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From Cirque Du Soleil To Marvel Universe LIVE!: Composer Michael Picton

There is nothing quite like life with a circus, or writing music for one. Composer Michael Picton knows this first hand. He has performed as a keyboardist with Cirque du Soleil and has written music for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. He’s scored everything from network themes for PBS to Nike commercials to films and television series. Currently, one can hear Picton’s work supporting the nation-wide tour of “Marvel Universe LIVE!”

A student at Montreal’s McGill University, Picton received the SOCAN Hugh Le Caine award for electronic music before graduating. After spending a few years gaining experience working as a composer and orchestrator throughout Montreal, he spent time perfecting his performance skills with Cirque du Soleil. The skills acquired during this period have greatly influenced his recent work.

“What makes live performance different than anything else is the unpredictability,” said Picton. “Whether designed or not, there are circumstances where you may need to extend the music to allow for the unpredictability, particularly with animal performs. This is why the circus still has live bands.”

Circus music contains a pattern of vamps – short musical cues – that can be repeated as often as necessary. These cues can be played repeatedly without pulling the viewer out of the action. This style of music has found a new use in video game technology, as more interactive experience redefine the action and storyline of the experience.

In the preparation of “Marvel Universe LIVE!” Picton wrote music that still utilized cues that help a viewer determine the type of action that should be followed, but the score is much less vampy than a circus score. Utilizing electronic components, full orchestration and a wide variety of instrumentation, the score is pre-recorded and completely matches the well-rehearsed production.

“We have so many instrumental components, it would be so large we’d need a separate theater just for the musicians,” said Picton.

Picton researched past incarnations of the Marvel franchises prior to scoring “Marvel Universe LIVE!” for inspiration. He was careful, however, not to incorporate the musical themes into the production’s score. “Iron Man” for instance, had three different films with three completely difference musical expressions. Working with the show’s directors, Picton’s score uniquely blended the personalities of iconic Marvel villains and heroes in a stand-alone piece.

Picton worked closely with the performers and producers to ensure the musical selections were perfectly timed with the beats of the staged action, including motorcycle tricks and fight sequences. The score finds a balance of minimizing the orchestration when large events are occurring as well as providing swells that engage the audience through scene changes. Using rock and electronic cues, he guides the viewer’s focus around the stage. Most importantly, he ensures the instrumentation never over-powers the dialogue or action.

“It’s a huge arena and there are characters everywhere,” said Picton. “Dark themes float above the orchestration, and different styles and textures of instrumentation pull through the sections. In this way, the music helps guide the listener to know who to follow in the story. The music is simple and small enough for all the main characters to live in that one universe.”

Picton is a master at weaving a wide variety of styles and instrumentation in a small amount of time. A series of Target ads he scored for outdoor venues weave hip hop, rock, jazz, international rhythms and circus music effortlessly in thirty second spots. He focuses on capturing the essence of emotion in a series of beats and expressions. Working with Logic Pro, he composes via a series of keyboards, accessing a wide variety of plug ins and sample libraries. When he finds the right combination of instruments and styles, he connects with professional musicians to create the final scores.

While he tackles every style of music, he admits he’s not had a great amount of experience in experimenting with abstract electronica, and hopes to incorporate this style into future projects.

“I did a short called ‘The Accidental Sea’ that was very electronic and abstract,” said Picton. It combines everything I do in a unique way. It was nice to scale down and do something much more intimate”

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