Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ensemble brings vintage cinema to life

Sonja Ruppersberg and Paul Blom,
picture: Thomas Dorman
Lovers of vintage black-and-white cinema should perk up when they hear of a Makabra Ensemble performance nearby. The brainchild of Paul Blom and Sonja Ruppersberg, both of the industrial metal band Terminatryx, in collaboration with violin maestro Matthijs van Dijk, as well as Simon Ratcliffe and Sean Ou Tim, both of Lark, the ensemble breathes new life into classics.

What started in 2005 with a soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at the annual SA HorrorFest has resulted in several performances over the years, with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Häxan, Maciste in Hell, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Blom elaborates: "We love movies of all types and respect cinema history. We wanted to include unique elements to our HorrorFest film festival over the Halloween season and we juggled many ideas around to make it more than |just a regular film festival, but rather and event.

"Before sound was introduced to film in the late 1920s, the viewing experience was enhanced with organ, piano and other instruments. We decided to bring that era back, but with a modern twist. So when we kicked off the first HorrorFest in 2005, we made a point of introducing this as a permanent fixture, breathe new life into landmark silent horror/thriller films, and give viewers the chance to see |these timeless movies on the big screen again, with a diverse new soundtrack."

Although Blom would have preferred a full orchestra, he says he tasked Van Dijk to contribute initially, and he brought in a few of his UCT graduate friends to form a string ensemble when they provided the soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera.

It was in 2006, that the first expansive Makabra Ensemble components came together with Nosferatu. Blom elaborates: "For this, Sonja and I approached Van Dijk again, as well as Ratcliffe and Ou Tim to take it into a new realm with a wide range of instruments, diversifying it from just strings. Francois Blom from Voice of Destruction and Kobus was also a part of this performance. It was recorded live and released on DVD with its new soundtrack on the first Terminatryx DVD. We did Phantom again in 2010 as the official Makabra Ensemble."

Since those first performances, the initial ensemble members have remained consistent, but Blom adds: "From time to time special guests are incorporated, such as The Crackpot Realist, Max Starcke and others, but this is the core group. The name only got introduced around 2008 as we needed a moniker to encapsulate it (instead of listing everyone's names and their band affiliations."

Simon Ratcliffe, Paul Blom, Sonja Ruppersberg,
Sean Ou Tim, Matthijs van Dijk, picture: Ronnie Belcher
Because these movies are in the public domain - unless they've been remastered with new soundtracks - screening these old versions doesn't have legal ramifications, Blom says. All that remains is to find a way to bring the musicians together without the benefit of an existing score.
"Sonja and I systematically log each film's scenes - with its relevant time-code for each portion -  then we allocate an even distribution of these to everyone," says Blom. "Sometimes we spot a section we think someone in particular can tackle well. With everyone's unique musical style and approach to the moods of the scenes, we |let everyone do their thing with no prescriptions, resulting in an amazingly diverse soundtrack collaboration, which gels well. On the night of the performance, each musician does their thing with everyone free to add improvisational enhancements where they see fit, resulting in a fresh spontaneity added to the well-planned scores."

Because ensemble members' schedules are hectic, it's difficult for them to get together and do a full rehearsal before a show. "The first time we really get to hear what everyone got up to is during the soundcheck before the show, where we try to run through as much of the movie as possible and iron out all the technical bits and pieces.

Says Blom: "But we have great support from people like Paul Bothner Music, Ratcliffe's Sound & Motion studio crew and Point Blanc Event Tech Solutions. With so many different instruments and channels being used, it is quite an endeavour, but luckily we've learned to spot a glitch and someone will quickly jump in for an improvisational fill. At times we get to do a pre- and sometimes post-show at Sound & Motion Studios as a special White Room Session."

Those who've attended Makabra shows will know what to expect, but Blom says those who have not are in for an amazing audio-visual treat, with a fusion of historical movie-making with modern music, the live environment adding new life to the experience.

"Audience members get so wrapped up in the movie and forget we're sitting underneath the screen, while others love to watch what the musicians are doing. Then some are torn between keeping an eye on the screen and on the musicians."

This year the Makabra Ensemble are breaking away from their traditional fare of horror and thriller movies for the SA HorrorFest to offer their first sci-fi/futuristic soundtrack for Metropolis, in time for the Celludroid festival.

Blom says: "Metropolis remains such an incredible film-making accomplishment and with a new live soundtrack, this experience is bound to be an exceptional one. While we cannot speak for everyone, we expect the soundtrack to be another great fusion of organic and electronic music, with expected tricks up some sleeves."

The Celludroid Sci-Fi/Anime/ Fantasy Film Festival takes place from June 29 to July 5 at the Labia Theatre, 68 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. See www.celludroid.net or www.terminatryx.com/makabra
Email Celludroid or the Makabra Ensemble at info@flamedrop.com

This editorial originally appeared in the Sunday Independent Life supplement on June 24, 2012.

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