The Composition of the Impossibility

Photo by Catarina Marques

Photo by Catarina Marques

There are different ways in which we can measure the impact that a performance has on an audience. Whether it be theater, music, comedy, or magic, the overall effect is visible and can’t be denied. Specifically about magic, sometimes I would like to understand the impact the impossibility has on the overall experience of an audience. How do you measure it? How do you understand if the impossibility is a key element for the audience or just one more item? And, are they good judges of what makes something more or less impossible?

I don’t have answers for these, but I believe that it all boils down to composition: how we make the journey with our audience and the journey’s focus will make the audience care about the impossibility or not. Yes, sometimes the path we take with our audience may be more rational than in other art forms. But does that take away from magic as a performing art or does it add value to the work behind what is seen? This, of course, is one of those case by case situations in which the performer and his performance has a lot to do with the end result.

There are legendary stories of performers who took a very simple trick and challenged themselves to close their act with it. Placing all the energy, the performance, and the focus on that very simple moment but making the audience resonate with it as they would with a so-called miracle. This can be a great exercise for the performer and for his or her performance skills, but that will not improve the impossible impact of the routine itself. It will just extract the maximum impact you can get from it. What I search for is something different.

My goal is to look at a routine and not only understand the impact it has but also the key points that you need in order to make the effect have the maximum possible impact. Each plot can be improved or not by a few details that completely change how an audience will perceive it, such as a simple shuffle by an audience member before the routine starts or emphasizing that the deck was on the table before the routine even started. Those elements define composition, and the composition is an integral part of the overall experience.

Personally, I like to learn from many sources and always question the information that I receive in order to create my magic journey. This constant questioning leads and still leads me to pursue different avenues in magic. But, independent of the direction I might take next, there are a few elements in magic composition that always exist, independent of the creation or the approach. In my seminars and classes, I explore five that I believe are fundamental to think about:

Unity: When all of the elements of a piece combine to make a balanced, harmonious, complete whole. When nothing distracts from the whole, you have unity. Unity creates an integrated image in which all the elements are working together to support the creation as a whole. A unified piece is greater than the sum of its parts.

Harmony: All parts of the visual image relate to and complement each other. Harmony pulls the individual pieces of a creation together. As in music, complementary layers and/or effects can be joined to produce a more attractive whole. The composition is complex, but everything appears to fit with everything else. How the diverse pieces fit together to achieve unity.

Balance: The ways in which the different elements of a piece are arranged. In visual arts, for example, Balance can be symmetrical ("formal"), where elements are given equal "weight" from an imaginary line in the middle of a piece. But it doesn't necessarily mean symmetry, though. Asymmetrical ("informal") balance occurs when elements are placed unevenly in a piece but work together to produce harmony overall. The sense that the painting "feels right” and is finished.

Emphasis:  An element within the piece that draws attention and becomes a focal point. Subordination is defined as toning down other compositional elements in order to bring attention to the intended focal point, which is an area in the composition that has the most significance, an area that the artist wants to draw attention to as the most important aspect. The viewer's eye ultimately wants to rest on the "most important" thing, the focal point.

Contrast: As a principle of art, experts refer to the arrangement of opposite elements in a piece so as to create visual interest, excitement, and drama. For example, paintings with high contrast – strong differences between light and dark, for example – have a different feel than paintings with minimal contrast in light and dark. Contrast can also be differences in other elements like shape, size, texture, movement, rhythm, and attitude, for example.

Understanding these elements in a magic composition will not only give you a sense of what you are creating as an overall piece, but also help you solve some problems in the internal mechanisms of magic. I believe that when you can identify the problems in a composition, you are a step closer to solving it in a way that you will improve the strength of the overall piece. And that will ultimately bring the impossibility of the piece to its maximum possible impact. 

Helder Guimaraes