Send away the clowns

The bland soundtrack of Saltimbanco is hardly a new cutting edge for the grand old tradition of circus music. By Philip Sweeney
If comedy is today's rock and roll, circus may very well be the new musical, at least to judge by the Cirque du Soleil, the modern genre's obvious Lloyd Webber equivalent. That parallel is clear from their audiences at the Albert Hall this month - young Kensington office types and middle- aged suburban families drinking gin and tonics and inspecting the merchandise - silk ties, CDs and souvenir albums at pounds 75. It's also clear from Saltimbanco, the soundtrack of the current Soleil show. It seems perfectly attuned to a cultural product sold to 3.5 million punters from Montreal to Tokyo, and forms part of the range of a multi-national company with three other touring troupes and permanent sites existing or under preparation in Berlin, Las Vegas and Disney World Florida.

Saltimbanco music, like the Marlboro colour scheme or the word Exxon, is a global common denominator, unchallenging because it is anodyne. Set for churning guitars, sax and the most synthetic of synthesisers by Soleil's resident composer, Rene Dupere, Saltimbanco's dozen tracks range from plodding rock mood pieces reminiscent of travelogue accompaniments, (golf on the Costa del Sol, maybe) to pastiches of early ballads or Mozart arias which sound like bits of well-known melodies bolted together. Everything, even the cod-African number "Kumbalawe" which out-Disneys The Lion King music for inauthenticity, is in a invented gibberish language, full of Scandinavian vowels, designed for universal appeal and rather creepy in its lack of context. The Canadian-ness of it clicks when you think of Celine Dion, another Quebec export in a similar vein.

The Saltimbanco soundtrack is admittedly near the end of its life span - it was produced five years ago - but it sounds twice as old. "This is Dupere's screaming guitar show," agreed Soleil orchestra leader Marc Sohier, sitting at the pre-show meal table, surrounded by his fellow musicians - bright, youngish pros with university diplomas in jazz or backgrounds in film and TV music, or CVs in West End musicals (the young English singer Nicola Dawn is the only non-Canadian in the band). When Saltimbanco breaks up for good at the end of the month, they'll go to their new contracts, having honed their abilities in the one skill essential to circus musicians of all styles - the capacity to adapt and improvise, to stop unexpectedly and start again without a count-in, to cope with changing timings and, occasionally, accidents.

Is this the circus music of the future, then, designed by the metre by graduates of McGill University or the Berklee School of Music? Not entirely, it appears, although old-style circus music, like old-style circus itself, is a severely threatened species in certain regions, notably Britain.

Traditional circus music is easy enough to learn about, if difficult to find. Grove Encyclopaedia of Music has a good entry on the history - fiddle and drum ensembles in the 18th century metamorphosing into military brass bands in the late 19th, and later, more complex orchestras with steam organs and extra jazz bands as incidental attractions. The BBC record library has 302 items listed under "circus", from traditional marches such as Strauss's "Radetsky March", Fucik's "Entry of the Gladiators" and Sousa's Monty Python theme, "The 1893 Liberty Bell March", through circus-theme pieces such as John Barry's "Pussy Galore's Flying Circus" from the Goldfinger soundtrack to heavyweights lured into the genre - Stravinsky's "Circus Polka", composed for a dance of Barnum's young elephants in 1942 is a notable example.

Most of these have disappeared from British practice. "By the 1970s, almost all UK circuses had cut down to quartets," says Malcolm Clay, a circus historian and Secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain. "In the 1980s, they went further, down to synthesiser and percussion duos or just recorded soundtracks which played contemporary pop. My son played with a circus band for a season and all he picked up was Phil Collins and Gloria Estefan."

Elsewhere in Europe, says Clay, the circus bands survive; half a dozen, even 10 musicians are still common, many of them Poles keen to work hard for modest wages, even driving the trucks, as well. The Poles don't get to Britain due to our tough work-permit policy, though other continental acts do, often bringing their own music. Despite the spread of tape machines, Britain's 20 circuses probably manage to employ up to 50 musicians between them.

One factor in the decline of the old-style British circus and its music must be the moral revolt against animal acts, now banned by most councils in the country. In Wiltshire, the Chipperfield organisation, run by Dick Chipperfield and his sister, Mary, soldiers on; surrounded by security cameras looking out for animal liberationists. Mary Chipperfield still selects music for the elephants, horses, sea lions and big cats she leases out to other circuses, choosing from stacks of sheet music (the elephant pile, the horse pile) sent by specialist Paris publishers. Other traditional circuses go for well-established classics, such as "Baby Elephant Walk", an old Billy Smart favourite, Duke Ellington's "Caravan for Camels", or more recently, "The Eye of the Tiger" from the Rocky film soundtrack, for big cats.

For the time being, the exuberant French anarcho-Bohemian circus scene, which gave birth to the Mad Max chainsaw outfit Archaos and influenced bands like Les Negresses Vertes is quiescent, at least in the UK. Archaos suffered financial problems and was last seen transformed into a sort of techno-circus-rave at Brixton Academy. Former leader Pierre Bidon is currently directing another British outfit, the Circus of Horrors, a sort of Rocky Horror Show to Soleil's Jesus Christ Superstar. The Circus of Horrors is the brainchild of one John Hayes, aka Haze, a circus child turned rocker whose previous exploits have included persuading the traditional circus proprietor Gerry Cottle to back the Gary Glitter Rock-n-Roll Circus, which lasted four shows. Haze's conviction that the combination of heavy rock, circus and "excitement and danger" can work seems to be paying off now, with a succession of sell-out shows last year, aided by the Cottle organisation and the three Cottle daughters, April, Polly and Sarah, as cast members.

So whatever its complexion, the role of music in the circus seems destined to grow. Soleil's score looms larger because despite the excellence of the acrobats and mimes, it seems scantier in variety, devoid as it is of the old animal acts. If Soleil and the Circus of Horrors continue to flourish at their present rate, a lot of rock musicians may be able to realise their hidden circus fantasies. As well as that, an underswell of revival is discernible from traditional circuses such as Robert Brothers and the Blackpool Tower, so the Poles should keep applying for visas.