Cirque du Soleil
I noticed that a lot of Cirque du Soleil albums were recently added to streaming music catalogs. Do you have any opinions about Cirque soundtracks?
Totally Real Person
Thanks for your totally real email, Totally Real Person. I'm glad you asked, because wow do I have some opinions.
Cirque may be a factory corporation churning out shows so quickly they don't realize they've become self-parody. Their target audience may be white, upper middle class families that still think "exotic" is an appropriate way to describe anyone's culture. And their soundtrack albums may be overwrought new-age junk food music, but oh what great junk food they are. I could sit here all day and just stuff my ears full of this awful, wonderful junk food.
With over 35 published albums, the Cirque catalog may seem intimidating. But I'm here to help guide you through a few of the albums I've listened to. A lot of it is terrible. Some of it is alright. None of it is genuinely important in the way that something like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, but that's okay. That's not what Cirque needs to be. Let's talk about some highlights.
The first half of Varekai is my favorite Cirque soundtrack. It is so good I completely ignore how boring the second half is.
"Aureus" and "Rain One" (these were one track on the original 2003 release whose album art I vastly prefer, and this little aside should give you an idea of what kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into by reading this post). Sure that might be someone playing with drum brushes, but in my mind that's a performer pushing a ridiculously over-sized broom on stage. And they aren't just sweeping, oh no, they're hopping and flipping in the air while gently collecting glowing crystals as shimmering lights hang suspended in midair. And their costume has a tail.
This is actually the plot of the show.
Varekai is sort of like Ancient Greek Fanfiction, in that it takes the story of Icarus and says "what if instead of falling into the sea after he flew too close to the sun he fell into a magical forest and broke his legs and then met a frill-necked lizard and they fall in love but then she gets kidnapped by spider ladies and he has to rescue her." The whole point is this is why "falling" is said a crap ton of times during this song, because the acrobatics during this are supposed to be like Icarus' fall to earth or something.
"Le Rêveur." Whoops this just turned into Jack Wall's Myst III: Exile soundtrack. Are Cirque shows just Ages in the D'ni mythos? We're all nerds here right, we're all on the same page, right? (Heh heh, page. Linking books. Heh.)
"Patzivota." 2:54: I love songs that take their time to build up. Cirque soundtracks usually lack pacing and any sense of an arc. But Varekai knows how to keep building on the "falling" piano motif, develop texture, and let individual songs explore their own space. The moment the rhythm comes in is so much for me.
"El Péndulo." The first moment of this song is my third favorite sound in the world.
(My second favorite sound is the start of Purity Ring's "Crawlersout")
(And my first favorite is the Mass Effect 3 main menu start button sound. I don't believe that this last one was composed or engineered as much as it was discovered.)
After "El Péndulo" the soundtrack goes back to being just… Cirque. It's boring, generic. I usually stop listening here to be honest.
You have two ways of listening to Solarium, a set of 10 remixes. You can listen to Tapis Rouge, or you can listen to the Solarium/Delirium, a double album with a much more Hunger Games cover art direction.
The best track by far on Solarium is "Africa," remixed by Stuart Matthewman aka Cottonbelly. It starts with some solid samples from the O song, but when the beat hits at 0:33 you just have to wonder why this isn't the sound of Cirque. It's downtempo chill at it's best. Can you imagine it: you take your seat in the tent, sit back with a glass of whiskey, the lights go down, and as the music starts the entire audience lights up. It would be so good.
Also my yoga teacher totally played this track during class this week which is the entire reason I pulled this post out of the drafts folder and decided to finally finish it. I'm not kidding. It worked super well in context, somewhere in a hatha class bookended by Mantras of Lord Ganesha.
Thievery Corporation also have a remix of "Le Rêveur" (Varekai) and it sounds like every Theivery Corp song ever. As much as "Lebanese Blonde" is a downtempo standard, I would love for them to write a second song one of these days.
If you listen to the Solarium/Delirium album, please for the love of god do not listen to the Delirium "Dance Remix" second half. It is awful. Terribly awful. No amount of didgeridoo can save Alain Vinet's stab at "Africa." And the real disappointment is Sasha's take on "Pokinoï," one of my most favorite Cirque songs. Wait hang on we have to talk about "Pokinoï."
I think of Saltimbanco's soundtrack as a concept album, and that concept is "1980s action films." As in "what if Big Trouble In Little China and The Running Man were the apex of humanity's creative output." All wailing guitars and saxophone solos. All synthesizers and jazz fusion rhythm beats. Listen to the title track and tell me you don't see some kind of Batman and Bond villain hybrid.
The single good song on the entire soundtrack is "Pokinoï" (and do listen to the 1992 recording, not the 2005 rerelease which totally messes up the bridge). It's simple, haunting, and beautiful. And Sasha fucks it up.
