BBC Radio 3 is recording a performace of HK Gruber's Frankenstein!! on 22 Oct at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. This is music that needs to be experienced live for maximum impact. Get tickets here. Fabulous, crazy programme, Poulenc's Les Biches and Gottfried von Einems' Episodes from Turandot which are nothing like Puccini.
Frankenstein!! is an event, a piece of theatre as much as of music. One day Gruber will be too old to create the spectacle afresh, so this will be a special occasion. It's different every time, for Gruber doesn't do jaded, though he's been performing this for 30 years.
The Frankenstein story epitomises the morbid “gothic” seam of Romanticism. Horror movies celebrate it and parody it at the same time. Gruber’s Frankenstein!! parodies the entire genre and throws in Robinson Crusoe, Goldfinger and John Wayne for good measure. Images flash past so quickly they barely register, but that’s part of the effect, which Gruber calls pan-demonium, at once referring to the anarchy of Pan worship and demonology. There are snatches of oompah band and of lullaby, an elegant horn solo that wouldn’t be out of place in a “proper” symphony, and, in true Gruber style, lots of toy instruments and whirring noise tubes. He conducts, sings and plays at the same time, of course. Frantic energy is part of the package. It wouldn’t be quite so manic without tiny, tinny saxophone or good old fashioned alto Melodica (bright red, of course). This performance was in English, which made it even more surreal. He murders syntax and distorts lines still further. Howls and screams seem quite mundane. He affected an extremely heavy accent, exaggerating the kitsch Mitteleuropean ambience so typical of Frankenstein movies. Think Bela Lugosi on speed, performed by Brahms, whom Gruber vaguely resembles.
This madcap romp through images is hilarious, but there’s disciplined method behind it. Rhythms and counter-rhythms cross and converge. As with the horn solo, there is nice intricate scoring for percussion. Random as the images may seem, cumulatively they have an effect. Lurking behind the humour there’s something dark. “Frankenstein is dancing…with the test tube lady…my daughter dear, it’s you!” Batman and Robin in bed together….well, Batman‘s “ill bred”. Crusoe visits a new island where cannibals live…..And a little girl visits a doctor to fix her doll Caspar. “Good medicine is practised here, with minor aberrations.”. So Caspar gets the brain of a criminal. ..”Thank you, thank you” croons Gruber in falsetto. “Now my Caspar can walk again...and chase pretty, little girls”.