Feature Article Vol. II, No. 7

 

 Two Musicians Who Make a Difference in Circuses

From Ringling Bros. to Circus Smirkus

 

Neither Michael Picton nor Tristan Moore started out their musical careers, hoping to write music for a circus, yet both have: Picton for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and Cirque Mechanic and Moore for Circus Smirkus.  Ironically both came to the circus because of an experience with Cirque du Soleil.

Photo courtesy of Feld Entertainment, Inc

Picton says that the first professional experience that struck a chord with him was Cirque Reinvent, the block-buster hit  with which Cirque du Soleil burst upon the cultural scene.    It was, he says simply, “An eye opener.”  Originally from Canada he had gone to the show  with his family and found it, nothing less than “spell binding.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before and especially the music and I remember distinctly there was an oboe player walking across a tight wire.   It was the first time I had seen anyone incorporate music  like that in an acrobatic show which just seemed so poetic to me and just gave another dimension to what could be done on stage.”  Obviously his interest was piqued, but he held tight to his original ambition to be a film composer .

Moore was taken with the music  from Cirque du Soleil’s shows before he ever saw a performance of any of their shows.  “It is certainly among my influences even now,” he avows.  The first show he ever saw live was Quidam.   “That being my first Cirque du Soleil  experience,” he recalls, “left a profound mark on me and kind of changed the course of my career.  That show and its music in particular had a profound impact on me personally.  I went to see the show in New York. I bussed up there to watch it once and ended up watching it four or five time straight because I had never seen anything like it.”  Simultaneous to seeing other Cirque shows, he was academically studying circus in the European tradition, and spent six months over there studying theatre and dance and seeing a ton of circuses.  “So I had a total immersion in the circus scene long before Smirkus ever contacted me.”

Picton’s career was not so straight forward.  He  ended up attending McGill University in Montreal and tried to start a film career after finishing school.  He started out by getting work doing string arrangements and some orchestrations for a film composer in Montreal.  It was during this time that he met Rob Heaney, a recording engineer who had done most of Benoit Jutras’s recordings.

Jutras was at that time the principal composer for Franco Dragone’s productions with Cirque du Soleil, including, coincidentally, Quidam.  At that time Jutras was looking for someone to help out with some string arrangements for the film version of Alegria.   Picton got the job through Heaney  and ended up working quite a lot with Jutras after that, doing orchestrations and handling samplers to mock up orchestra parts.  Eventually he ended up going on tour with Quidam for a year and a half when they lost their keyboard player in 2001.

When Dragone left Cirque du Soleil Picton followed him to Las Vegas and the creation of Le Reve, for which Jutras wrote the music.  Once again Picton did the digital orchestrations and even went to Belgrave to record the show’s choir music which was originally intended to be sung in Serbian.  Now connected to Dragone as well as Jutras, Picton next worked on the director’s show House of Dancing Water which was done in Macaw.

In the intervening years after Le Reve, Picton was approached by Ringling Bros.  The introductions  to the Felds were provided by choreographer Christopher Gattelli with whom Picton had worked on a tap dancing show for Harley-Davidson. Once known by Disney people,  Picton ended up writing all the music for Bellobration, providing the score for both the acts and three songs, the latter a collaboration with lyricist Marcy Heisler.

After Bellobration  the Felds began switching and having two composers work on each show.  One did the songs, the other the score,.  Thhis practice was first employed in Zing, Zang Zoom.   Craig Zafan did the music, and someone else did the songs.

After Bellobration Picton came back three more times, every other year until last year when he did back to back shows, with Dragons and Built to Amaze.  “When you do two Ringling shows back to back,” he says, “it  really felt like circus was my life.”

Moore’s association with Circus Smirkus came about somewhat more curiously.   Originally from Salt Lake City, Moore was attending  Amherst College in Massachusetts in 2000.   As a summer job he and his girl friend  were painting ski lift chairs in a mountain resort in Stowe, Vermont.  One day he heard that a circus would be coming to town.  “I thought that was the strangest thing,” he recalls.  “That in this tiny Vermont town that there could be a full blown circus coming through.”   Already a circus fan thanks to his introduction by Cirque du Soleil, he went and sure enough it turned out to be Circus Smirkus.  “ I was totally blown away by the production values  of this little mud show.”

