Frankenstein versus Dracula

Sometimes circumstances throw up the perfect title for a blog post, and you just have to run with it. And what if circumstances were then to put a cherry on it by bringing together two of the Bioscope’s favourite musicians in an unexpected coming together of jazz, outré electric guitar and silent film? Well, that’s what we’ve got with the news that trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Gary Lucas will be appearing not alongside one another but in competition at this year’s London Jazz Festival, as they present their respective musical takes on the Frankenstein and Dracula stories. The event is billed as Frankenstein V Dracula: Gary Lucas plays Dracula > Dave Douglas & Keystone re-imagines Frankenstein, and it takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank Centre, London, on 21 November 2010.

Dave Douglas (left) and Gary Lucas, from www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk

Dave Douglas‘s adventures in silent film have been documented by the Bioscope on several occasions. One of the many outlets for his musical energies is the group Keystone, which as its name might suggest takes its inspiration from American silent comedy, though the music tends more towards ‘inspired by’ rather than serving as conventional accompaniments to the films of Arbuckle and Keaton that have formed the basis of Keystone forays so far. Douglas’ experimental leanings and use of turntables might not be everyone’s idea of silent film (or jazz, for that matter), but all I can say is that you just have to witness it live when it all makes sense.

Keystone embraces silents overall rather that just the Mack Sennett studio, and Douglas’ latest Keystone project ventures into modern silents, while coinciding with the centenary of notable silent horror film. Spark of Being is a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story that he has devised with experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison (he of the acclaimed Decasia, a haunting art film made out of decaying nitrate clips of silent films). Their project appears in the centenary year of the 1910 Edison Frankenstein film, and they initially considered calling their work Frankenstein: The First 100 Years. The Edison film is a legend in film collecting circles after the one surviving copy was jealously guarded by the late Alois Dettlaff for many years. When Dettlaff finally made the film available to all there was astonishment at how accomplished, indeed horrific it was – a tour de force of the imagination. Charles Ogle plays the monster, the director was J. Searle Dawley, and you can view it on the Internet Archive (ripped from a DVD, so we won’t be embedding it, but it’s there so you are going to find it anyway).

Trailer for the Spark of Being project

Spark of Being started out as an event at Stanford University in April this year. Morrison worked with new, archival, and ‘distressed’ footage, while Douglas and his band supplied the score. The music has now been issued as a single and boxed set CD, and there is the live show with music and film featuring at the London Jazz Festival (and across Europe throughout November).

Gary Lucas is a rock guitarist with avant garde leanings (he started out playing with Captain Beefheart). He has accompanied silent films on several occasions, most notably for The Golem, which he has taken around the world. Other silents given the Lucas treatment (which veers between ambient sounds and dazzling pyrotechnics) are The Unholy Three, J’Accuse and his Sounds of the Surreal set (three films by Clair, Leger and Starewicz). For the London Jazz Festvial his choice isn’t a silent, but it is virtually so. It is the celebrated Spanish version of Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, which was discovered in Cuba in the 1980s. Made at night at the same time, on the same set and with the same script as the Bela Lugosi version, the film was directed by George Melford and stars Carlos Villarias as Dracula and Lupita Tovar as Eva.

Gary Lucas accompanies the Spanish-language Dracula (1931) at the Havana Film Festival, 11 December 2009

Though the film has Spanish dialogue, there are long stretches where it is effectively silent, giving Lucas ample space in which to introduce his score, which he has been touring since 2009. The London event will feature Lucas and Dracula first (18:00-19:45), then Douglas and Spark of Being (20:05-21:30). The event is being produced in association with BBC3, so presumably we can look forward to some form of television broadcast as well. At any rate, a gobsmacked Bioscope will be there.

There is more information on both projects at the Dave Douglas and Gary Lucas websites.

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