Episode 013: Family of Saltimbanques
In which we discuss suspect clowns, faltering tightrope walkers, and elephants
Do you like circuses? I do not. At all.
I remember being brought to the circus twice as a child. Once to Madison Square Garden to see the legendary Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey extravaganza. Another time to a few hastily erected tents in a mall parking lot [Decidedly NOT Ringling Brothers].
I also have a very vivid memory of attending a family day-barbecue thing each spring at my childhood church. And at that event would inevitably be Pockets the Clown.
Pockets the Clown: an adult wearing a clown costume that had pockets all over it. And those pockets had candy inside. The plan: kids reach into the clown’s pockets and take out the candy.
I am not joking.
Now, there really was nothing improper going on – it was just some old lady [a church deacon or something] who threw on a clown costume to entertain kids. But thinking back on it, wow does this sound appalling! Could you imagine a clown wandering around today, asking children to reach into their pockets for a treat? The authorities would be involved instantly.
Anyway, as I will explain, I had to choose a painting about the circus, and there is no more perfectly spooky circus painting than Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques.
I don't workshop these beats or seek out feedback. I don't really play these for anyone other than my wife and son until I post them here.
This was one of the very rare pieces that started out without a specific painting in mind. In these cases, I usually try to sit down with the beat after I'm done and spend some time trying to figure out what it is. What does it sound like?
No need to do that with this one. I knew this was circus music very early on. Yes, it was horrifying and demented. But circus music nonetheless.
Lots of individual notes and lines here, but no long, space-filling pads. Once I realized this was circus music, I kind of directed it to be a little hollow, empty even. Like all circuses.
The bleating trumpet. The stride piano in no discernable key. The monkeys [or ducks?] making a racket in the background. The whole thing sounds to me like someone desperately trying to not fall off of the high wire.
What better to pair this beat with than my favorite horrifying and demented circus painting of all time?!
I was going to have to do a Picasso painting here eventually. But instead of his more famous Cubist work, I prefer his earlier blue and rose periods. Ever the contrarian I suppose.
Also, there’s no proper circus here. (Is that an oxymoron?) Picasso just has a bunch of forlorn performers standing around in what looks like a desert, desperately ignoring each other.
Every last thing about this painting is sad and morbid.
And, if this is in fact a circus, it certainly does not appear to be very heavily attended. Perhaps even in the 19-aughts people were starting to get the right idea about circuses.
My reduction of the painting: I love the tall harlequin squanderer on the left [I purposefully made him very tall] and who I am assuming is his daughter [very small]. They are holding hands, but I have to imagine it’s out of fear, not any great affection.
These people are all haunted.
There are a million reasons to love elephants. They have close-knit families. The babies are walking around 20 minutes after they are born. Smart, caring, sensitive. They mourn the deaths of their loved ones.
So, is it OK to like the circus now that there are no elephants? I think it's probably still pretty terrible. Maybe if we are thinking of spending money on the circus, let’s instead support an elephant charity.
Until next week, thanks for reading Polyester City. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment by clicking the link above. If you know anyone who likes Music and Art and Stories [and more elephants!], which is pretty much everyone, please consider sharing by clicking the link below.