From Beethoven to the Big Top: An Interview with Circus Composer Linda Hudes
By Caroline Horn
They fly through the air with the greatest of easebut never in silence. Music is an important component of the excitement surrounding so many circus acts, from the trapeze artists and acrobats to the elephant riders and clowns. At the heart of that drama is Linda Hudes, who has been composing for the circus for the last two decades. Hudes was trained in classical music, first at Hartt College of Music and then in private piano study with the renowned Russian teacher, Madame Chaloff. She then spent 18 years as composer and keyboardist for the Big Apple Circus. Now newly situated with Feld Entertainment's newest show, Hudes spoke with WIM about what a long strange trip it really has been.
Did you like the circus when you were a child?
Went once, did not like it, never wanted to go back again. (laughs)
I was seven, it made me sad, and I told my parents I'd much rather go see Leonard Bernstein's Youth Concerts. I heard [those] and said "Well, this is the magic of life, and that's what I have to be part of."
So when you were growing up, you were focused on classical music?
Yeah, when the Beatles were big, I was practicing Bach Two-Part Inventions every day. I wasn't listening to a bit of pop music. I didn't play in pop bands in high school, or in cover bands, I never played in a club date band, so my sound was most influenced by classical.
When did that start to shift?
When I moved to New York with my husband [jazz/rock trumpeter Rick Albani] I started hearing all the fantastic jazz and rock and new music around me and it made me realize that there was more than classical. For a few years, I really studied pop piano and rock piano by ear, opening my ears to all the music that my husband was so involved with and that I had just ignored for all those years.
I woke up one day and started writing music, and I put a band together called Linda Hudes Power Trio, which was keyboards, electric trumpet (played by my husband) and drums. We played for years at CBGB's, Mud Club, Danceteria, Max's Kansas City, and ended up getting a lot of commissions to do modern dance scores.
It's a long way from the Mud Club to the circus. How did you make that move?
My husband went in one day as a sub for the Big Apple Circus. The director of the circus asked Rick to stay there - he loved the sound of the trumpet in the band. Rick said he would only stay if he were the music director, and could change everything. The next year, they made Rick the music director.
At this same time, the director of the Big Apple Circus would come hear our gigs in the clubs and he's say to us, "Why don't you come do your thing at the Big Apple Circus?" We said we'd love to but we have no background in circus, we're not interested in circus music, you know, it has the reputation as 'the bottom of the barrel.'
Is that true?
Yes. At the turn of this century, circus music was excellent. It was John Philip Sousathey were using the best pop music of the time. But then they just kept using that for the next 70 years, all those marches and waltzes, and it became very dated. We weren't interested in doing that. We said, "Look, you have an absolutely gorgeous and creative show here. Why don't you make the music as creative as the show?" They said, "OK, well, go for it." And then I wrote the first original music for circus that had been written in this country.
What kind of changes did you make at Big Apple Circus?
Over the course of a few years, we changed everything. Every year, maybe 80% was music that I had composed but then 20% would be music that we chose from the great repertoire of the world, whether it was Duke Ellington or Mazursky or Stravinsky or Stevie Wonder, Professor Longhair.
We stayed with the Big Apple Circus for 18 years. Over that time, we helped the circus grow from doing 30 shows a year to 350 show a year. It was unbelievable. We did an annual Lincoln Center run of 3 1/2 monthswe were the only circus ever to be invited to perform at Lincoln Center. We won a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Did you ever compose with children in mind?
No. I compose music that people are going to enjoy hearing, you know, music that's going to touch people, make them experience joy, awe, fear, excitement, sweetness, loveliness, beauty. And I always think that besides making the show great and the act great that the music has to stand on its own. It has to be great without an elephant in front of it in order to be great with an elephant in front of it.
Is there a special process for making music that has to coordinate with such intricate movements and acrobatics?
I have my own procedure for doing it, and I do think it's unique in circus. First of all, I listen very closely to the director and what his vision of the show is. I listen to the adjectives he uses to describe the show; I know all of the music has to reflect those same adjectives.