At the time Smirkus was not using live, original music, and so Moore dismissed any thought of there being  any kind of opening for a musician or a composer with this hsow he found so fascinating.  Back in Salt Lake City  he found work as resident composer for a dance company and was also working with various theater and dance groups, when out of the blue Circus  Smirkus came calling. “I think they did a web search for various composers who would match their aesthetic,” he believes.  Michael Dobson who had been the show’s  drummer and percussionist had by then taken over as musical director and was searching for a composer.

In the initial inquiry of his interest, the name of the company was not revealed.  All Moore knew was that there was this company on the east coast asking him to go on a strange tour with them.  To find out more he Googled Michael Dobson’s name and Circus Smirkus came up.  At this point his enthusiasm quickly escalated.   “I was really enthusiastic about working for the company at that point, and so I sent Jesse Dryden [the company creative director] a huge email detailing why I was the right person for the job and how I would accomplish technically what they needed for Smirkusology [their next show].”  Reading The New American Circus , he says, gave him a sense of what he was getting into, and he saw the  circus  as fertile territory for the collision of  so many cultural arts.  As for Circus Smirkus, he assumed they knew what they were getting in terms of his range of styles from having visited his website for music samples.”

In 2008 Moore joined the company as composer under the musical direction of Mike Dobson.  A year later he was the musical director and over the next six years has worked with several different percussionists, Parker Bert  being the most recent.

The entire Smirkus Band. Moore and Parker Bert

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In discussing his work with Ringling, Picton explains that it is impossible to know how the next year’s show is going to go until the new director comes on board.  He or she will have a say in who they want to work with.  Sometimes that happens really early on, by January or March. Picton himself has usually gotten involved somewhere between February and May.  Usually by February or March the Felds know who the director will be and who they want in the show and will do contracts.  After that the first teh composer will have his first  meetings with the director. Usually the entire creative team will get together somewhere at this point as well. It depends upon how scattered the creative team is.

“We will all get together and have a meeting about the concept of the show,” Picton explains, “and the director will explain his or her concept of the show to the creative team, and get everybody’s creative juices flowing.“ If the team members  are all more  scattered, sometimes the composer will have a one on one with the director. “ I started on Dragons with Shanda [Sawyer] over the phone, and she was casting the show in China.  We met over Skype.” This discussion will provide the composer with a run down of what the show is to be about, and get some ideas of its musical needs.”  Since the composer may write both the act music and the songs, or just one or the other,  it depends upon the show if those the early discussions of music center around the songs or the score.  For instance in Dragons, a show for which Picton did not write the songs,  the early talks concerned  what the acts were, the feeling of each. “In the shows where I was working on the songs, we would start talking about the songs first because they are the goal posts.  They open and close the show. The whole concept of the show lands on the shoulders of the opening song.  It has to express the concept of the show, the feeling of the show in music .  We will usually spend a lot of time trying to hash out the opening song, because it sets the tone for everything.   That means we will also be involved with a lyricist.”  Most frequently that would be Mike Himelstein who has done a number of shows. He did Barnum’s Funundrums with Picton.

In the discussion of the songs there are often several false starts, but some quickly and easily. “Its weird.” Picton says. “The best songs come the easiest, and others take longer.  Usually we will try to work out between the composer, the lyricist and the director, a direction of the show.”  That may hinge on a title or a catch phrase, until there is agreement.  “For example, for Built to Amaze, the title came a little way down the line.  We had already started working on the opening song before the title which is why the opening song in Built to a Amaze is about building  a circus.  We worked the idea of ‘built to amaze’ into the song later on once we decided the title.”

With Built to Amaze, the director, Rye Mullis’ meta concept was about building this show.   So the first song had to be about the act of building the circus.  “Once we had the concept, Mike [Himelstein]  and I would throw ideas at each other because the main thing in the opening song is getting a lyrical hook we can all get behind.  Mike would send me a page full of a couple of rhyming lines that might be a chorus.  I would go through them and say this one resonates with me, this one sounds like a chorus.  That couplet  in the chorus,  ‘Build it fast, build it to last.’ felt right and I started writing music to that, and I think I wrote a couple of different tunes to that, and then he wrote lyrics for a verse, so basically we started to piece together the song, but we write it a chunk at a time.  I think I did three musical versions.  Fast rock, rock, and funk. It ended up being more funk.  I made all three of these and presented them to the whole creative team, especially the Felds, and they very much liked one better than the others.  Once we had that approval Mike and I would be off to the races.  We had a lyricconcept that worked, we had a beat and a tune that everyone can get behind.”

