Gig Seeker Pro


Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Band World Jazz




"Orchestra of circus musicians breaks away from the big top"

December 09, 2006|By Josh Berk Special to The Morning Call -- Freelance
As he talks on his cell phone during an intermission, Peter Bufano briefly pauses to note, "Oh, two zedonks just walked by." A zedonk is a half zebra/half donkey. Bufano does not think their presence is strange, nor does he think it's odd that his best friend for a year was a giraffe. He's hardly fazed by bearded ladies, sword-swallowers, or any of the strange and quirky characters of life. It's all in a day's work for Bufano, a former clown, current keyboardist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and accordionist/band-leader of the band Cirkestra, or circus orchestra.

Cirkestra, in its continuing quest to "run away from the circus to join the world," performs tonight at Wired Gallery in Bethlehem. Although it might seem odd to play circus music in a contemporary art gallery, Bufano is thrilled at the opportunity.

"I'm accustomed to playing for 10,000-20,000 people," he says. "That's what I do day to day about 10 times a week. But I love playing for small audiences. You're very directly feeling your audience and it's very intense.'

The music Bufano plays with his five-piece band is in certain ways similar to the tunes you hear under any big top. The group plays classic circus waltzes as well as the uptempo "oom-pah" songs that have been a circus staple for years. However, other influences enter the group's original music, mostly writtten by Bufano.

"Our dark circus waltzes have been compared to the sound of Tom Waits," Bufano says. "I'm flattered by the comparison." In addition, Cirkestra's melodies sometimes have a klezmer feel, and also show the influence of jazz and traditional gypsy music.

"Circuses go way back," Bufano says. "And they always traveled like gypsies, so there's a big crossover there."

Bufano isn't interested in the experimental futurist music that accompanies some modern circus performances.

"Our music sounds in some ways like folk music from other parts of the world. It's about melody and we don't really rely on electronics. It sounds, in its own way, kind of ancient," he says. "If you go to hear Cirque du Soleil, you'll hear music that is pop and electronic. It's my mission to keep classic circus music alive."

Bufano plays keyboards in the circus, but usually sticks to accordion in Cirkestra. The instrument might not have the greatest reputation (composer Edward Greig once famously stated "It sounds like a pig with a sore throat"), but Bufano defends it heartily. "I love to play the accordion," he enthuses, adding that his grandfather played the instrument and passed the tradition down.

Joining Bufano's accordion (which sounds nothing like a sick pig) in Cirkestra is a crew of musicians, all with circus backgrounds. Käthe Louise Hostetter, whose resume includes both the Bindlestiff Cirkus and the Boston Philharmonic, plays the five-string fiddle, an unusual home-made variation on the traditional violin. Sam Lett of Circus Smirkus plays winds: clarinet, saxophone, flute, harmonica, and occasionally the didgeridoo -- a droning wind instrument of the Australian Aborigines. Cirkestra's drummer is Mike Dobson of the Big Apple Circus.

"He plays a regular drum kit, but with added gizmos," Bufano says. By smacking toys and tweaking other gadgets, Dobson creates "the pops and whistles, the boink and the bink that you hear when clowns are tumbling around." He is described as a "band within the band."

"When people hear it, it immediately conjures up images of ringmasters, dogs dancing, people flying up through the air," Bufano says. "It's like watching a movie without the words."

Bufano's route to the unlikely career of professional circus musician was a circuitous one.

"A lot of circus people come up in circus families," he says. "But I did not." His first career goal was to be a magician, a passion that led him to apply for the now defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College after he graduated from high school. Out of the thousands who applied, he was one of 50 chosen to enter the demanding course of study required of a professional clown. "It's kind of random," he admits. "I kind of wonder what my parents think."

After clown college, Bufano found work first as a clown with Ringling Bros. in the late 1980s. Later, he studied film scoring at Berklee College before finding a way to unite both fields. He returned to the circus, not as a performer, but as a musician. He began writing original scores and providing music for circuses big and small all over the world. It was during a tour of Japan that he befriended a giraffe, and it was at the Palace of Variety, the last variety theater in New York, where he performed with old-time sideshow performers such as bearded ladies and sword-swallowers. "Just a couple of dozen circus freaks," he says.

Now 38, Bufano lives the wandering life. "I call Boston home," he says with a laugh, "even though I haven't been th - Morning Call

"Big Top Cinema: Circus ‘Pit Band’ Scores Film"

BOSTON — Ladies and gentlemen, step right up!

