Starting from the observation that musical practices in clown workshops remain largely unexplored, the research project addresses the issue of musical humour in the 20th century from two different perspectives: first, by investigating how music and sound are used in European clownery traditions; second, by seeking to broaden the definitions of musical humour by introducing the category of ‘clownesque’ for a number of modern works. The musicological perspective on clowning will shed new light on this tradition; and, in turn, the reading of 20th century musical humour through the lens of clowning practices will emphasise the physicality of musical gestures and their relationship to this hardly explored form of visual comedy.
The first part of the project will outline the history of music in clown shops based on archival research and insights into three key figures of the 20th century whose performances are recorded on film. Two of these case studies are related to clowns who have performed mainly in concert halls and theatres, while the third clown considered has realized his activity through the art of film. The Swiss clown Grock, who brought his act from circus to music hall, was famous for his virtuoso use of music. Following in his footsteps, Dimitri, another Swiss clown, kept this musical tradition alive through his performances and teaching at the Scuola Teatro Dimitri, founded in Verscio in 1975 (today the Accademia Dimitri). The third case study concerns the French filmmaker Jacques Tati, an artist fascinated by the circus world and who trained in music-hall, before transferring his practice of clowning to the cinema. Tati’s cinematic art is characterised by unique sound effects, which stand at the crossroads between music and sound. Parallel to this historical axis, the project will investigate the contemporary practices of clowning starting from observations made in two different places: the Accademia Teatro Dimitri and the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. The observation of teaching techniques will shed light on the creative processes of clowning, in a perspective that will be completed by interviews conducted with contemporary clowns and musicians. The description and analysis of the characteristics of clownery’s musical practices will focus on temporal issues, the relationships between music and gesture, music and image, music and sound, and sound media (musical instruments, objects, voices).
The second part of the project, which deals with the notion of musical humour in 20th century European and Russian music, will derive directly from the first: the practices of 20th century clowns can perhaps influence modern instrumental music precisely because of the cross-fertilisation of the “high” and “low” genres characteristic of this era. Focusing on instrumental music (without text), it is possible to rethink some forms of musical humour in terms of “clownesque”. The analysis of musical humour will reflect the questions used in the first part of the project, thus highlighting strong connections between 20th century music and clownesque such as the common gestures of opening and end, the use of repetition and interruption, and the characteristic gesture of the fall. This analysis will shed light on a particular type of “physical” humour at play in much of the modern music repertoire.
The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Ambition).
Project leader: Anna Stoll Knecht, PhD