Go Deeper

Tonight: Green Fairy Cabaret Opens

Posted September 8th, 2011

We’re all over circus arts this year, what with Traces promising to astonish. But circus folk don’t just come from Montreal, or from residents of small towns desperate for a different life (not that small towns are bad, but hey, sometimes you gotta get out).

The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts has taken root here in our big town, and has been growing in its programming and its renown. We heard that the composer for The Green Fairy Cabaret, opening tonight at the 2011 Philly Fringe, worked closely with the performers themselves to create music that’s highly integrated with the show. Eric Michaels, 25, is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where, as it turns out, he didn’t have to run away at all to join the circus. We thought we should talk.

How did you come to write music for circus arts?
The two are closely intertwined in my life story. In fact, if it was not for music, I never would have discovered the world of circus. I studied music composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I didn’t know it when I applied, but Oberlin has a thriving circus community, and after seeing a show my first year I was enthralled. So I set about throwing myself into that circus world, including becoming one of several composers writing music for the big Oberlin Circus shows.

After the jump: insights!

When I graduated and returned to Philadelphia, I sought out the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts to continue my circus training, and when I heard about the Green Fairy Cabaret I jumped at the chance to return to the intersection of circus and music. Collaboration and fusion of music with other disciplines has always been one of my passions, and circus is a particularly fun fusion to play with. So I offered my services, and here we are.

What other compositions have you written? Do you commonly score performances?
My compositional output is all over the map, in terms of format and genre (from rock songs to chamber piano solos), but there’s a good cross-section up for listening on my website. Aside from Green Fairy and the Oberlin Circus performances, I haven’t scored that many performances, but I very much enjoy that process of collaboration and would certainly like to do it more

What’s different about working collaboratively with performers, compared to creating independently?
Collaboration is an instant and wonderful source of inspiration. At the same time, it’s also a source of restrictions, but in the best possible way. Any artist, working in any field, can tell you how difficult it can be to create when you have no boundaries, no framework, nothing to focus your efforts and give you a direction. Collaboration gives you that framework, even if it’s a fluid framework. And while working others isn’t always effortlessly smooth, it will push you in directions you wouldn’t go on your own, and result in the creation of something so different from a purely independent process.

At what point do you and the performers decide that the work is finished? What’s it like to get notes from people whose primary roles are not musical?
I started to jokingly answer this by saying that we decide the work is finished when it’s the day of the show and we don’t have time to make any more changes, but then I realized just how true that actually is. Creation is a potentially endless process of revision. Many wise people have pointed out that a work of art is never completed, merely abandoned, so “finishing” a work is just a matter of finding a point where you can be happy with what you have and move on to the next piece.

As to getting feedback, it all comes back to that beauty of collaboration, and getting pushed beyond your instincts. A performer might need an extra 20 seconds for a big moment to time out just right, and it might not feel musically natural at all to make that change, but grappling with that kind of thing and finding ways to make those changes work resulted in most of my favorite moments in the music.

What attracted you to this project? Did somebody reach out to you? Did you have friends or colleagues involved?
I work at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, so I was already involved in the community of artists that created this show. When I heard the show was happening, I knew I had to take the opportunity to become a part of it, so I actually reached out to the director myself and asked to write the music.

Do you do any circus-like things? Any trapeze, or rings, or cloths for you?
Absolutely. I started in college with juggling and stilt-walking, but these days my primary focus is on corde lisse, also known simply as aerial rope. I’ve started to fall for tightwire lately as well. I teach beginner aerials (rope, trapeze, and fabric) at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

The Green Fairy Cabaret opens tonight at 8:00 pm at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900 Greene Street, Unit A, Germantown. Shows are also Friday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 pm. $20.

–Nicholas Gilewicz