Circus dragons aren’t going to make that much noise at the Times Union Center next week.
Circus musicians will handle the chore. When elephants march, acrobats fly and Shaolin martial artists break wood and metal, Wages Argott and his band will provide aural thrills.
“While the show itself is scripted and you have really dangerous stunts being performed, . . . you really have to have a live band to keep up with the kind of dynamic nature of our show,” said Argott, 33, conductor and trumpet player in the nine-piece band.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will bring its Blue Tour — the “Dragons” show — to Albany for eight shows beginning Thursday.
The premise is a way to put dragons — still popular on television and movie screens and in video games — into the circus mix. Dragon “tribes” from all over Earth will assemble for a tournament of champions. Each tribe must prove its virtues to arouse dragon masters.
Argott’s ensemble is much simpler. Four horns, two keyboards, one electric bass, one electric guitar and one drummer will set the mood for the 17 acts. One of the musicians, alto saxophone player Bill Leary, is from Delmar. He’ll be leaving circus life after the stop in Albany.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Presents Dragons
WHERE: Times Union Center, 51 S. Pearl St. Albany
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Friday; 11:00 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 4; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, May 5
HOW MUCH: $82-$27. Opening night, $82-$17
Imparting the energy
“Live music brings an energy to the show,” Argott said. “We’re like an extra performer out there. We have an opportunity as live musicians to not only respond to what’s happening on the floor, but respond to the energy we’re getting from the audience. So overall, it creates a more dynamic experience for everyone.”
Argott has been playing trumpet since he was in the fifth grade growing up in Birmingham, Ala. He studied music at the University of Georgia and graduated in 2002. For almost four years after college, he worked in finance.
“I was only playing music part time,” he said. “Those four years felt like 20. I began searching for a full-time music job, and found the circus online.”
He joined the Ringling-Barnum outfit in 2005. “Dragons,” which began its two-year tour in January 2012, is his fifth show. By the time the show ends in November, Argott will have had the chance to strike up the band 800 times.
Musicians help tell the story of the circus. Performers — both human and animal — know they’re heading for a ring, a swing or a zing when the band plays their musical cues. Argott said acts all get different sounds.
“Clowns continue to employ some of the old-time circus music,” he said, “but we try to keep as current as possible with the rest of the music. I would say it’s a combination between a Hollywood film score and a Broadway show.
“It’s more like a film score because you can have music specially tailored for each act. You’ve got something reverent and majestic while the elephants are there, but then you kind of have an understated, lower score for the Shaolin Troupe, where you really want to make sure you can hear the breaking of the wood and metal. Then when you have motorcycles in a globe, you want to have something with a lot of rhythm instruments like the electric guitar and the drums — that’s got to be heard over the motorcycles and create that feeling of excitement.”
Where he gets off
Leary, the saxophonist, will not be on the train when it pulls out of Albany on May 5. He has worked for the company on and off since 2004, and has decided to resume his music studies at The College of Saint Rose.
There have been perks, such as traveling the country, seeing dozens of American cities and watching the circus. “A lot of the acts come out for 10 minutes,” said Leary, 35, a 1996 graduate of Bethlehem Central School. “We’re out there for 2 1⁄2 hours and we get to see every act every night. We see the changes.”
The guys also look for things that are not part of the act. If someone gets hurt during a performance, the musicians keep playing — they don’t want silence as other circus hands arrive with first aid.
“Lots of times, we’ll keep vamping the music, keep repeating certain sections or we’ll go back and start a piece over,” Leary said. “Whatever they need. If they just need a little time to see if the person is OK, or they need a moment to gather themselves, we’ll just give them that time.”
Keyboard player Chris Blasting also has ties to upstate New York. Blasting, 25, is from Syracuse and has been with Ringling-Barnum for the past year and a half. Like Argott, Blasting was looking online for a music job and was hired by the circus.
“I also get the chance to play the sound effects for the clown gags,” he said. “If a clown dives through a hoop, there’s a ‘woo’ and a ‘whoosh’ and a ‘boing.’ All those kinds of sounds.”
Playing the same tunes every night can be monotonous, but Blaster said musicians never treat the set list as just another day on the job.
“That’s part of the challenge, to make it fun and interesting and new for yourself every night,” he said. “For me, doing the sound effects, I’m never quite sure what those clowns are going to do. Sometimes they’ll try to throw me off on purpose.”
On early, staying late
The band is never included in the circus’ famous preshow, meet-and-greet sessions. For one hour before each performance, people walk the three rings for autographs, juggling lessons, clown play and short conversations. But Argott said his players are in their seats early and stay late, for people who want to ask questions about circus music.
“There’s always somebody who’s curious about the band and what we do,” he said.
There’s never a problem mixing with people on the team, and musicians hang out with men and women on the Ringling-Barnum roster. Argott became friendly enough with one of the clowns to propose — clown Kelli Karsten Argott tours with her husband on the “Dragons” show.
Argott also knows people come to Ringling-Barnum shows for the animals, aerialists and colorful costumes. The band is on the floor; most of the time, people are watching the top-billed talent.
“For a musician who’s used to being center stage, it takes getting used to, to become that support group,” Argott said. “We do have a couple of musical moments where different musicians get to solo and different musicians get highlighted. For me, satisfaction enough is knowing we successfully pulled off the show.”