If circus clowns, circus freaks or circus music are your thing, you might want to make room in your schedule this weekend. The Big Top is heading to the big screen at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Sure, Pee-Wee Herman will be there, larger than life. And the Tim Burton vehicle known as “Big Fish.” But be warned: Some of the films in the Brattle’s first-ever circus-themed repertory series are less than playful. One, in fact, is revolting, creepy and completely demented.

That’s part of the fun though, right?

Peter Bufano sure thinks so. The “Big Top Cinema” series was his idea.

Bufano approached the folks at Brattle with the novel concept a few months ago, and according to the theater’s Web site, they “jumped at the chance.”

The 1927 silent film "The Unknown" features Lon Chaney as Alanzo, an apparently armless circus knife-thrower. Joan Crawford plays his beautiful assistant, Nanon, a woman who can't stand the touch of any man.
That’s probably because Bufano has some serious circus cred.

First, he plays the accordion. Second, he’s a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Bridgeport, Conn. Yes, he was a professional, floppy-shoed clown. And third, Bufano is the founder of the all-star circus “pit band” known as Cirkestra.

Cirkestra is a five-piece band made up of musicians who all did time playing live music in “the pit” for traveling circuses, including Ringling, The Big Apple Circus and Cirkus Smirkus.

Bufano played with Ringling, but left the circus life in 2007 to “run away with the real world,” as he puts it. Now Bufano teaches film scoring at Berklee College of Music and heads up Cirkestra.

The circus band played at the Gardner Museum earlier this month and will also perform a new, original film score at the Brattle’s “Big Top Cinema” series.

Bufano wrote it for “The Unknown,” a rare and twisted silent film by one of Hollywood’s darkest directors, Tod Browning, whose work included “Freaks,” “Dracula” and “The Devil Doll.”

Listen: ‘Violence Theme’ For ‘The Unknown’

The picture was made in 1927 and stars a 21-year-old Joan Crawford in the role of Nanon, a scantily clad carnival girl. Lon Chaney, a regular Browning collaborator, plays Alonzo — and here comes the weirdness — an armless knife thrower who’s in love with Nanon. She’s the circus owner’s daughter, and, get this, she’s deathly afraid of men’s arms.

And so it goes, descending into grisly, murderous, thrilling circus horror. You get the picture.

Bufano relished writing the score for “Unknown.” He has a taste for the bizarre. But in an e-mail, he said writing the music for Alonzo’s character was a particular challenge.

According to Bufano, the music played with a silent movie exerts a significant influence on the audience’s opinion of any character, Alonzo included. “In the beginning you kind of want to love him as an underdog,” Bufano explained. “He has no arms and he’s charming and talented and the circus owner beats him up.”

But looks can be deceiving, and pin-pointing the right moment to alert the audience to Alonzo’s questionable interior was tricky, Bufano said.

Bufano’s personal connection to Alonzo didn’t help, either. His sister, artist and dancer Lisa Bufano — who was profiled on WBUR — is also an amputee. “I automatically was very sympathetic to this (Alonzo’s) character,” Bufano admitted.

So the composer had to work hard to create an appropriate soundtrack that didn’t give away too much information about Alonzo’s true nature, but also didn’t evoke too much sympathy.

Bufano admits he recently tripped while walking that fine line. It happened when he was performing the piece on tour recently in Olympia, Wash. “I was playing all of this dark, evil stuff around 12 minutes into the film,” he said, but it didn’t work. It gave too much away too soon.

For the Brattle performance, Bufano re-wrote the beginning to allow the audience to like Alonzo just a little bit longer.

As for the music itself, Bufano said he concocted a few different themes — everything from a “love theme” to a “circus theme” to a “violence theme” — which he said, “makes the fights, murders and accidents have more drama. It’s the loudest thing!”

This weekend’s performance of the score to “The Unknown” will be a moment of truth for the revised composition. And the event itself reflects a bunch of aspects important to Bufano’s life: film scoring, performing, his passion for the Big Top, his sister.

On that note, the composer said, “eventually I’d like to do a score for a silent animated film made by my sister about her life. She’s a good animator.”

But Peter Bufano hasn’t told his sister Lisa about his plans…at least not yet.

"Cirkestra: Circus Band Plays Center Stage"

By Andrea Shea December 12, 2006
BOSTON, Mass. — Tonight the circus is coming to town. Or part of it is, at least: the musical part. This month ‘Cirkestra,’ an all-star band of circus musicians, is trading in the Big Top for a local rock club.

