Cirque du Soleil Redefines World Music with ‘Totem’

photo by John Mattera

Since the Cirque du Soleil production Totem opened in San Pedro on Oct. 11, its acrobatic, multi-sensory narrative of the evolution of mankind has captured the imaginations of audience members of all ages. Close your eyes, though, and you’ll be captured by its exotic, percussive soundtrack – composed by the Montreal-based Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, who work together under the moniker Bob & Bill – which mirrors the show’s evocative imagery and atmosphere.

Incorporating indigenous music from across the globe, the rhythmic, multi-cultural music of Totem is “a trip around the world, starting from the first nations to today’s modern world,” Dubuc and Lessard said in a recent interview conducted by e-mail. That trip includes such seemingly disparate elements as Spanish flamenco, Native American influences and African rhythms, yet the pair manages to weave everything together in a way that effectively reiterates the Totem story of humanity.

Although tackling such a grand existential project might seem overwhelming, Dubuc and Lessard – who met while attending college and for 15 years have worked together scoring video games, TV shows and films – said they simply followed the script. “Like the evolution of mankind, we started from the beginning,” they said. “It’s the same process as writing for a movie – we have to follow the emotion curve of the performance by creating some (high) points in the music.”

When crafting ideas together for Cirque du Soleil, Dubuc plays keyboards while Lessard drums and sings. “We shoot different ideas and keep the ones we think sound the best,” they explain. “Then, our goal is to synchronize the music with the acrobatic acts. We’re inspired by the script, images from the creation of the show and costume designs, and we also like to bring the acrobats in our studio and work closely together.”

Although Dubuc and Lessard had previously served as musical directors and arrangers for several Cirque du Soleil productions and even produced the soundtrack to the touring production Kooza, Totem – the performances of which feature a live band with multiple vocalists, percussionists and guitarists, including former Genesis and Spock’s Beard singer/drummer Nick D’Virgilio – was the first Cirque show the pair composed. They have since written music for two additional Cirque shows (including another touring production, Amaluna) and are currently working on another Cirque project in development, they say.

“Writing music for Cirque du Soleil is very close to who we are,” they say, noting that Totem took them two years to compose. “Since the beginning, our dream was to write music for big shows like Cirque du Soleil, and it’s a great opportunity for us.”

With its global worldview, it’s hard to imagine a grander platform for Dubuc and Lessard than Totem. By incorporating sounds from numerous cultures past and present and using a wide variety of indigenous musical instruments from Mexican basses to Indian sitars, the show’s music is the aural equivalent to a voyage not only around the world, but also through time. In fact, its seamless meshing of traditional tribal music with contemporary influences makes you wonder if music has truly always been – and will always continue to be – the universal language. spt

Performances of Totem continue in San Pedro at 3011 S. Miner St. (near Berth 46) on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 10. Tickets range from $55-$135. For more information, visit cirquedusoleil.com.

Clay Marshall is a San Pedro-based freelance writer who has written for Billboard, Guitar World and the L.A. Weekly, among others. He can be reached at portsounds@gmail.com.

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