Frankenstein’s Ghost walks, with SSHRC

Barbara Black

Liselyn Adams (left) ponders the creative process in all its dimensions with co-researchers Michael Montanaro, Christine Jamieson and Sandeep Bhagwati. Collaborator Xin Wei Sha was only able to be there in spirit.

Andrew Dobrowolskyj

When 19th-century novelist Mary Shelley created Frankenstein’s monster, she tapped into a rich vein of speculation. A group of researchers headed by musician Liselyn Adams are using the motif of the popular classic to explore the creative process, thanks to a grant from SSHRC’s research creation program.

They have found a wealth of relevant ideas in Shelley’s novel, in which a young scientist seeks to perfect humanity through science only to find that his creation becomes dangerous and uncontrollable.

There’s the idea of human beings playing God; the difficulty of thinking through the ethical issues of science; the creator’s sense of being all-powerful; conversely, the difficulty of creating what is imagined; the monster within; birth without woman; creation in isolation; self-reproduction; the rejection of the creation; the denial of death and the pursuit of youth — and that’s just to start!

The group intends to use their three-year grant to explore the philosophical issues with the active participation of Christine Jamieson, assistant professor and graduate program director in the Department of Theological Studies, and her students.

Then they will look at how this academic work can be brought to life through art; specifically, through “instrumental theatre,” in which Adams’ sextet Blue Rider is well versed.

Blue Rider, formed in 1990, takes its name from a seminal early-20th-century German art movement. They do improvisational work within a strong conceptual framework, similar to that of Meredith Monk and other avant-garde composer-performers. For example, they produced a 90-minute work by composer Peter Hatch on texts by Gertrude Stein called Mounting Picasso, and a series of pieces based on texts commissioned from poet Michel Garneau.

Paul Bendzsa, a music professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is the clarinetist in Blue Rider. Paul Pulford is the cellist, and teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he will work with students in music therapy. Adams plays flute, and the other members of Blue Rider are a vocalist and a percussionist.

Integral to the project as it moves from ethical speculation to artistic expression will be choreographer Michael Montanaro, composer Sandeep Bhagwati and digital art conceptualist Xin Wei Sha. The final year of the project will be spent creating a production that will be the centerpiece of an academic conference based on the project Frankenstein’s Ghost.

Adams explained in an interview how it all started. Blue Rider had just done a workshop at the Perimeter Institute. That facility, in Waterloo, Ont. had brought them in to give its theoretical physicists a different way of looking at things. During the week, the musicians were trying to write their next grant proposal. The clarinetist said he had just re-read Frankenstein, and talked about it in terms of the creative artist.

“At first, everybody laughed,” Adams recalled. Then they reconsidered. “As an artist, you have less control than you think. Frankenstein thinks he’s going to improve on nature, but you always have a bigger ideal than you can achieve.” For Blue Rider, it was a way of framing their commitment to create new work with social relevance.

Their first crack at the SSHRC program was unsuccessful, but when they added ethicist Jamieson to their team, that changed. The federal granting agency responded to the moral problems presented by the image of Frankenstein as a creator — artistic, scientific or technological — and the way it speaks to the complexity of the modern world.