All of this creative energy eventually leads to the critical white model rehearsal. [See The Contemporary Circus for a complete explanation of this step in the creative process of The Greatest Show on Earth.]  In the case of Built to Amaze, the director and his assistant wanted to work out what they would do in the white model meeting before hand so that by the time they got to that point, the whole game plan for the entire show had been developed in a some mini-white model rehearsals.  “In those meetings before the white model meeting,” Picton points out, “you are able to figure out how much time everything needed.  We would play the song and Rye would say, ‘Okay here we need eight more counts to get these people off the stage and these people on before we get to the chorus which comes afterwards.  So we could map all that and get everything laid out accordingly and have demo tracks of the music that corresponded to the actual staging by the time we got to the white model meeting.”

Finally there are the rehearsals in Tampa when the show is put on its feet with three-dimensional humans, animals and props.  Some things always change in Tampa because, for instance, some move may take five seconds more than the team had anticipated. This is true especially with the opening number, because that opening song encompasses the entire parade.   There are always additions to make to that song  to incorporate all the people coming onstage.  Usually you build out  as much as you can in the staging rehearsals.   At this point composing the score is, according to Picton,  a few steps beyond simply writing a song.  It is more like writing the ballet music for a musical.  The show itself is kind of like writing a ballet, so that the stage action is a counterpoint to the music.

Picton wrote both the songs and act music for Built to Amaze.  In Funundrum and Dragons he did just the act music.  Although there were two different composer in the latter situation, “as much as you can you try to make all the music a single cohesive unit,” Picton says.  “The tricky moment in the show is the spec at the end of act one because spec is framed by a big song, but you also have four or five acts within the spec.  So it’s a little easier when I’m writing all the music to make those transitions natural.  When I’m not, it’s not that particularly difficult but it’s where I’m taking time.  By the time I’m writing the music for acts in the spec the song is pretty well settled.  So I can work from what the song writer has been doing, to provide the transitions from the end of one of the choruses into the music for one of the acts that follows and then getting back into the song is not so bad because you have a moment of applause at the end of acts.  It’s usually coming out of the song and fashioning a nice transition that gets you into the act that is the fun challenge of my job.”

For the most part Picton will try to have all the music written before winter quarters.  There will be some changes, of course, but he goes in with the act  music written, having worked from a video or, if the act is  already in the show, he will have seen  videos from the show, and if they are new the acts usually bring a video from a show they performed in recently.  “If the acts don’t change that much I have a pretty solid reference point that I can write the music around and then it’s sort of like scoring a film, all the links have to be flexible because the timing will never be always the same.  You take the major trick points from the video and fashion music that can go between them that can be stretched or altered,” he reveals. “For most of an act we do the music in a sort of vamp style.  Those vamps might be more than four bars.  They might be an entire tune, a 32 measure song that gets repeated.  That is often the case.  I will write an entire section that they can keep playing and then cut out to go to a big trick.  I find the timing of the tiger acts tends to vary for various reasons.  It might start out much longer in winter quarters and when you finally get to performances it is five minutes shorter.  That’s why we always have the vamps just in case the tiger is cranky or whatever and takes a bit longer than usual.”

Although Circus Smirkus is far less elaborate a production its creative team begins work at approximately the same time as its counterpart on Ringling, usually in January when the company holds  live auditions for that summer’s troupers.  Since some of the  creative team will be attendance they take that opportunity to talk a little bit about that coming year’s theme, which is usually chosen back in November

At this time, however,  there is still a lot floating around as to how the theme is going to translate into specific  acts.  Of course the team has to know which troupers are going to be in the ring that summer before they settle on those connections.  But then starting in late March, April and May Moore will have a series of general conversations with Jesse Dryden, the creative director.    “We talk about the theme and what the new  show should feel and sound like.  We talk about the palette we are working with, and eventually  we start getting more specific through the course of several more telephone conversations.  Like how the theme can be brought to bear on specific acts, and in this year’s case, which is a very story-centric approach, we were talking about ways to tell the story through the acts and how the clowns would tell a story that bore some resemblance to the original story but also had its own unique spin on it.   The fact that we were doing Oz Incorporated and not just The Wizard of Oz, meant that we were dealing with three different  aesthetic lens through which we could approach the acts.  There was The Oz lens, the fantasy world of Oz that most of the audience would already be familiar with coming into the show, The Corporate side which musically for me started to become a more electronic synthetic sound , whereas Oz would be more a palette of child-like and bell-like sounds,  bells and resonant sounds, and then finally you had the circus lens, the acts and the movement of the apparatus.”

