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Music and clowning in Europe, 20th-21st century

The course offers a training that combines the development of artistic sensitivity and creativity to learning techniques of acting without words.

Music and clowning in Europe, 20th-21st century

Starting from the observation that musical practices in clowning remain largely unexplored, the research project addresses the issue of musical humor in the 20th century from two different perspectives: firstly, by investigating how music and sound are used in the European traditions of clowning; secondly, by trying to broaden the definitions of musical humor by introducing the category of 'clownesque' for a number of modern works. The musicological perspective on clowning will throw new light on this tradition; and, in turn, reading the musical humor of the 20th century through the lens of Clownesque practices will emphasize the physicality of musical gestures and their relationship with this form of visual comedy little explored.
The first part of the project plans to outline the history of music in clowning 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 performed mainly in concert halls and theatres, while the third considered clown achieved his activity through film art. The Swiss clown Grock, who brought his act from the circus to the music hall, was famous for his virtuoso use of music. Following in his footsteps, Dimitri, another Swiss clown, has maintained this musical tradition, keeping it alive through his performances and teaching at the Scuola Teatro Dimitri, founded in Verscio in 1975 (today Accademia Dimitri). The third case study concerns the French filmmaker Jacques Tati, an artist fascinated by the world of the circus and who trained in the music hall, before transferring his practice of clowning to cinema. 

Tati’s cinematic art is characterized by unique sound effects, which are placed at the intersection of music and sound. In parallel with this historical axis, the project will investigate contemporary practices of clowning based on observations conducted 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 complemented by interviews conducted with clowns and contemporary musicians. The description and analysis of the characteristics of clowning 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 concerns the notion of musical humor in European and Russian music of the 20th century, will derive directly from the first: 20th century clowns' practices can perhaps influence modern instrumental music precisely because of the cross-fertilization of the "high" and "low" genres characteristic of this era. By focusing on instrumental music (without lyrics), you can rethink some forms of musical humor 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 clowneries such as the common gestures of opening and ending, the use of repetition and interruption, and the characteristic gesture of the fall. This analysis will shed light on a particular type of "physical" humor at play in much of the modern musical repertoire.

The project is funded by the Swiss National Fund for Scientific Research (Ambition).

Project Manager: Anna Stoll Knecht, PhD

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