Spark of Being
The Frankenstein myth still fascinates, 193 years after Mary Shelley published her novel, because the idea of creating a new life out of dead body parts attracts us as much as it repels us. We are all drawn to the idea of playing God, of making something where once there was nothing, but we shrink from the prospect of decay and desecration. Any successful reworking of the Frankenstein myth has to accommodate both sides of that ambivalence.
Dave Douglas’ new three-CD project, Spark of Being, does just that. In creating a soundtrack for Bill Morrison’s experimental Frankenstein film, the trumpeter has found a wordless musical equivalent for the myth of fresh life emerging from the stink of death. Stanford University, which commissioned the soundtrack, gave Douglas the key to the computer-music department’s mammoth library of samples—a morgue of “dead” sounds, as it were. DJ Olive, the turntablist in Douglas’ longstanding Keystone sextet, grabbed those sounds, chopped them up, stitched them together, wrapped them in echo and zapped them with lightning to make them move with the tentative motion and eerie otherworldliness of Shelley’s monster.
As unnerving as the monster is, though, the story doesn’t work unless we recognize a flicker of humanity in the creature’s breast, and that “spark of being” is represented by the sheer lyricism of Douglas’ trumpet. These little tunes, often echoed by Marcus Strickland’s resounding tenor sax, create a sympathy that conflicts with the DJ’s disorienting samples and the rhythm section’s jittery beats. And that push-and-pull between organic melodies and high-tech effects, between the wonder of new life and the horror of recent death, gives this music its dramatic charge.
This dynamic proved so fertile that Douglas created more music than he needed for the movie. Like Miles Davis during his Bitches Brew period—a similar example of a trumpeter testing his lyricism against cutting-edge technology, with a Fender Rhodes creating a bridge between the two—Douglas encouraged his band to keep improvising in the studio, confident he could edit the results for his needs. Unlike the Bitches Brew music, however, we won’t have to wait decades to hear the full scope of the project, for the inclusive box set is already here.
Douglas is releasing the actual film score as Spark of Being: Soundtrack, the most accessible concert music as Spark of Being: Expand and the rest as Spark of Being: Burst. The three CDs are available individually and bundled in a box. And while it’s true that Expand is the most rewarding disc as a pure listening experience, all three are worth hearing.
When the tune “Spark of Being” appears on the soundtrack, the electronic wind and microchip squiggles of DJ Olive’s samples, no doubt cued to the images on the screen, dominate the foreground, leaving the horns to probe for safe refuge in the harsh soundscape. When the same tune appears on Expand, however, the horns quickly wrest the foreground from the samples, allowing Douglas’ attractive theme to unfold leisurely and then blossom into a call-and-response dialogue with Strickland, who is quite impressive throughout the three discs.
Not only does this arrangement offer a more familiar jazz sound—though the electronics are always bubbling away in the background—but it also offers a more sympathetic view of the monster’s birth. While the soundtrack version is full of foreboding, as if the monster will drag us back into the primordial ooze, the jazz-concert version suggests that with new inventions come wonderful new possibilities.
If that composition describes the moment of creation, “Travelogue” describes the monster on the move, after he has escaped from the mad doctor’s control. Appropriately, the focus here is not melody but rhythm, and drummer Gene Lake and bassist Brad Jones churn up an ever-shifting syncopation that captures both the eagerness and clumsiness of the newborn creature. In the soundtrack arrangement, the samples’ loud, ominous seething seems ready to swallow the naïve being before he can get very far.
In the Expand version of “Travelogue,” Adam Benjamin’s Rhodes is more prominent, lending a cheerful jauntiness to the monster’s freedom, still represented by the push-and-pull beats. This time, the samples are often wordless voices that yelp with trepidation and excitement. In the Burst version of the same theme, the samples have more of a sci-fi feel, as if radar signals were bouncing off the monster as he stumbled forward, an alien in a new world. Lake’s inventive drum solo staggers through the samples for the first minute, and then Douglas’ skidding muted trumpet solo takes off as if released from the tension.
For older listeners, the use of prerecorded sounds in a jazz album is wholly unnatural—like Dr. Frankenstein attempting to reanimate those lifeless limbs. To be fair, those listeners have suffered through plenty of records where such experiments went terribly wrong. But here the mad science works, adding new, mesmerizing timbres to the best kind of collective improvisation. Part of the secret is that DJ Olive reworks his samples so they function as modular notes and chords rather than sound effects. Just as important, though, Douglas has composed tunes that could work with any instrumentation, and the samples are an extra flavoring—not a gimmick the whole thing depends upon.