Circuses are visual extravaganzas, often featuring jugglers, high-flying acrobats and wacky clowns. But there’s another dramatic element in the big top experience, and it's usually one that goes unseen: the music.
To make this art more visible, a Berklee College of Music professor recently pulled back the curtain on one of his own lifelong passions to create the school's first workshop on composing for the circus arts.
'Music Is A Discipline In The Circus'
Peter Bufano has run up against some negative perceptions about the circus.
“Circus equals animals — and that's bad,” he said. “Or, circus equals clowns — and that's scary.”
What people don’t say is circus equals music.
For Bufano, it most certainly does, and he’s been fighting to foster respect for the unique, centuries-old form.
Crafting sound worlds for rollicking displays of strength, agility and grace has been Bufano's enduring passion. Over the past two decades, he's worked as a musician and composer for circuses, including the Big Apple Circus and Circus Smirkus. In the business, Bufano said clowning, sword-swallowing and tightrope walking are called disciplines.
“But I've observed that no one [in the circus] calls music a discipline, even though all circuses have music," he explained. "So I'm on a bit of a mission. I'm evangelizing the idea that music is a discipline in the circus.”
Bufano found a convert in Berklee’s faculty development director Roya Hu. About two years ago, she ran into him at the Big Apple Circus and recalled asking him, "Oh my gosh, what are you doing here?"
Bufano, who teaches film scoring at Berklee, said that's when he revealed his double life. He actually had even written the music Hu heard during that very performance.
“So it just blew my mind to figure out that one of our faculty members — this is his specialty — and to have it on campus so he can share with our students," she said. "Peter's goal is to be able to keep these arts alive. And one way to do that is to be able to educate the people coming up about how to create the music.”
Hu encouraged Bufano to apply for the Berklee’s most prestigious faculty grant so he could develop a workshop. It would give Berklee students hands-on experience with what goes into crafting music for a circus performance.
In his pitch, Bufano described how he would bring his friends from the circus world to Berklee, “and have a blank canvas for students to create.”
Bufano won that $45,000 Newbury Comics fellowship. Now, after months of fretting and prepping, Bufano and his students have been rehearsing the culmination of their efforts: a show Bufano wrote called, fittingly, "The Invisible Discipline."
Bufano's "dream team" — professional jugglers and high-wire artists he's worked with over the years — trickled into a campus theater earlier this week. With an accordion in his lap, Bufano guided Berklee players and composers through their new scores.
“It should be like a game show,” Bufano suggested to the group, “not a 'Price is Right,' but like a quiz game show.”
The musicians got the gist and ran with a number that would be right at home on "Jeopardy." Or in a dim, 1950s cocktail lounge.
According to Bufano, "The Invisible Discipline" tells a story — as all good circuses should. The main character is a clown who’s also a musician.
“He's just this guy who's walking up the street, and we hear his footsteps,” Bufano explained. “He's on his way to a gig. He's got a piano that he pushes up the street. He pushes it up the sidewalk. He pushes it into the subway.”
As the main character wanders, Bufano described, the clown/musician imagines every person he sees as a circus performer. One by one, they magically transform into hula hoopers, acrobats and contortionists. Who knows, in this music-driven story, a businessman reading a newspaper might even start juggling his fountain pens.
Bufano asked each of his students to write different parts for the show. Yoko Suzuki's assignment was the main character's theme. The pressure was on. “Wow,” she recalled saying to herself, “I'm going to compose for him!”
Suzuki's professor had faith in her abilities. “And what I told her before she even had written a note is that you have to get to the heart of who the character is,” Bufano said.
To do that, Suzuki watched videos of Joel Jeske, the professional clown Bufano invited to play the role. The professor and student Skyped with him, too.
“He doesn’t use any words,” Suzuki said. “He's a really serious person. Because he's serious, it's funny.”
She gleaned enough from those first impressions to build a motif. Then, Suzuki set out to capture the tempo of the character’s constant questioning and trudging along.
Like a lot of her fellow composition students, Suzuki hadn’t seen a circus since she was a little kid. For her, the last performance she saw was in Japan. So Bufano decided to take all the students to Cirque du Soleil to get them acquainted to the kind of artistry he adores.
Before this workshop, Suzuki, a jazz composer and pianist, said she viewed circus music as little more than background for elephants. Not anymore.
During the rehearsal, her muse, professional clown Jeske, got the chance to hear the jaunty number she wrote for the first time.
“All she had to watch was a video of me walking back and forth — she got all that from just that simple little piece of physicality,” he said. “The kind of awkward quality that the rhythm has in the piece she's done, I'm really now going to heighten and make [it] very much a vital part of the character.”
Jeske's been a clown for more than two decades. He believes circus music’s complexity, and the timing it takes to play it live, is taken for granted in the U.S. Jeske pointed to Europe and Russia, where he said the circus arts are recognized as a bonafide art form.
Jeske, who is also a multi-instrumentalist, was over-the-moon about Bufano’s bid to raise awareness about the living art form.
“Circus music can make or break a circus act,” he said. “Sometimes the music can overwhelm the act; Sometimes the act doesn’t gel with the mood that the music is setting.”
Jeske hoped Berklee students might consider joining the current circus arts renaissance he’s observed since Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey went dark two years ago. Bufano wouldn't mind hiring them, too. His first circus gig was actually for Ringling — but not as a musician.
“I don’t think I was that good of a clown,” admitted Bufano, a Clown College alumnus.
When he was a clown, Bufano said he was always way more fascinated by the musicians driving the circus antics behind the scenes.
This segment aired on July 19, 2019.