There was always some initial indication of what acts would be in the show and how those acts would feel based on the personality of the individual performers doing those acts and their strengths as performers. That is why  “I took video footage at the auditions so that I could continue to go back later and watch the individual performers and understand the energy they brought to the ring, “ Moore points out.   By the time June rolls around and the entire company arrives at the circus barn there is still a lot that is undecided, but  very quickly in those three hectic weeks of rehearsal, things begin to take form in a much more concrete way and by that time Moore will have written some music as a groundwork of possibilities.  With only a general framework from which to work,  those three weeks obviously are a very busy time for the composer.    The reason for such tight time restraints is that the rehearsals and tour must accommodate the troupers’ school schedules, and they tend not to be available until june..

“I lose a fair amount of sleep during the final week of rehearsals,” Moore reveals.  Despite the enormous pressure there is some solace knowing  that down the road he can continue to tweak and polish and refine.

During those three weeks Moore moves back and forth between his little composition studio and the rehearsal tents watching these acts develop as closely as he can.  “Having video footage of those acts has made an enormous difference for me,” Moore explains. “I  don’t know how I would be able to do what I do, trying to tailor moments in the music to moments in the acts, without having the concrete  record of the timing in the rehearsals that the video footage permits.   In my first year I hadn’t yet figured out how crucial that was.  I was really struggling how to match the music to the acts.”

Of the rehearsal period Moore says, “Its an intense working environment, but In a very friendly, pleasant way.  Everybody is working together and supporting each other , but they are all also being asked to push themselves to their own personal  limits.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Maybe that’s part of the reason I keep coming back.  There is a little bit of addictive quality to the thrill of that push in such adverse circumstances.

“It’s all day, everyday.  There’s no breaks.  You sleep, eat and work.  The show creation is all we are dong while we are there.  Sleeping becomes more and more minimal.  I am becoming better about regulating my hours because I do realize I function much better when I’ve had a decent night’s sleep.  It’s part of the job that you lose everything but the show.  Your mind just has no time for anything else.  It’s amazing how much you can get done when there are no distractions.  Where there’s just the thing that everybody is focusing on.  There is no way I can generate that much material in that last week, but it happens.”

The theme of Moore’s first show was Smirkusology.  “That year was overwhelming and really exciting and scary because I had no guarantee that any of this was going to work,” he recalls. “I hadn’t foreseen how this was all going to fall together so quickly at the end of the rehearsal period.  I just saw that there were a lot of pieces flying around that needed to be taken on faith and that somehow all these pieces would come together in some kind of coherent  show, and I was amazed when they did so the next year was a little easier.”

The music in this past summer’s  show was entirely original.   “An interesting question for us originally, since we were making reference to a story that has a very  iconic sound track already associated with it,   the question arose, ‘Do we want to quote that; do we want to make reference to that?’ We were working under the shadow of this incredibly well loved, iconic film /story that people come in with very specific expectations about what they were going  to see insofar as characters  and a through line in the story.  That has worked to our advantage in the past, as for instance in 2009 when we were working with the fairy tale characters because everybody knows the tortoise and hare fable, so having an audience fall in love with those characters you’re already at somewhat of an advantage because everybody has that base line that they start from.  Having a movie as you visual or character reference point, was more of a challenge.  Because  you want to make sure that your spin on it is not derivative or plagiaristic, not that there was any danger of that with Jesse’s approach, because he is constantly looking for ways to make things unique and original.  That’s the way his mind works.   But the audience’s expectations were like a looming set of challenges.  You don’t want to disappoint, but very early on we decided , ‘Yes, we are going to put our own unique spin on this, and we should give ourselves the freedom to walk away from those expectations if we feel we can do something more exciting.’  That was liberating for me.  Because quoting the original sound track extensively would basically serve to remind the audience that we were comparing ourselves with something we can’t create.  We are a circus.  We are not a movie.  This is a very different sort of experience.  But we do throw in subtle references to the movie and other elements of popular culture like the song ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’”

