It was a dark and stormy night. I was alone in my lab with the parts. Joints that had lain untouched for years in a jumble around me. Thunder rumbled. Some would say the body on the bench was deformed. Unnatural. I admitted that there was an ungainliness to it. Feverish, desperate, I fastened the pieces, unwilling to think past the moment when life might return. Lightning speared the sky. With trembling fingers I attached a reed to the mouthpiece, ready to breathe life into the Franken-clarinet.
As in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, I was alone with my creation. The Frankenstein movies typically have the primary cast members in the lab at the creature’s awakening. Dr. Frankenstein himself, his fiancée, his best friend, and an assistant or two. The original Frankenstein, he’s alone, and he flees his creature the moment it draws breath. Why? Because he suddenly notices that it’s ugly.
I’ll admit that my creature wasn’t the prettiest. Nor are many of the other Franken-clarinets around. It’s a common practice among clarinetists these days to change out one or more pieces of the soprano clarinet in order to improve the instrument’s sound or tuning. Practically nobody sticks with the factory mouthpiece. The upper and lower joints, where the key work and tone holes are located, are the most important and are usually kept together. The barrel, which joins the mouthpiece to the upper joint, and the bell, which fits onto the lower joint, are often swapped out. The substitute barrel or bell can be of a markedly different color and shape than the original version; these clarinets can sometimes look as though they are well advanced on the journey to lamphood that is the ultimate fate of many aged instruments.
Victor Frankenstein just can’t see past his creature’s ugliness. Some critics have noted that the crime in the relationship of Frankenstein to monster seems more a violation of motherhood (rather than fatherhood) in its abandonment of nourishment and guidance. Shelley was just 18 when she started the book, the idea originating from a ghost story competition at a house party. She was pregnant at the time and had already lost one baby. She knew firsthand that a newborn thing may not be particularly beautiful and can inspire both love and fear. A baby is sublime—a word that comes up a lot in the text. The term is used in the Romantic poetic sense, to mean a human reaction to something overwhelming (a mountain, an electrical storm, a birth) that combines ecstasy and terror.
It goes beyond standard Franken-clarinetting to mess around with the joints, but I was desperate. I have loved playing clarinet more than most things. My experiences with the sublime have chiefly come through music. My Yamaha CSV Bb clarinet, now 14 years old, had a creamy sound and was once a joy. Except that the upper joint had a habit of cracking. Once in the first year, then about every two or three years after that. Cracks make playing effortful and perilous, especially on the high notes. They are expensive to repair. I got the latest one fixed in November, but the instrument still felt like it was pushing back on every breath.
My husband Dave, who stopped playing clarinet about five years ago, said I could have his Bb Buffet if I wanted. Buffet makes great clarinets, too. Dave’s horn had been in its case for so long that its keys were fuzzy. Also a rubber thumb rest cushion had disintegrated also, melting and spreading into the tone holes of the lower joint. It was unusable.
I had two unusable Bb clarinets, two different brands, and hope and terror. That dark and stormy night, I stuck Dave’s Buffet upper joint onto my Yamaha lower joint. Unnatural! The Buffet joint, grayish black, the key plating worn off in patches where fingers had hit them. The Yamaha joint ebony, with keys still bright.
Shelley’s creature, also a jumble of parts, starts out with plenty of potential. Strong, tall, and (in the book) graceful, he learns to feed and shelter himself, teaches himself to talk and read, and spends many months doing humans hidden kindnesses. All to no avail; the humans misunderstand and attack him. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he tells Frankenstein when they meet at last. The movie creature achieves this psychological transition in a matter of days; the novel creature, years. (The novel is of its time and moves slowly.)
I apologized to the thing I had made and tried a few notes. They felt easy and free. It had been so long since playing felt that good.
Frankenstein never apologizes to his creature. He agrees reluctantly to help it, then breaks his promise, leading to more deaths and a final chase to the ends of the earth.
Some of the Frankenstein movies have happy endings (at least for most of the principle characters, including Doctor Frankenstein and his bride). The novel doesn’t. Frankenstein, unsuccessful in his chase, dies. The captain who has helped with the last leg of the journey turns away from his quest for the North Pole. The creature proceeds Pole-ward. The sublime remains unattained.
The tuner reassured me that the notes were where they needed to be. I set to work with a polishing cloth, tape, thread, and screwdriver. Soon I had a working clarinet (though I’m still tinkering with barrels and bells). The sublime remains unattained—but possible.