Venice is our inspiration for Gardner After Hours this month and it’s time to celebrate Carnevale di Venezia! In that spirit, we’re bringing you a performance by CIRKESTRA, an ensemble made up of the best circus musicians in America that plays an eclectic mix of gypsy, jazz, tango, klezmer, and the ultimately creepy circus waltz.
The Gardner’s Brittany Duncan sat down with Peter Bufano, former circus clown/bandleader/accordionist, to talk about Cirkestra, circus music, and more!
Brittany Duncan: A lot of kids dream of running away to join the circus, but you actually did. How did you get started in the circus?
Peter Bufano: I was born in Bridgeport, CT, the home of P.T. Barnum and the Barnum Museum. My parents took me to the Ringling Brothers circus each year, but they were not circus people or performers of any sort.
My parents really just thought of me as another one of those kids who dreamed about running away with the circus. For my part, no one ever told me that I had to face reality at some point and find something “realistic” to do.
In 1986 I was accepted to Clown College. I was 17 years old.
BD: When and why did you decide to form Cirkestra?
PB: After a performance with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in late 2004, Jeff Jenkins, a classmate from Clown College, asked me, “Do you want to do a score for a small European Style bigtop tour this summer?”
That’s when I formed Cirkestra. I told my girlfriend at the time that I wanted to name the band something that could convey a “Circus Orchestra.” She said: “Cirkestra.”
BD: What do you think it is about circus music that people respond to?
PB: In the circus the emotion comes from the music. It works on the audience subconsciously. A circus bandleader is like OZ: “Pay no mind to the man behind the screen.”
BD: How do you think audiences experience your music differently without the visual element of the circus performance?
PB: When started presenting our circus music without the circus, I thought, “This will be cool, because we’ll be able to showcase what we do without being upstaged by the giraffes and acrobats.” Ironically people always come up to me after the show and say, “I can see the giraffes and acrobats in my imagination.”
BD: How do you go about writing a piece of music for a particular circus act?
PB: I watch the act during rehearsal and try to imagine what my music can add to it that’s not already there. I try to get the character or the performer in there so that the music will sound like the person who is performing.
BD: Do you still perform with circuses?
PB: This spring we’re working with Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Dobson, the drummer, is playing with The Big Apple Circus this. I don’t know when the next time I’ll go out on the road for a few years at a time, if ever, but I guess people will always call me a circus musician.
BD: Tell me a little more about the other four performers who will be joining you for the concert on the 19th.
PB: Käthe Hostetter is the violinist. I have a note I wrote to myself about 4 years ago of “5 year goals” and number one was “play as good as Käthe”. Two years ago, we were on tour with Circus Smirkus, and Käthe found a barber chair in the trash and dragged it from town to town for the rest of the tour. In each town, in the back lot, near the trailers, you could see this out-of-place barber chair out in the field, sometimes with her sitting in it reading a book.
Mike Dobson is the drummer. The thing that really sets him apart is how sensitive he is to melody and phrasing. He is the antithesis of a drum machine. He joined us on Circus Smirkus in 2005. He turned me on to Kanye West.
Sammy Lett (Saxophone, clarinet, flute) was introduced to me by his wife who used to play saxophone in the band. He’s very creative at improvising. Sammy never runs out of ideas, I’m trying to learn how he does it.
Mike Milnarik is a tuba player who just started with Cirkestra. We found him on the internet and he’s never played with a circus, but he’s going to this spring for the first time.
BD: What Cirkestra is up to next?
PB: Keep an eye out for the documentary “Circus Dreams.” We created the soundtrack and we’re releasing it on CD as soon as the movie is released on cable TV.
Cirkestra plays at 7PM on Thursday, February 19th in the Gardner’s Tapestry Room. Intrigued? Buy tickets here! <link to: http://www.museumtix.com/ticket/ord_eventcat.asp?pvt=isgm&vid=759&pid=2521679&eid=2899813&otd=&evd=02-19-2009&evt=0700PM>