“The Cirque Sound: La Nouba”

“The Cirque Sound: La Nouba”
By: Matt Dibrindisi – Northampton, Massachusetts (USA)

In December of 1998, an almost unlikely collaboration was about to debut in Orlando, Florida: La Nouba, Cirque’s third resident show, at Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney District (now Disney Springs).

Following the almost simultaneous creation of O (at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, which had premiered in October of that year) and La Nouba, director Franco Dragone reflects:

“After working on previous Cirque shows I turned around one day and realized that life had gone by, […] and I hadn’t seen my children grow up. I wanted to re-connect with youth, to show my 19-year-old son that I was still hip. The idea became to see how Cirque could live in a modern, urban environment. I was also very aware that we were setting up a show in Disney’s territory, so to speak. I wanted La Nouba to integrate that fact: we were going back to the world of childhood and fairy tales.” [1]

So, with these two ideas at play, the show became a clash of two tribes: cold, nightmarish urbanites and a gaggle of circus performers from an era long since passed. Perhaps it’s only fitting that for many of us, adolescence is the crossroads between the dreams of childhood and the potential nightmares of the adult world.

The music of La Nouba, written by Benoit Jutras illustrates these crossroads beautifully, simply and strikingly, made of many complex layers, loops and patterns cycling in and out and back and forth with Y2K electric energy. In addition to its usage of Roland keyboards, a favorite of Jutras’ on Quidam, La Nouba marks the rare usage of an E-MU synth module, a Planet Phatt, to add warmth, texture and musical kinetics to Jutras’s score.

I was very fortunate to talk with Benoit Glazer, bandleader for all 19 years of the show’s run about the synths on the show: “Some of [the Roland patches] remained (the Phatt sounds were recorded as is when we switched to all audio), but much of what you heard near the end of the run was completely redone.

I started tweaking the original Roland sounds right off the bat, modifying them within the synths. We also used 4 Roland samplers right from the get-go, and I started replacing synth sounds with sampled sounds. The strings were a combination of the Mirouslav Vitous string sounds, my own synthesized sounds, and real players (my kids all play string instruments) when anything was solo. The accordion (except for the first act) was real, performed by Alex Clements when he was at La Nouba. Anything grand piano or rhodes I performed and recorded at home using my real Rhodes, my Wurlitzer, and my wife’s 1964 K. Kawai grand piano. Most of the percussion I recorded at home using my congas, tumbek, etc…

Of the original MIDI tracks that Benoit Jutras gave me at the beginning, about 4-5% remained after a few years, mostly the Phatt parts (loops and analog lead sounds) and a couple of Roland patches (ethno-metals, accordion in the opening, and a couple more). Even then, I cleaned up the MIDI tracks in the first few weeks of the run, so that they were more economical, as well as matched the acoustic demands (problems) of the room.”

A few notes before we dig through the musical attic of La Nouba:

In reference to the listings, the Roland XP-80 (first used by Cirque on Quidam and through Varekai) and JV-1080 are essentially the same synth; the XP-80 is an upgraded JV-1080 with an added sequencer.

Standard refers to what Roland calls the “basic wave group”, which consists of waveforms first introduced on the JV-1080.

In this article and previous installments, the Sound Canvas is standing in for what would’ve been the General MIDI bank on most Roland synthesizers, which, unfortunately, has not been made available in VST form. All Sound Canvas listings refer to the menu interface as part of the Sound Canvas VA VST (virtual studio technology) available on Roland Cloud.

A Planet Phatt soundfont is available from Digital Sound Factory for you to explore and use the patches behind La Nouba’s many layers yourself: https://www.digitalsoundfactory.com/product/e-mu-planet-phatt/

And now, sit back, relax and enjoy… LA NOUBA.

XP-80/JV-1080/Standard: Wave 220: Dulcimer A- One of the first synth sounds heard in La Nouba, this returning patch previously featured in Quidam makes up the memorable intro of La Nouba/Parade.


Sound Canvas (VA): Organ > Accordion Fr.- Another returning favorite of Benoit Jutras’s from Quidam, this classic Cirque sound gives life to frantic progressions on Once Upon a Time/German Wheel.


XP-80/JV-1080: Ethno Metals- An easy Roland sound to miss, these delightful clanks make up percussive accents on Propel/Interlude.


XP-80/JV-1080: Jamisen- This synthesized traditional Japanese string instrument (in the same family as the lute, sitar and oud) forms the fast-paced Jardin Chinois melody.


XP-80/JV-1080/Standard: Wave 529: Synth Saw 1- Weaving through the chaotic musical layers, this sawtooth synth creates arpeggio accents throughout Distorted/BMX, Porte/Aerial Cradle and Urban/Powertrack.


XP-80/JV-1080: Impact- A classic Cirque sound that only enhances the precision of the artists, from incredible diabolo catches to insane BMX jumps.


E-MU Planet Phatt: On Vinyl- You might not recognize this warm, crackling synth pad without all the layers of processing, but with a heavy amount of FX, it forms the wah-wah loop found in suspense moments on Jardin Chinois and Distorted [You’ll hear the sample first unprocessed, then processed as heard in the show].


E-MU Planet Phatt: Pretty- This rather pretty EP synth lends itself to the frenetic patterns on Jardin Chinois and Queens/Flying Trapeze.


E-MU Planet Phatt: Wormly Lead- This warbly synth lead makes up one of many looping phrases on A Tale and Reve Rouge/Aerial Contortion. The signature warbling sound comes from the patch’s pressure sensitivity, with notes played at full velocity


E-MU Planet Phatt: Drum Kit 1/Dirt 2- This kick and snare form the iconic sampled backbeat on A Tale, with the Dirt 2 loop thrown over top for that warm vintage vinyl sound.


[1] Babinski, Tony. Cirque Du Soleil: 20 Years Under The Sun- An Authorized History. Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

More to come, so stay tuned!