Then, I get videos of every act in the show. I watch that video a number of times without the [rehearsal] music, because once I hear that, it's hard to think from a totally blank page. Then, I watch the video with their music, to see if the performers are working in time to the music or if it's just accompaniment. If I see that they're moving to that specific metronome marking, I'll keep that metronome marking. I may totally change the style of the music, but I'll keep the tempo so that they can keep moving in a way they're comfortable with. Some acts just move right through the music, so you just have to capture a feeling.
At this point I have 20 years of experience writing for aerial acts, flying trapeze and Liberty Horse acts, and elephants acts and juggling acts and tumbling rountines...So I have a repertoire. I know the tempos and rhythms that horses trot or cantor or gallop in, and I know the adagio nature of certain wire acts or trapeze acts. I have a pretty big vocabulary for it.
With all of that in mind, I stare at that video probably a thousand times and I just jam along. I have a few drum machines, so I try all different types of beats. Some days, I'll just let MTV play while I'm watching the video. I listen to tons of different CDs that I have and say "Oh, that works, that doesn't work." I just experiment and fool around with sounds on the synthesizers and classical music or rock or jazz or Brazilian music or African music or Chinese music. I'll try anything to see what will bring it to life.
And, then, there's the whole question of structure. With my background being so classical, I'm pretty much always thinking in terms of Sonata -Allegro form, or theme and variations, or maybe song form.
When you radically change the music, is it hard for the acrobats and performers?
Yes, it's very difficult for circus performers. They're very traditional. Many of them have been doing what they're doing for six or seven generations. I hear so many times, "Here's my music from my cousins in Czechoslovakiathis is what we've always used."
What do you do to wean them into the new stuff?
That's not easy, and some people are won over and some aren't. More than half of the performers end up liking the music [but] some of them are unhappy from the first day of rehearsal to the last day of the tour. And when Rick and I write our book about our life in circus, we're going to title it after what someone once said to us, "My Dog Can't Work To That Music."
Do you need to research the music for a theme act?
I've done intense research on all different kinds of music: South African music, West African music, East African music, Chinese music, Brazilian music, different kinds of American music, American Indian music...I find the recordings, I read in the encyclopedia. I even studied Italian opera when we've done commedia dell'arte shows and studied the music of the Jazz Age when we did a '20s Jazz Age show. Also, I can just go to Summerstage in Central Park all summer long and hear music from every corner of the world. So I do that and I buy whatever CDs they're selling.
Most of us have only gone to the circus a few times, and we think of it as a magical other world. What's it like to live in that environment every day and night?
It's very intense. The circus performers all live there in great big trailers. We in the band tried trailer living and we failed dismally. We have to get space and perspective. It's a world where they could be in Poland or Florida or New York or Germany, but it's the back lot of the circus, so it's just the same.
Their kids go to school there; they have a one-ring schoolhouse. People get married in the ring. We have our own circus chaplain who travels from circus to circushe marries people in the ring and he christens their babies. When you have troubles, he tries to help you pass them. We have a cafe on site, with a chef who makes three meals a day. And everybody from every circus in the world knows everybody else from every circus in the world. They're all related, they're all family, they've all performed in each other's family's circuses. Their uncles are in another circus, their sister's son is in another circuseverybody knows every piece of gossip, what act everybody's doing, what show they're in.
And this was true pre-email?
Oh, way pre-email. This was from postcards from Czechoslovakia.
Tell me about the move from Big Apple to Feld.
Everything is different and everything is better. It was wonderful working at the Big Apple Circus for 18 years. To be with them while they went from tiny and rag-tag to big and successful was the experience of a lifetimeand we spent pretty much a lifetime there. [But] we had accomplished everything we could there. We needed some new challenges.
Kenneth Feld, who owns Feld Entertainment, which is the largest producer of family entertainment in the world, would come to the Big Apple Circus every year and say to Rick and me, "When are you going to come work for me?" We'd say "Well, Mr. Feld, we have a great job right now so we don't need a job" but we'd also talk to him about the fact that the music at Ringling Brothers hadn't kept up with modern times. We'd always have very interesting and nice discussions about that.
