Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Friday, May 08, 2009

Is Ventriloquism a part of Magic?

This question was asked recently on one of the ventriloquism discussion groups. Many members answered yes. Their position was based on the element of illusion that the art forms have in common. I suggested not and explained why. However, having taken a position, most folks find it necessary to defend that position even in the face of logical and reasonable arguments to the contrary. It stops being about the issue and becomes about being right. Human nature. Right or wrong, here is a synopsis of why I took an opposing view. So, decide for yourself and be right. Or not.

Ventriloquism and magic are like singing and acting. They are separate entertainment art forms that have some elements in common such that they blend well when practiced together in a coordinated presentation.

Ventriloquism and magic have in common the element of illusion, the latter involving mystery and secret, the former not.

Singing and acting have in common the use of voice to convey a story, the former involving melodic and harmonic components, the latter not.

But is a good actor automatically a good singer? Anyone who saw Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys knows better. And is a good singer automatically a good actor? Anyone who saw Keely Smith in Thunder Road knows better.

So is ventriloquism magic? I think not. Nobody knows how Houdini made the elephant disappear, but virtually everyone knows how Bergen made Charlie speak.

Ventriloquism is more like juggling than magic. The audience readily sees how it is done but most cannot do it themselves. The element of message (comedy, typically) vs the element of surprise (Where did that elephant go?) is what entertains.

When you pull the dummy out of the case and he begins speaking, no one in the audience gasps and says, "Holy cow, that wooden object is actually talking! How does he do that?" Anecdotal testimony to the contrary notwithstanding.

But...a quote often comes up whenever musicians try to define music or a musical genre:

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

...which suggests that we cannot adequately describe some things to those who have not experienced those things. Thus you cannot use words to explain that which defies description, particularly to the satisfaction of all the experts.

(When asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong said something like, "If you have to ask, don't mess with it.")

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