WBUR’s Andrea Shea caught up with a few members of the group to find out why they’ve run away from the circus to join the real world. - WBUR Boston's NPR Station

"Forget The Clowns, Bring On The Music: A Circus Band Throwdown"

How many cities can say they have a circus band? (Yes, that’s a band that actually plays with a circus.)

Well, Boston has not just one, but two circus bands. And, true to the city’s character, the two circus bands are rivals. They’re going to settle the rivalry Thursday night at Club Passim — a sort of Big Top version of a Sox-Yankees grudge match.

Peter Bufano of Cirkestra and Richard Tarantino of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band bring their weapons of choice — accordians — and enter the arena known as WBUR’s Studio Three to stare each other down. - WBUR

"Cirkestra puts art and soul into museum pieces"

It’s easy to write songs about girls. But using an 18th century Korean incense burner as your muse, well, that’s a little more tricky.

For Cirkestra’s performance Thursday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, group founder Peter Bufano has written three songs inspired by pieces at the museum. For a guy whose bread and butter is composing music for circus bands, getting arty has been a challenge. - Boston Herald

"Cirkestra has a touch of the big top"

No, the circus isn’t really coming to Nick’s Bar and Restaurant. It will just sound like it.

To get a real circus over there you’d have to march the elephants across congested Kelley Square to reach the bar at 124 Millbury St. (and not the parading pink elephants occasionally seen by patrons of several other bars in the area.)

We certainly can’t have any of that, so we will just let that fabulous circus band Cirkestra lend a touch of the big top to Nick’s tonight. They have played there three or four times before and will again on April 17. But busy schedules and the fact that band members hail from all across the country means that this unique band — at least unique in a bar setting — will be at best an irregular fixture. So step riiiiiiight up and give a listen to what Nick’s owner, Nicole Watson, calls the band’s “gypsy-like, circus, timeless-sounding music.”

Make that timeless and original, a combo you don’t see every day. That’s because few of us are brave enough to run away with the circus, much as we might fantasize about it in times of deep disillusionment. But Cirkestra bandleader Peter Bufano actually did it, in 1986 at the impressionable age of 17. Imagine telling your parents, as he did, “Don’t worry. I’m going to college. Clown college.”

It was fun, but after clowning around for many years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, all the juggling and pie throwing started to get old. Bufano’s musical side was, simultaneously, yearning for expression. He comes from a musical family and played piano and other instruments growing up. So he left the circus and went to Berkelee College of Music in Boston (He still is a part-time instructor there). Upon graduation he took a stab at a Hollywood score-writing career.

The competitive, high-pressure, spin-your-wheels Hollywood environment wasn’t the best fit, however. “I was an assistant to all these big shot composers and I wasn’t really doing my own thing, Bufano said. “I wasn’t creating my own sound, my own voice. I wasn’t expressing anything.”

So it was back to Boston and, not long after, back to the circus — this time in a pie-free stint as a writer and performer of original music. Circus Smirkus and Bindlestiff Circus are his most current forays, although screenwriting royalties also help pay the bills. Recently he scored “Circus Dreams,” an upcoming cable documentary, and “America’s Got Talent” also has licensed some of his music.

So how does the circus sound translate for a bar gig? (Nevermind that Nick’s décor — the opulent red velvet drapes, warm-toned woodwork and art-bedecked walls —form the perfect old-world-style setting). “It’s really interesting because it is circus music,” Bufano said. “You hear the um-pah-pah thing and the old creepy circus waltz and the fast-moving kind of klezmer sound. You can almost imagine a circus while you’re hearing it. We don’t bring circus performers with us, but it’s easy to picture it.”

Which is good … and bad.

“I always think this is going to be great because we won’t be upstaged by horses and acrobats and sword swallowers and stuff, Bufano said. “But people always come up to me after a show and say ‘You know I really could imagine the trapeze and the horses.’ It’s an ironic twist that I always get upstaged even when they’re not there.”
- Worcester Telegram

"Music maximus"

When you write music for the circus, you have some fairly unusual subject matter to deal with. Bandleader Peter Bufano has composed a creepy waltz for a sword swallower and penned a sexy, dangerous tango for a vixen who snaps a rose out of an audience member's mouth with a bullwhip. "I'm trying to chase the act the way music ... - Boston Globe

"Musical acrobats"

Cirkestra is grounded in people and events, narrative, theater, the circus. Peter Bufano, the outfit's leader, really did run away to join the circus. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut (the home town of PT Barnum), he trained as a clown and performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in more than 1000 shows. But in more recent years, with a film-score-composition degree from Berklee, he's worked as a musician, playing in smaller outfits like Circus Smirkus and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, writing original scores for the shows. Cirkestra perform as part of the Gardner Museum's "Gardner After Hours" concert series next Thursday.