When we finally decided to leave the Big Apple in 1997, we'd been on the road for 18 years and we were revelling in actually staying home for a year. We put plants on our terrace! (laughs) We spent holidays with our family. We had worked every Christmas, New Year's, 4th of July and Thanksgiving for 18 years...And I rebuilt my studio, I spent a year learning digital recording and replacing all of my synthesizers. And then, during that year, Mr. Feld called and said "well, you're available now and I'm putting a new show together. How about it?"
What is the new show with Feld?
This is a very historic event that we're participating in. This is the first tent show that Barnum and Bailey's has done in almost 50 years. They had left their tent shows somewhere between 40 and 50 years ago and had gone to the arena shows, which they're now doing. And now Mr. Feld is starting a new show called "Barnum's Kaleidoscape."
What makes this show so unusual?
Well, when the Big Apple started 20 years ago, and when Cirque de Soleil started at the same time, they were both rag-tag organizations. Each of those shows built up a season and a year at a time to the level of artistry and success that they have now. With this show, "Barnum's Kaleidoscape," we're going to hit the ground running. On day one, we're going to have the most beautiful tent and the most beautiful show and costumes and music and trucks and sets. And to get all of this together immediately, not over the course of five or ten years, is just awesome.
Plus, we started all over for this show. From the first meeting I went to, Mr. Feld's direction to me was "Be different. Be creative. Be unique. Go with your instincts. Don't give me anything that's been done before. I want something new and different." And a creative person can't hear anything better than that.
That's wonderful. When did you guys start with them?
Rick and I began meeting with them last winter and in June of '98 we both signed contracts. I started writing the music in late June and I think I finished like two days ago...(laughs)
Now that you've made a recent move, how does the professional environment for female composers look these days?
I think in general it's a little harder for women and I refuse to let that stop me. Even now, here [we are] in 1999 and I'm pretty sure I'm the first woman composer that Ringling Brothers has ever had. I tell you, if I had a dollar for every time someone said "Oh, you're a musician? You must be a singer," I'd be a rich girl, I'd never have to write again. So even that is a form of prejudice. They would never think that I'm simply a composer.
I never had mentors, but now I'm a mentor.
You never had mentors? Is that because there were so few women composers?
Yes, there were so few and, in fact, women were discouraged from careers in music. In conservatories, they never mentioned a word about how you should be able to make a living as a musician. It was just lessons and repertoire and theory and music history, but nothing about the reality of life. I really had to figure that out 100% on my own. And I would never do that to a young person now. That's why I think an organization like Women in Music is so important, so these young women don't have to go through what I went through. I think music schools do a much better job now of teaching people about jobs in musicnot just playing music but careers in music, too.
Do you still stay involved with classical music these days?
Ideally I love to start every day practicing a few hours of classical pianoChopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, you know, whatever I'm in the mood for that dayto keep up my reading and my technique and just the beauty of that music in my ear.
Do you have any advice for women composers coming up today?
Ask questions. Get in there, whether it's with a record company or a theater production company. Find the associations like Women in Music. Write letters. Find mentorspeople who have forged the path in front of youand get help from them. And also, get all the training and lessons you can.
Don't be discouraged. If you can be discouraged by someone saying "Music is such a hard business" or "You'll never make it" then you weren't meant to be in the music business. You've got to have a very strong inner spirit that keeps you going.
Speaking of needing a strong spirit, what's the touring schedule for the new Feld show?
We open in about 2 weeks here in Sarasota. The first year of the tour goes until December and it's all West Coast. It's supposed to be a three-year tour. We're calling this Rick and Linda's Big Adventure. We never thought we'd go on the road again with another circus.
You didn't? When you left Big Apple, you weren't thinking "Oh, we'll find another circus?"
I'd say that was probably the last thought in our minds. We were thinking "Let's get into the film scoring now, let's get back into the dance scoring, let's go do some more music for jingles and commercials. Let's put our band back together and play gigs again." But here we are. It was an opportunity that we couldn't pass up.
© 1999 Caroline Horn. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.