One of Moore’s favorite moments in the show, one of his later discoveries  was the aerial perch act that came to be known in the company as the bambouk act.  “It was on our list of acts before we arrived at the barn.  At that point it wasdesignated as ‘a  to be determined aerial act. ‘ We weren’t quite sure how that was going to play out.  And then late, before we arrived at the barn, it was determined that we were going to try messing around with the bambouk apparatus, and I had no idea of what to expect from the behavior of this thing.  I watched some videos on Youtube of similar types of acts, but I knew that most of those were very sensual acts and ours wouldn’t be even close to that kind of aesthetic, so that was a big question mark for me until late in the process when I watched one of the later rehearsals.  I had been putting it off to the back burner for a while, hoping that inspiration would arise and sure enough, when I watched the connectiveness in the performance of Bekk and Morgan I immediately had the sense that here was something the show does not yet have.  This sense of intimacy was largely missing  from any other elements in the show because it is such a high energy, chase-filled, comedy-filled show.  This could be a nice rest just before the finale.  I spoke to Jesse about that late in the process and sure enough it was really fertile territory for me  musically, just watching the two performers together.  If it had been other performers I think the music would have evolved in a very different way.  There was something about the way they related to each other that made me feel like I could go out on a limb and take a completely new direction very late in the show.  I love finding moments to surprise the audience even after six years.  Finding those surprises now becomes a little more of a challenge each time.”

Another of Moore’s challenges was the trampoline/Chinese pole act that serves as the show’s first act finale.   It is a complicated act with many different elements involved.  Half way through the season that piece was still a work in progress, Moore revealed.  “I’m trying to diversify the musical material.  Right now I am borrowing music from the unicycle act which involves the security guards chase.  I’m working on pushing it away from that music while still remaining in the same style, so that thematically they are connected. “

Moore’s working relationship with Jesse [Dryden]and Troy [Wunderle], the show’s creative director and artistic director respectively,  is certainly unique.  “Jesse is the main one that I get my information filtered through,” Moore tells us. ” In both the pre-rehearsal period and the rehearsal period, he is the one who interfaces with me the most.  But I also collaborate directly with the coaches and Troy.  And once we are on tour, Jesse sort of steps away, so it comes down to the rest of the creative team to shepherd that vision forward.  But before the show premieres Jesse and I have a pretty close relationship .  He has referred to me as his muse on more than one occasion.  I think by that he means I am his sounding board to bounce his ideas off in a safe environment before taking it to a wider audience.  We will throw ideas back and forth, not just about music, but thematic ideas.  The music is there to serve the theme component and the circus component in the show.  The way I am dividing those is the thematic is about the story and characters and the circus element is accenting the tricks and helping the audience understand that this is getting more difficult as you go through the act, creating a build in the circus tradition. The music is there not to be just beautiful on its own terms, hopefully that just happens naturally, but my focus is always on supporting the vision Jesse is trying to bring into reality with Troy.

“Troy is a very collaborative director who loves to get input from the whole creative team.  I really respect that.  That is his ability to listen to all the different voices and knowing that he can’t be there to see everything about the show because he is also in the show.”

In discussing his approach to finding the right style for each year’s show, Moore says “I try to start with a fresh palette of sounds, as much as I possibly can.  This year I was playing with bell sounds, which come out in the aerial acts.  There are certain sounds I have discovered that work really well inside the circus tent. And other sounds which don’t translate well.  Brass works fantastically well, supporting centuries of tradition there. There is a good sonic reason for that.  It cuts right through the reverberating quality of the tent because no matter what you do, you are getting a lot of bouncing sound in there.  Our sound designer has his work cut out for him in trying to deliver a clear line of sounds to everybody in the round.  It’s not an optimal situation, but he has managed to do wonders.  Certain pieces like the juggling act and the wire act have some brass sounds pretty thickly layered in there.  There’s a whole set of challenges  there in trying to breathe life into something that is being generated artificially, so that it has the same naturalness of a full band playing together.

