Composer’s original circus music balances on cutting edge
Sunday, July 23, 2000
By Rebecca Redshaw
Listening to a soundtrack years after seeing a movie can rekindle memories and emotions. Feelings of romance, excitement, fondness and passion return without the necessity of seeing the picture again.
Composer Linda Hudes magically achieves the same effect with her original score for “Barnum’s Kaleidoscape,” a unique circus show presented by Ring-ling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Long after the tent has folded and the circus has moved on, you can sit and listen to the music and relive the memories experienced in much the same way as an old movie soundtrack.
Close your eyes and you can envision Sylvia Zerbini, svelte and beautiful, dangling by her heels from a trapeze high overhead without a net as the haunting violin solo soars over a pulsating rhythm section. Or smile at the memory of the clown, David Larible, and his seamless interaction with unsuspecting audience members.
It is impossible to separate the power and influence of the music from the live performance. Hudes worked for more than a year in preparation, composing and orchestrating all original music.
“I was the first person to write original music for the circus in America,” she says. “I see this as another great venue to play great music.”
Hudes knows of what she speaks. A classically trained pianist, she graduated from the Hartt College of Music and continued with graduate study at the New England Conservatory of Music. Twenty-five years ago, she married Rik Albani, music director for the show. He shared his love for jazz and rock music with her, and over the years she has incorporated all styles of composition into her work.
Hudes has composed for countless musical settings, from movie scores to other circuses. She was associated with “The Big Apple Circus” in New York City for more than 18 years.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve never had a day without work in my entire career. I’ve been commissioned to write modern dance scores, received composer grants and played in public theater in addition to fronting my own band, the Linda Hudes Power Trio.”
But the circus offered special challenges. In creating music for new acts in the show, she frequently composed from the director’s vague description of what the act might become and the producer’s sense of probable direction and, most frustratingly, the undefined length of each new act.
“I was constantly trying to pin them down on time. But until that happened, I listened to the adjectives they used describing the talent. My studio walls were plastered with costume designs and lighting schematics.”
A few of the already-established acts provided her with videotapes that Hudes watched without sound so as not to be influenced by the existing music. Even though the act might have been performed for generations by a circus family, “Kaleidoscape” needed a fresh approach.
“[The music] is the heart and soul of the show. I have to use the power of music to have the audience experience joy.”
So Hudes stretched her musical chops to create a score that, ultimately, stands on its own.
More than a hint of a Ravel-type “Bolero” rhythm section underscores the power of the acrobatic troupe Golden Statues, with a jazz trumpet riff lending sensuality to straining bodies in the spotlight.
Whether with the parade of geese around the ring, who march to a theme reminiscent of Prokofiev, or during the finale when the entire company stomps to a gospel beat, practically defying audience members to remain in their seats, Hudes uses all her musical tools — dynamics, style, orchestration and tempo — to make the experience complete.
Tempo is tricky during the show; geese can change pace, as well as direction, very quickly. As Hudes says, “The show never changes and the show constantly changes every night.” The band of eight musicians keeps a close eye on the director for the “repeat to cue” signal if the tightrope walker needs a little more time or one of the Arabian horses gallops an extra lap around the ring.
The band, with the exception of Hudes and Albani, consists of young musicians from all over the country who auditioned for a year’s work. Because of the demands of the show and the reality of traveling together as an extended family, there are two requirements: Play great and have a positive attitude.
“At the end of the year, after they had this terrific musical experience, Rik and I wanted these young people to move on with their careers. We began our second year with a new band and a fresh new approach.”
And that approach is rooted in tradition. Hudes, reflecting on the history of the circus, notes that “circus music was cutting edge” at the turn of the last century, often picked up from popular composers. “John Philip Sousa wrote the best pop music of his day. After him it went downhill.”
If the level of excellence in Hudes’ work in “Kaleidoscape” is any indication of the future of circus music, maybe we’re once again at the cutting edge of composition in performance.