Two strong personalities put their heads together for a film/music collaboration at Walker Art Center this week.
Jazz trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas formed his band Keystone five years ago with cinema in mind -- specifically, a soundtrack for the silent films of comedy actor/director Fatty Arbuckle.
"It is a band with a sense of humor," Douglas said by phone recently. But Keystone's latest project is a "completely different animal," he said. Based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein story, "Spark of Being" -- a collaboration with experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison -- will receive only its second U.S. showcase Thursday at Walker Art Center.
"I did a major collaboration with [dancer/choreographer] Trisha Brown about 10 years ago and have done some work with painters, but 'Spark of Being' is a pretty deep interaction," Douglas said. "I like that neither the music nor the film takes over the experience."
The work seemed destined to be an intense democracy. Morrison, an avant-garde director acclaimed for his use of found, decaying film footage on features such as "Decasia," spent four years working at the New York jazz club the Village Vanguard and has collaborated with such jazz artists as Bill Frisell and Vijay Iyer. And Douglas is a notorious egghead and workaholic renowned for immersing himself in every aspect of his myriad projects.
"David had a more vested interest in the subject of filmmaking than any composer I've worked with," Morrison said in a separate interview. "He gave me things to read and bounced things off me, and I did the same thing to him. It was a high-maintenance relationship."
Frankenstein was the 'skeleton'
The two were teamed as artists in residence at Stanford University and commissioned to create what became "Spark of Being" as part of the Stanford Art + Invention initiative. (The Walker also provided funding.)
"Dave was very interested in how art and technology relate, which seemed very appropriate because so much of the new technology is being formed at Stanford," Morrison said. "We realized we needed an organizing principle. I had always wanted to make a found-footage film having to do with Frankenstein, using this idea of making a new creature out of parts of an older creature. I had some clips in a box marked 'The Gods of Time.' And we found out Mary Shelley was already talking about some of these issues that Dave and I were interested in.
"The phrase 'spark of being' is a vague reference in Shelley's text, but we used it because it described what we were getting at. So we used [Frankenstein] as the skeleton for our piece and then removed the skeleton when we were finished."
According to Douglas, "The pace was slower than I usually go, but that ended up being a real positive because we'd work on the project together when we were both on campus, then make further steps on our own in the months when we were away." They'd talk out broad concepts while jogging around the campus, and use Stanford's sophisticated computer labs to work out details.
The mystery of creativity
After three campus visits and innumerable Internet file sharings, Douglas brought out Keystone to start recording the music last January. "Spark of Being" received its world premiere at Stanford in April.
The performance was lauded for its ability to tangibly portray the mystery of creativity and creation. To that end, Douglas has done a superb job of incorporating non-jazz elements such as computer samples in a manner that adds to the ambience without becoming gimmicky or otherwise obtrusive.
Also consonant with the project's creative spirit is Douglas' desire to continue tweaking "Spark of Being." He has released a box set that includes the soundtrack plus two discs: "Expand," which features the jazz band's natural inclination to improvise on the material, and "Burst," which is music Douglas wrote that ultimately didn't mesh with the concept.
Douglas also found that performing the film straight through can be "so intense that it might be nice to have a break in the middle." In Toronto, he inserted "a short segment where we just play the score without the film and then the lights go back down and the audience sees the rest of the film," an experiment he will repeat on Thursday. This time, Morrison will be on hand to provide his feedback on how it works.