“The last couple of years I have gotten very orchestral for Smirkus sound.  The time travel theme last year lent itself to an epic sort of soaring approach, and I was inspired by the diversity of genres, because we were just basically  popping from one time period to another and each one had its own distinct aesthetic.  It was a fun challenge.  It lent itself to diversity really well.  This year was more of a challenge trying to find the right palette of sound. My initial ideas didn’t pan out when we got to the phase of hooking them up with acts.  So there is a lot of trial and error in trying to discover the sound of each show.”

 

THANKS TO THE BAND

No discussion of circus music would be complete without talking about the band that produces the music the composers have written.  I reminded Picton of two performances of the current Ringling show in which the high wire act was different each time.  “There are times when we have to cut,” he agreed.  That can happen in two ways. The first and preferred way is with advance warning.  The artist will go to band leader and say that they are cutting a particular trick that day.  They say, for instance,  that when we get to the shoulder jump, you should just jump to the next section.  And sometimes it will happen during the act in progress.  The band leader will be watching and make the necessary adjustment.  He has a microphone that is connected to the entire band and so while they are playing he will say, ‘On my cue, we will jump to the next section.’  Usually, by the time we are through with winter quarters, the band is such a tightly oiled machine that they can do that.  They can jump around.  That’s what makes a circus band different from an ordinary pit orchestra—that numbleness.  They are musical acrobatics.”

The Circus  Smirkus band consists of just Moore and his percussionist. “I not only plan out all the possible mishaps that might need covering, I am also the guy who has to implement some of those things,” Moore points out. “If something comes up that I hadn’t planned for I just improvise for a while.  We do that continuously throughout the show regardless, but I have the extra security of knowing that given the worst case scenario I can just play for a while.

“I watch the show closely, because there are multiple cues within each piece.  If something deviates from the usual plan then we are there to keep on filling it in with musical interest until  we are back on track.  It’s Important to have a percussionist who can follow along at an instant and just make awkward transitions sound graceful, which is what Parker Bert  does.

“Once we get on tour we have more time to explore ways to refine  the music’s relationship with the acts.  Parts of the score continue to evolve throughout the tour as the acts themselves evolve, largely as a result of discussions between Troy, myself, and the other touring creative staff.  The performers understand their acts’ structure as well as anyone else, so i seomtimes go to them directly with my questions whenever I need to adjust my cues to better match theirs.”

But for the percussionist, the Smirkus music is produced electronically. “Its sampling technology basically,” Moore explains.  “Over the years I have gathered and created a bunch of orchestral and electronic sounds.  The keyboard I have is a Fantom X7 workstation, which is Roland’s successor to the keyboards that were being used in Quidam when I first saw that show back in 1998.  They performed that show using what was called Realtime Phrase  Sequencing on the Roland XP-80 keyboards.  Partly because I saw that working well, I ended up getting my own XP-80.  I started trying to figure out how they did what they did.  Later I upgraded to using a pair of Fantom X7 workstations.   Everything I am doing now has basically evolved studying what Cirque du Soleil did in terms of bridging the gap between music that is multilayered and semi-pre-recorded with the flexibility of real-time performance. You can just turn on a CD and let it run, but then you can’t keep up with the acts where there are tricks that take variable time.  Aerial acts are easier for consistent timing because they can choreograph to music if they choose to, but with juggling you know there is going to be drops, and they will want to go back and try it again.  So you need flexibility.  Cirque du Soleil has stumbled upon a way (of course, they have more of a band than we currently have) but they are still using a very similar system to what I am doing here as I understand it, supplementing that with a technological foundation of tracks that have flexible cue points, where you can jump from place to place within the song as you watch the act, and since I am on headphones with the drummer, I can talk to the percussionist and say we are going to section b.  That way you have the support of a fuller sound that fleshes out what you are performing on the keyboard and what the percussion is performing on the drums.  That’s a fairly unique system that I don’t believe is used in a whole lot of places other than the circus world right now.  Currently I am using Ableton Live music software on my laptop to compose and help perform.  Cirque du Soleil has been translating some of their older shows over to that system.  I am always interested in what they are doing and so I study what they are doing and try to apply their technological solutions as best I can to our situation on a much smaller budget.”

LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE

No matter who comes calling, Moore sees himself working with Circus Smirkus every summer. “ I have a personal connection with this company that is great.”  That sense of artistic satisfaction he enjoys with Smirkus could go on, as he sees it, for the foreseeable future.  “ I get the sense that there is an infinite number of show possibilities stretching out before us, so that in one sense I could see this continuing on and creating something new every year indefinitely. I feel Smirkus has a really nice balance for my personal preference or taste along with the opportunity for self expression and trying new things.”

Picton, on his part, is not involved with the new Ringling production, but the future holds the chance to do new things with an old friend Chris Lashua of Cirque Mechanic, whom he met while he was in the band with Quidam.   “We have a lot in common,” Picton explains. “When I was living in LA my friends were starting to create this circus community, and they were great buddies with Chris, and when he started putting together the idea for Cirque Mechanics,  I was originally supposed to be a part of Birdhouse Factory.”  That didn’t work out because Picton  won a film writing contest.  Turner Classic Movies sponsored a competition for young artists for which the prize was an opportunity to write a score for an old Greta Garbo movie. “ So  I had to put the circus on hold,” he explains.

However, when  Lashua was ready to do his next show Boom Town he turned once again to his friend Michael Picton,  and this time he was available. “It was lucky because at that time nobody would have thought of me as writing western music. It was not something I did except for a random documentary at the time that involved some western music.  I played those tracks for Chris.  He liked it and said it sounded like what he thought Boom Town should sound like, so some of those tracks became the genesis for the Boom Town score.  It was fun for me because I got to stretch out in a new musical style.  It’s not really country/western;  it’s more Americana.  In Funundrum we had this big rodeo number which had a song called  ‘Hat/No Ranch.’  It was for the exotic animal section.  It was act music which we turned into a song.”

Of his experience with Boom Town Picton points out that Lashua’s thing is the mechanical imagination he brings to the shows, dreaming up crazy contraptions to hang acrobats off of.  One of his ideas for that show was to put trampolines on ore carts. “ It lent another facet of movement to the  trampoline act, which is already fast and furious,” Picton says.  “ That and the crane trapeze number in Boom Town were my favorite acts.”  For the company’s latest show with a symphony orchestra the mechanics of the trapeze got incorporated into the show  with the gantry, which is a multipurpose.

Picton came on board for that show with a live symphony first just as a music consultant, because of his background as a classical musician.  He wound up helping to choose the music played by the orchestra. The challenge was to match music to the various acts because circus acts tend to come in around five to ten minutes with a feel  of build and certain points you want to hit along the way, whereas  pieces of classical music of that length are fairly rare.  “That’s the reason circuses have composers.

“We ended up using some operatic material. Some arias from Carmen, some Strauss waltz, and for the rola bola, the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice.’    What we were missing, however,  was something to bring it all together like something for the charivari and the end of first act and grand finale.  Nothing felt right so in the end I wrote some original music.  I wrote three pieces for those numbers, which helped tie the show together and give it a certain Cirque Mechanic sound.  It wasn’t just a collection of random pieces. That was fun because it is not every day that I get to write classical music for a symphony.”

The trick with booking that show, Picton acknowledges, is that once you get it up and running, orchestras book their engagements a year to a year and half in advance.  So now they are starting to book for 2014.

In the original concept for the orchestra show, the gantry was intended to come out and forward over the orchestra, but it proved to be impractical because they couldn’t really seat an orchestra in a configuration that would allow that kind of movement.  “And the idea of acrobats flying over 50 thousand dollar violins, also met with resistance.  Instead we got the orchestra incorporated in a way that the conductor’s podium was in the middle of the gantry crane and it spun around him.  For the final number Steve Ragatz did a comic thing with a music stand while trying to play the triangle which we did to the finale of the summer section of Vivaldi’s ‘ Four Seasons,’ and we had one of the violin soloist play right next to Steve with a remote control music stand.  It was quite effective, as the seriousness of the music in contrast to Steve trying to be serious about playing the triangle proved to be very funny.”

While the circuses go into hibernation or prepare a new season Michael Picton composes music for commercials and short films and has some network gigs.   When Tristan Moore  is not touring New England with Smirkus, he is back in Salt Lake City working with a dance company there as a musician and resident composer.