking the ambition to peer into characters' souls or work creatively against the grain of the visual narrative. Adding a lovely, accordion- led dance tune (in which the percussion contributed a memorable final- bar hook of smash splash ding-dong), a pastoral piano melody for bucolic scenes of the proles at rest, a bowed saw for looming peril and some avant- garde clarinet squeaking (just for a laugh) brought much-needed variation to later parts of the film.

The vexed question of when to synchronise a sound exactly to a picture presents even more problems to a live band, since the timing inevitably strays. The Alloys chose to provide sound effects for a telephone, a steam whistle and various breakages, but the logic was inconsistent. Why these when you don't have a speech sound-track? And if these, why not horses' hooves or gunshots?

Yet by the time of the shattering, murderous climax, the crashing insistence of the drums and the tumescent melodrama of the strings had plugged beautifully into Eisenstein's own tempo, and the film's unnerving and precipitate end left behind a clangorous, mournful silence.

There will be one more performance at the Ritzy, London SW2, tomorrow at 5pm. Booking: 0181-563 0233