I don't write this lightly. Sasha (Alexander Paul Coe) is one of my favorite deep progressive house DJs. Involver is a tremendous series, and I keep Above & Beyond's Group Therapy #021 permanently stored in my podcast client because Sasha's guest mix for the last 30 minutes of the show is maybe my most favorite 30 minutes of deep EDM.
But this Sasha remix of "Pokinoï" guts everything that is good about the original. The strings that drive the song are drowned out in overproduced rhythm tracks. Francine Poitras' ethereal vocals are smothered by dance music, and most offensively, generic dance music.
Confusingly enough, the back half of Solarium/Delirium has nothing to do with the other Cirque remix album Delirium. The latter is merely passable and ignorable instead of repulsive.
I have never listened to the Mystère soundtrack. The album art scares me.
Quidam is my favorite traveling Cirque show. Most of the currently active Cirque shows are fun to a fault. Ovo, Amaluna, and Totem are vibrant and filled with colorful animals, and they all kind of blend together. Quidam is different. Quidam is dark. There are parts of Quidam that are scary.
A family of three sit in a minimalist living room. The parents, boring and unremarkable, ignore the daughter. A headless figure wearing a heavy coat and carrying an umbrella drops his hat, and as the girl places the hat on her head her family rises up into the darkness leaving her in an unfamiliar world.
The characters she encounters are friendly enough, but there is a undertone that nothing is safe. She doesn't belong here.
The physical copy of Quidam that I've got is one of those awkward late 90s CDs when everyone thought multimedia would be the thing that would save humanity (and sell a lot of CD-ROM hardware), but no one could figure out what exactly to do with it. Stick one of these CDs in a computer and you'd find a Macromedia Director presentation (it was always Macromedia Director). They don't really play anymore on modern Macs, but it fired right up in Mac OS 9. I'm not sure if the audio gaps are because of the virtual machine or because the original software wasn't very good. To be honest I don't remember it working that well back in the 90s either.
Kà is an anomaly. While it shares plenty with the usual productions—acrobatics, vivid imagery, a lot of made up words—it stands alone from every other Cirque show. It has a plot, an actual real plot with characters that are real people, not manifestations of ideas or ephemeral qualities like "the primitive human state" or some junk like that.
"Pageant" is the most classically Cirque song with its choice of instruments and circus-y arrangement, but even this is a conceit. In the story, a group of performers are demonstrating their acrobatic skills to the royal family. It's a show-within-a-show, and while hardly novel the soundtrack's nod to that sound subtly says "we know our shows usually sound the same. We're going to try something different." Things settle down and the two royal children, twins, perform a song on their flutes. It's intimate and warm.
Suddenly archers attack the palace and the emperor and empress are killed in front of the twins, who flee on a ship. They encounter a fierce tempest in "Storm", and while the acrobatics aren't necessarily more impressive than usual this segment feels important. A free-rocking ship careens around the stage, and crew members are thrown into the sea. The audience always wants the performers to succeed because the flips are so impressive, but now we want the characters to succeed as well.
The boat is destroyed and its passengers are plunged into the ocean. "Deep" is a acrobatic sequence set underwater where the princess dives down to rescue the drowning nursemaid. The performer is suspended on a wire harness and slowly twists and dives lower, then ascends with the nurse. It's an elegant, simple act, but it has so much gravitas.
The prince and jester have been split from the others and are on the run from the archers. High in the mountains, cold and injured, the prince cries. The jester pulls him in close and shows him how to cast shadow puppets ("Shadowplay"), and together they weave a story. Character development seems so rare in Cirque shows. Does the girl in Quidam become a better person? Does the angel in Varekai learn anything? Strange, unknowable characters lend to the mystery and enigma that is Cirque's style, but they are alienating to the audience. Kà is real and human, and far richer for it.
The character's name is ostensibly "The Firefly Boy," but he's Tarzan, swinging through the forests on vines.
The show does take a short odd turn when the princess meets up with Tarzan in the forests ("Love Dance"). They establish a romance that weirded me out mostly because I thought the princess was a bit younger.
The final fight ("Battlefield") against the evil Counselor stretches a bit too long but includes a forced perspective shift worthy of any Kasou Taishou entry. Halfway through the fight the stage rotates vertical and we see the fight played out as though we were watching from above, the performers hanging horizontal with their feet away from the audience.
Cirque is not interested in my advice. They are a billion dollar, multinational corporation owned by one of the largest holding companies in the world. Their investors include the Royal Family of Dubai (one of the only places that had the potential to out-Vegas Vegas). They have found success by some measure at least. But Kà is so good I want them to do more shows like that. I want them to explore stronger dramatic structures and better storytelling supported and enhanced by their acrobatics. I want them to push beyond the template of the traveling show that has stagnated so much in the last decade.
I want Cirque du Soleil to be magic again.