Circus Maximus

program notes

Circus Maximus premiere, Copenhagen

On the subject of this “theme-park of theme-parks” I have been inspired to create a multimedial event which bolts, turns, circles, loops, implodes, hyperbolates, castigates, fumigates and repeats incessantly, all the while hiccuping and thumbing its nose at the whole challenging task…namely itself. The Circo Massimo (10 minutes walk from my own house) is the Romans’ oldest and largest holy temple of pure fun and breathtaking emotion… and the raison d’etre for this short (ca 25 minute) foray into pure unmediated artistic folly.

Together with the brilliantly constructed visual materials of Theo Eshetu, (almost all shot at the current Circo Massimo site) this composition becomes a circus of its own, where the inhabitants – ragged street musicians, hopeless jugglers, popes, pop stars, Gay Priders, wannabe centurions, spectator crowds of thousands, horses galore, Ben Hur in his iconic silent movie chariot chases, and the ghosts of all the leopard, bear, and elephant fights and fox-tails set on fire that have occurred in this, the greatest race-track and family entertainment center of all time – get together to delight audiences of every age and social standing. 

Metaphorically speaking the Circus Maximus stands for just about anything on this planetary ship of fools where we are all captives.  A circus of Ringlings, Barnums Baileys and postmodern bums who live by night and die by day and are reborn at every new galactic software cycle, such as that of the Integra project and its European commissioning program, among the most forward reaching projects in the experimental music world today with its unique approach to electronic composition, for which this piece has come into being thanks to the timely invitation from Malmö’s distinguished new music group Ars Nova and its director Stefan Ostertsjö.  Why electronics?  Well because they are the circus and the circuits that have come to determine much of musical thinking and practice in our time.  They are obedient servants who try their utmost to please every whim of the presumed masters who command them, asking only for mercy and patience in return for small musical miracles.  Here I have employed them as devilish shadows to the conventional acoustic instruments, whom they must follow, imitate, ignore, sublimate or sabotage…. The players of my notes (usually uncoordinated with the players of other written notes) must then try to subdue these shadowy electric-beasts themselves by enjoying their unsolicited and random interventions or trying to outplay or outguess the shadower’s next moves.  A bit like a live video-game without a joy-stick or predictable buttons!  In short the electronics function as a wild pack of virulent clowns who enter and exit without any plausible reason. Acoustically the audience may not be aware of anything, or they may ask themselves, Why am I hearing a solo English horn that sounds like burping drunkards or howling wolves or clouds of killer bees?

Circus Maximus Copenhagen

Musically speaking this is a piece of conventional music, let’s call it a Divertimento, which is not just a pre-bourgeois chunk of musical fun, but something which constantly diverts the attention to some other point on the imaginary game-board which composer and audience have constructed between ourselves, where we both try to arrive at a harmonious conclusion. Or?  In anycase it was not only a moment to step on the pedal of the faithful ring-modulator, and spectral-warping bloviators but time to introduce one of my favorite instruments of all time, the Banjo!  Can there even be a circus without a Banjo? maybe, but not one playing fast unison pickings with a Tuba and English horn, like some down-home country style with a passport from nowhere.

Theo Eshetu’s video is not there as an accompaniment to my music, nor vice versa…. we hope the random collision of the live video performance and the controlled randomness of the musical score will produce event-Gestalt substantially bigger than its parts.  If this does not happen, please do not hestitate to ask for your money back.  The circuses are notoriously politically correct.

Being that I really am not a devoted fan of chamber music (excluding Beethoven late string Quartets and Schumann Songs) I really wanted to create a spatialized piece of music theater, with most of the musicians in some kind of contained space – a telephone booth, say, or a capsule which is moving slowly over the heads of the audience…ski-lifts, human-sized rotisserie mechanisms etc…so in lieu of that ambitious theater project, I engaged Theo – like myself, an adoptive Roman – to enter into dialogue with me…. and he has done just that as have Marcin Wierzbicki, the extraordinary programmer of Integra and related software and electronic sound design; Marek Choloniewski, brilliant director of the electronic music studio at the Krakow Conservatory; the entire dedicated staff of Integra and the exceptional ensemble Ars Viva…to all,  my heartfelt thanks.

Circus Maximus Valencia

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