What Classical Music Might Learn From the Circus

By Barry Kempton

I will resist the urge to get too distracted with parallels between the circus acts and classical music, though a couple of funny images do come to mind.  I will instead get straight to the issue I’ve been thinking about.

It’s certainly a long time since I went to the circus (not counting Cirque de Soleil) or even saw a circus show on television, but according to my memory, many routines like the tight rope walker’s act began with fairly standard daring feats.  At some point during the act the tension mounted, maybe accompanied by a drum roll that signaled to the audience that the finale had arrived.  On his first attempt, the tightrope walker almost always fell, didn’t he?  He would fall into the safety net, the audience would gasp and then he would climb back up the ladder and do it again with the sense of drama heightened still further.  The second time he would always be successful.

The cynic inside tells me that that first failed attempt was intentional, designed solely to have us, the audience, believe that the performer’s actions were at the very edge of his abilities.  But staged or not, the effect added tension and excitement.

From time to time, we read that classical music audiences can get their fill of the music they love through recordings and the radio, that audiences for ticketed live performances are dwindling because of the ease of listening to a favorite recording at home. There’s some truth to this observation, I’m almost certain, but rather than simply accept it as an inevitable consequence of technological progress, I think those of us who perform or present live music should be focusing on those elements which can only be experienced in a live performance.  There are several, but for this blog entry at least I’d like to focus on the power of tension and unpredictability in a concert. 

When you listen to a recorded piece of music, you enjoy it in the full knowledge that it was the best take of the recording session, the best attempt the performer or ensemble had in the time allowed.  The circumstances of a live performance are very different.  There is just one shot at every note and phrase, and the pressure on the performers to nail every musical challenge is great.  Dare I say it, so great that often performers play it safe – better to hold back a little in tempo or dynamic to make sure there’s no embarrassing fluffed notes. 

I’m not suggesting that, like the tight rope walker’s act, a musician or ensemble should intentionally play something wrong, stop and then begin again – or even make intentional mistakes to demonstrate how difficult the music is.  But I do think that live performances should be about playing “with the brakes off” in order to heighten the drama and impact of a performance.  That requires not only confidence of the performer but also maybe a different attitude from audience members. One that forgives the odd wrong note or even the odd train wreck, but in return gets to hear a performance that has us on the edge of our seats and excited to come back for more.   Let’s celebrate drama over perfection in the concert hall.  Musicians are only human, after all, and that’s what makes their music-making sublime.