L.A. Cicero Bill Morrison and Dave Douglas

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Dave Douglas will premiere the 'Spark of Being' at Stanford on April 24.

Frankenstein returns to life in 'Spark of Being'

Creative collaboration between trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas and experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison re-imagines a story with "a great sense of longing for what we can't have – and perhaps for what we've already screwed up."

Jack Hubbard

Dave Douglas leads the Stanford Jazz Orchestra in playing a portion of his original score, 'Spark of Being,' during a rehearsal.

The screen shows mesmerizing black-and-white images on grainy film: pine needles spread in random patterns; something that looks like protoplasm drifting under a microscope; a few patches of glow and a spark or two. Then, footage of arctic sea voyages among ice floes – the big ones, the way they looked before global warming. The live-music accompaniment makes references to various musical styles in a fairly wide palette. 

Viewers, too, may feel lost at sea by this point: What's happening?

The answer is a collaboration between two cutting-edge artists: jazz trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas, backed with his Keystone band, and experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. The two are teamed as guest artists-in-residence at Stanford Lively Arts for a commissioned piece, Spark of Being, which has its world premiere at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 24, in Memorial Auditorium.

Douglas and Morrison are this season's centerpiece in the Stanford Art + Invention initiative, a campus-wide series of events, courses, workshops, performances and public programs organized by SiCa (Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts) and Stanford Lively Arts. Douglas and Morrison began a year-long campus residency last fall, teaching and mentoring students across campus as they create their own works in music, sound, film and video.

With this weekend's premiere, Douglas and Morrison will showcase the culmination of their own teamwork. Spark of Being is technological and anti-technological at once: a postmodern return to silent film. It's utterly new, and yet time-worn as well: Morrison, after all, is working with decaying, distressed film footage from long-gone eras, treading the delicate line between transformative and derivative. And Douglas said his music is "ambient or loosely structured music," with its own brand of timelessness.

"You'd be hard-pressed to call it jazz," he said.

Spark of Being re-imagines Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's mysterious meditation on meddlesome man, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Slideshow of Dave Douglas

News Service photographer Linda Cicero followed Dave Douglas through his artist-in-residency as he taught and inspired students and performed as a special guest with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra.

"So strange an accident has happened to us that I cannot forbear recording it," a character writes in the eerie opening scenes of Shelley's novel: "We were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea-room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog."

Morrison praised the "great nervous energy" of the 1818 work, which is suffused with "a great sense of longing for what we can't have – and perhaps for what we've already screwed up."

Boris Karloff's monster won't have a moment in the film. Spark of Being focuses instead on Shelley's creation: "He's not some blithering, blundering creature going through the swamp," said Douglas of Dr. Frankenstein's notorious monster. "In Shelley, he speaks in florid, poetic Victorian English. I laughed out loud when I got to that part of the book."

"The invented being knows a lot about being human and, not surprisingly, wants to have it all. And we're forced to ask ourselves why he shouldn't have it," Douglas wrote in his program notes.

It's a haunting story utterly lacking in a happy ending and unrelieved by any tragic heroism. In that sense, its lineage doesn't quite extend to other stories that feature an ugly face with a beating heart beneath – Beauty and the Beast or Phantom of the Opera, perhaps.

In Frankenstein, written between the time Shelley was 18 and 20 years old, "love withheld drives the creature," said Morrison – eventually driving him to murder.

Written at the dawn of the industrial age, Shelley's novel questions the "unhallowed arts" of technology and invention – ironically then, in Stanford's even-steven 21st-century collaboration, technology is the way her story is told.

Morrison's work began in international film archives, by "throwing together material based on some hare-brained idea, hoping that it will be informed by something else and be less hare-brained."

But mutual respect made the collaboration work, even in the early phases of "sitting in a dark room tossing these bits of film and music to each other," said Morrison. "We've played a lot of pingpong with QuickTime files."

But the end result is magic. Film and music, said Morrison, "have an affinity – they want to be together."

"It was heaven – the whole thing coming together," he said. Stanford's sponsorship allowed a hands-on collaboration that was more intense than such partnerships usually afford, ending with their extended sessions together shaping material at CCRMA, Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

"As a musician, we're either in a club or on a festival theater. It's fun to be in the cinema. When you ask a musician to do that, we're really psyched. This has been a really dynamic collaboration," said Douglas.

Both are pleased with the results: "Dave really came through with the goods. I guess I was surprised he listened to me."

"We're musicians," returned the jazz innovator. "We tend to be good listeners."

Douglas said the joint venture is "a huge risk." Next Saturday, "our creature walks for the first time," said Morrison.

Tickets for the performance range from $30 to $56 for adults and $10 for Stanford students. Half-price tickets are available for those 18 and younger; discounts are available for groups and non-Stanford students. Call (650) 725-ARTS or visit http://livelyarts.stanford.edu.

Related events:

Wednesday, April 21: Jazz/Tech Talks Vol. IV: Jim Nadel and Keystone

Friday, April 23: Art + Invention Student Works Festival

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu

Robert Cable, Lively Arts: (650) 736-0091, rcable@stanford.edu