"What makes it circus music," Bufano says to the question that is always asked of him, "is that I wrote it for the circus." In Cirkestra's case, that tends to be music in older styles: Western European and Eastern European folk dances, klezmer, Gypsy music, waltzes, tangos — whatever the theme of a particular show calls for. Cirkestra's 2008 release, Swing, was more jazzy, but various forms of ancient jazz are laced through all four of their albums: shuffles, stomps, bounces. You can detect a bit of Nino Rota–ish Italian folk in Avventure di Pinocchio, which was written for Circus Smirkus's telling of the Carlo Collodi story, with a lovely clarinet theme for Geppetto.

The older styles fit the older-style circuses Cirkestra plays with. The American idea of circus music, Bufano tells me when I get together with him and Cirkestra's five-string violinist, Käthe Hostetter, at Audubon Circle, is arena-sized: "the marches, the novelties, the screamers — big, loud, fast, lots of brass." Based more on the European-style circus, Cirkestra has five musicians instead of 20, with a more intimate sound: Bufano's accordion, Hostetter's strings, Sammy Lett's saxophones, flute, and clarinet, Mike Dobson's drums, and newest member Mike Milnarik on tuba.

You can spot the circus acts in some of Bufano's titles: "Slings" was for an aerialist, "Water Spitting" a clown act. The musical content is another matter. Hostetter (who also happens to play viola with the Boston Philharmonic) discovered the source for "Water Spitting" in a Romanian folk song when she was touring Europe. And the scales, rhythms, and percussive sound of "Slings" is East Indian — but only because the acrobat was an Indian woman. "It's not the literal connection I'm used to making," says Bufano, "but it kind of worked. I like the song to be who that person is in the act." "Ramona," on the other hand, is about an old circus wagon that wasn't even used in the show, and the beautiful jazz-standard-like ballad "Jana" was named for a costume designer.
"By nature I'm a theoretical composer," Bufano continues, "and I have a system. But I don't like composers who do that, and I don't like music written that way. So for me, the defining thing of my music as a writer and player is I'm trying to get away from that." He credits the more intuitive Hostetter and Lett in helping him get away from himself. And, of course, having a story to tell.

He's looking forward to playing Cirkestra's music in a concert setting at the Gardner. "We can do things that are more intimate, or with solos, things you can't always do in a circus because there's not enough noise, or in a bar because there's too much other noise."

As for circus music versus concert music: "I haven't toured with a circus in a year and half, and I may never again, but I think people will always call me a circus musician."

- Boston Phoenix

"Best in their field"

CIRKESTRA | Gardner Museum | February 18 | If you can have an "intimate" circus band, Cirkestra are it. Usually a quintet of accordion, violin, reeds, drums, and tuba, the band bring virtuoso ensemble interaction to leader Peter Bufano's original compositions, drawing from klezmer, gypsy, tango, jazz, and other traditions. They hope to repeat last year's rocking performance in the Gardner's Tapestry Room, kicking off the Museum's winter-spring jazz programming.
280 the Fenway, Boston | 7 pm | $23 | 617.278.5156 or

Read more: - Boston Phoenix


Still working on that hot first release.



Former Ringling Brothers Circus clown Peter Bufano founded Cirkestra in 2003 to create original scores and tour with circuses. The group's original circus and motion picture soundtracks are available on 8 CDs. Their music has been heard around the world on TV and movies as well as under the big top.
The sound has been compared to eastern european dance music, klezmer, jazz, and the compositions Nino Rota created for Fellini's films.
What sets this troupe apart from other circus, variety, and cabaret acts is their "circus cred". With thousands of appearances in and out of the ring, they are considered an authentic source in the tradition of circus arts.
Bufano's circus exploits in shows such as Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, Circus Smirkus, Kinoshita Circus, Big Apple Circus, and Bindlestiff Cirkus have inspired his compositions.
The 2012 PBS documentary "Circus Dreams" soundtrack is entirely comprised of the group's songs. To date dozens of TV shows and films all over the world feature Cirkestra music.
The Boston Globe says Cirkestra is "Beautiful" and "Highly Praised".
7 Days says "Cirkestra swings like a carnie in a drunken brawl"
"Perhaps the most unusual musical group in Boston" : Boston University Today
"Fabulous, timeless, and original; a combo you don't see every day": Worcester Telegram

Band Members