Berklee Today

Alumni Profile

Peter Bufano '96: Running Off to Join the Circus

  Peter and Giraffe
  Peter Bufano '96 and a fellow employee of the Kimoshito Circus in Japan, a giraffe named Masai
  Harry W. Maskell

When I asked Peter Bufano what his parents thought about their son's determination to attend the Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he replied, "I'd really like to know what they were thinking. My parents were always encouraging, but what could they have thought about their son running off to join the circus?"

After finishing clown college and taking a job touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the late 1980s, Bufano (who had played piano from a young age) focused on music and enrolled at Berklee where he earned his degree in film scoring in 1996. By comparison, a career in music appears to be a more conventional option, and his parents must have sighed in relief.

However, the lure of the circus is like a rondo theme that has reappeared several times in Bufano's life. "Like music, the circus can get into a person's blood," he says. This summer he will work once again under the big top. This time, however, he won't be wearing greasepaint and huge floppy shoes; instead, he'll be leading a four-piece circus band through the original music he's composed especially for the Circus Smirkus three-month summer tour.

It all started when the Bufano family went to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Young Peter was immediately smitten and dreamed about becoming a circus clown from that point forward. He also had a keen interest in music and was playing piano around the same time. But, after reading an article on the Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Florida, in an issue of National Geographic Kids magazine, Bufano made up his mind to enroll there after high school. "The notion of circus life is very romantic in the classic sense," he says. "It implies that a person is so free and unattached that when the circus comes to town, off he or she goes. I have met many people who grew up in circus families or when the circus was in their town they got a job and stayed with it."

Bufano entered clown college in the fall of 1986 where he mastered such things as juggling, packing 14 clowns into a Volkswagen, and how to take pies in the face or explosions in the seat of the pants. "The most important thing I learned at clown college that I could take into my music was the concept of storytelling," says Bufano. "A clown act generally only lasts a few minutes. Your job is to tell a story without words, and some of your audience members will be sitting pretty far away. The people can't hear you, they can only see you, so the gestures have to be big enough to get them laughing. At clown college, they teach you to break a story down to the salient points. A story needs a beginning, middle, and end. I think writing a piece of music uses a similar process.

"The most important thing I learned at clown college that I could take into my music was the concept of storytelling." -Peter Bufano

"When I came to Berklee to study film scoring, I found that writing for visual media, where music underscores a scene, defines a character, and gives the feeling the film needs, is essentially storytelling."

After graduating from Berklee, Bufano relocated to Los Angeles, where he lived for two years. He assisted composers writing music for TV and movies. "I worked as a music editor and as a composer's assistant specializing in music technology," Bufano says. "I got to work with composers John Frisell, Lawrence Shragge '77, and David Schwartz '74. Lawrence became my mentor. He would sit down with me at the piano and show me how to write. That was the best thing that happened for me in Los Angeles."

Ultimately, Bufano decided not to pursue a career composing for film or TV. When an opportunity to work as a clown with Kinoshita Circus in Japan arose, Bufano ran off with the circus again and spent a year performing in Japan. He took with him a souvenir of his stay in Hollywood. Lawrence Shragge had given Bufano an accordion before he left. The instrument has since become Bufano's musical voice and part of his identity as a clown.
When his contract was up in Japan, Bufano came back to New England.

Since his return, he has worked on some local film projects but has mainly worked at mixing music and circus entertainment. Until this past February, he served as the music director for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus at the Palace of Variety in New York City. He has also been creating his own circus instrument: the carmonium, based on the nineteenth-century harmonium, a pump organ. "It looks like a small wooden organ from a bygone era," says Bufano, "but the sounds are produced by car horns and other mechanical things - primarily car parts. It's fully MIDI-capable, but the notes are not samples. When I went to junkyards to get car horns, I found that a majority of them play an F above middle C. So for the missing notes, I've put in doorbells, whistles, and other things."

Sadly, the carmonium won't be in tow when Bufano hits the road again this summer as the music director and composer for Circus Smirkus (visit www.smirkus.org for tour dates). But it is featured on Bufano's new CD, Cirkestra. The disc contains 10 original pieces that Bufano wrote in a Gypsy-jazz style that also spotlight his accordion and carmonium playing with backing from various instruments (visit www.peterbufano.com). For now, Bufano has struck a balance between his two interests, but he does have a dream gig in mind. "I'd love to write a score for a film about the circus," he says. "With my background, I'd be the perfect composer for it."