Musical Temporality and Theatrical Magic Shows

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When performing a theatrical illusion, timing (as magicians attest) is key. The French illusionist Robert-Houdin wrote in his memoirs about temps—a stolen moment when the magician diverts the spectator’s attention or discreetly hides an object. Professor Hoffmann, one of Robert-Houdin’s successors, noted the importance of giving spectators sufficient time to experience a magical transformation, which only occurs when they are able to remember how things were, perceive how things are, and recognize what has changed. Time misdirection, another technique described by modern magicians and neuroscientists, involves the temporal separation of a trick’s method from its effect. Patter focuses the attention of spectators by establishing a narrative frame and tempo for the trick. Music, a near-ubiquitous presence in magic shows, serves a similar function, though it may appear before, during, or after an effect.

In this paper, I examine the musical temporality of nineteenth-century magic shows, revealing how musical style and genre interacted with temporally-focused performance techniques, like patter and time misdirection. Why, for example, were polkas, marches, waltzes, and quadrilles so commonly featured, especially between effects? Not only, I think, because these genres were popular, but also because they were dance forms with strong metrical impulses. These types of pieces helped the magician control the tempo of the show even when he was off stage, bringing order to unstructured intervals by keeping listeners entrained to strict musical meters. I close the paper with a brief example of time misdirection in another kind of stage illusion—a 1925 opera by the French composer Maurice Ravel, who borrowed many of his compositional tactics from nineteenth-century conjurers.
Original languageEnglish
Publication year2018
Number of pages9
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018
EventNineteenth-Century Time: A Symposium - University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Duration: 9 Mar 201810 Mar 2018


ConferenceNineteenth-Century Time: A Symposium
LocationUniversity of Toronto
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