Striking a Chord - Magicians and Musicians

by Lee Alex


Last Tuesday (21st November) was “No Music Day”, an event held for the second year on the same date (22nd November being St. Cecilia’s Day – the patron saint of music). The concept of “No Music Day” comes from South African born Scot Bill Drummond (of K.L.F. fame). The idea of the concept can be viewed on the website:

In Drummond's words the idea of “No Music Day” is to create some space in your listening so that you can "do nothing but think what it is you want from music, and develop ideas of how that could be achieved."


I consider myself lucky to have been invited to participate in an event for “No Music Day” here in Istanbul, staged at the “Yeni Melek” (New Angel) theatre and gallery with different artists taking part: video artists, disc jockeys, a rock group, a modern artist and myself, contributing with a short illusion performance.

Performing illusion without any music took some courage, and was a strange experience. I am so used to performing the illusions according to the music. The choreography is all planned to the music; actions and cues are made in accordance with the music; the audience takes applause cues from highlights in the music. During a normal performance of illusion, the music somehow justifies the fantasy of the happenings on the stage by working in harmony with the performance.

I wonder would you be just as frightened if you were to watch the scariest horror film without any background sounds? Would that car chase scene be as exciting, or appear as fast if there was no score to accompany it? How do you feel the romanticism between two lovers without the theme of “Love Story” playing in the background?

A patter magician most probably does not use any music in a performance, but instead relies upon the intonation of the voice to create the required atmosphere. The voice is the patter magician’s tool to put across the personality that the audience will perceive, and through this perception the artist will be accepted or rejected. If the patter magician is working in a theatre, it is the overture that brings him on to the stage that sows the seeds of his character in the audience’s mind (i.e. There would be a huge difference between a performing stepping on to the stage to the tune of “Carmina Burana” and the opening tune from “The Muppet Show”!!).

A close-up magician or restaurant worker works almost in the same way, relying upon the voice to portray a character. Whilst strolling, the magician may be unaware of the background music playing in the restaurant which will assist to cover any gaps in the performance, whether consciously or inadvertently. So-called “piped music” is one of the things taken for granted in our modern lives. It is everywhere; in the supermarket; in the waiting room; in the restaurant. Take it away and feel the silence. Only then do we realize the existence of such music.

The weekend before “No Music Day” also saw the Fifth Balkan Magic Festival here in Istanbul. A mini-convention drawing magicians from Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Turkey together for two days of competition. Nothing like the grand scale of FISM of course, but most of the competitors tried their best.

I noticed a trend in the “Close-up” and “Card Magic” sections of the competition (both performed in close range to the audience on a table top). The majority of performers did not patter, but instead chose to use music of some kind or another to accompany their act. I use the word “accompany” lightly as some seemed to get the formula correct, whilst others were way off with their choice of music.

Whichever way, I could see a cause for the music performing for an international audience where language was a problem (the majority of performers and audience only spoke their mother tongue and there was no common language, not even English). At the same time however I felt a great loss of intimacy between the performers and the audience. I noticed a couple of “frightened rabbits” who stealthily took their seat at the performance table, without so much as an acknowledgement to the audience and burst into a performance of self-satisfaction. There was no contact, no glance, no sympathy and no rapport – simply put, no magic.

Likewise there were many acts in the stage competition that simply had music playing in the background. One of the most memorable performances (but unfortunately not for positive reasons) had to be a rendition of the Fan Illusion. This middle-aged magician complete with obsolete poses had chosen “Can-can” and the theme of “Cabaret” to perform this single illusion, a far cry from the show that we are used to see Hans Klok perform.

With the right costuming, staging and décor there may actually be an argument for using the above pieces of music for the Fan Illusion – at present I can’t actually think of any, however my point is that the music is just as important as anything else in your show. Creating a harmony gives a greater pleasure for the audience and makes it easier to relate to and comprehend what is happening on the stage. “Can-can” only conjures up images of a chorus-line of girls in frilly knickers kicking their legs up and doing the splits. If I were to say “slow-motion”, you would most probably think of the title score from “Chariots of Fire”, “Mission Impossible” likewise has almost become an anthem for some illusionists. Certain music creates certain perceptions of visuals, and if the one does not work in coordination with the other, then the music becomes irrelevant. I guess that is why a score of a film is always synchronised after the film has been edited.

Getting back to my own performance at “No Music Day”…Thankfully I was performing with an assistant who has been with me for a good number of years. As if by magic, we were able to get into the atmosphere of the performance and moved at the same speed as if the music were playing. We performed a routine which comes as second nature to us. During the performance however I felt extremely empty, and was unsure of the reaction of the audience: stunned silence.

Performing without music was like losing one of the five senses for both the performer and the audience. As a performer I felt handicapped without the back-up of the music; my enthusiasm seemed challenged. For the audience it seemed the absence of the music made them look upon the illusion with a different point of view – no longer was this a conventional piece of entertainment, but a piece of action that could be witnessed first-hand as it happened without any frills.

During other events spectators were chatting, laughing and enjoying a drink together. I was faced with a motionless, entranced sea of people and an eternal silence. I was relieved when various cues throughout the performance still bought the applause with them - it was only then that I felt that I had achieved my goal. The audience was affected by the show, and not by the "padding" that accompanies a stage performance. There was also no lighting, the only light source coming from various video apparatus and projections. All in all a great experience that I am pleased to have lived through, and some fantastic reactions!

© Lee Alex, November 2006