The Magic of Ascanio: The Structural Conception of Magic by Arturo de Ascanio; Jesús Etcheverry
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2005)
In the past 20 years or thereabouts, Spain has taken a front seat in the world of close-up card magic. On an extended lecture tour of nine European countries in 1991, I was stunned by the sheer numbers of young Spanish magicians I met who were skilled, well-read, and justifiably opinionated. Recently, Michael Close suggested in MAGIC that if there is a contemporary magician who might be legitimately compared to Dai Vernon, in terms of vision and influence, the most likely candidate would surely be Juan Tamariz—and I am not inclined to disagree. How did this all come about? Many would lay blame at the foot of the late Arturo de Ascanio.
In an interview reprinted in this volume, and first published in 1959 in Ilusionismo, a Spanish journal, Ascanio is by then already referred to by the interviewer as "Spain's top sleight-of-hand artist." Eventually, in 1970, he would win first prize for card magic at FISM in Amsterdam. Ascanio, by profession an attorney, then drifted away from magic for five years. But in 1975 he was asked to give a lecture in Madrid, and thus began his road to becoming a theoretical force in Spanish magic a teacher and mentor that would continue to profoundly influence a generation and more.
Ascanio and Tamariz came to the U.S. briefly in 1982, which is when I first obtained the Ascanio manuscripts, About the Handling of Double Cards and The Psychology of Palming (along with an early lecture edition of Tamariz's Five Points in Magic). When Ascanio returned in the late '80s, I had the chance to see him lecture twice once in Washington D.C., and then a few days later in New York City, where I traveled in order to see his remarkable lecture a second time. His skills in handling double cards what Cliff Green called "multiplicity" were remarkable. His theoretical concepts were arresting and clearly useful. His demeanor, that of a gentle but deeply thoughtful teacher, was compelling.
Many of Ascanio's concepts and terms are common-place now in the world of magic, especially in Spain, and have increasingly become part of the international jargon of magic, in Europe and the United States, and perhaps even Japan. The "Law of Primary Motion" and the notion of "In-Transit Actions" have been in my vocabulary for easily 20 years. Other Ascanian principles and terms parenthesis of forgetfulness, and anti-contrasting parenthesis, among others have crept in around the edges, but are not yet the coin of the realm among English-speaking magicians. But now all of Ascanio's theoretical work has been assembled in this first volume of a planned trilogy on the magic of Arturo de Ascanio.
Jesus Etcheverry is an amateur magician and was a close friend of Ascanio's. Shortly after Ascanio's death in 1997, Sig. Etcheverry began work on this project. He had in his possession Ascanio's unpublished manuscript on "The Structural Conception of Magic," which he then edited and rewrote as necessary. He gathered trick descriptions from published and unpublished sources. With the help of publisher Laura Aviles, rights were secured to publish all of Ascanio's work, and many more tricks were solicited from friends and colleagues. The results will eventually produce a three-volume set, this first volume of which consists entirely of theoretical content. The two future volumes will consist primarily of card magic, plus Ascanio's famous work on the Color-Changing Knives. There is much to look forward to. And this book, as with those to come, has been skillfully translated by the highly regarded sleight-of-hand artist who graces this month's cover of Genii, Rafael Benatar, who now makes his home in Spain (he is originally from Venezuela) and is an integral part of the magic scene there.
This first book, according to Sig. Etcheverry's introduction, "gathers all the published and unpublished texts that Arturo developed throughout his life. They were taken from tape recordings, videos, private notes, and we have collected and organized all of his essays that had appeared in (various( magazines, as well as in his lecture notes."
The first segment is comprised of a lecture which Ascanio presented in 1975. This serves as a general introduction to many of the concepts which will be discussed in further depth throughout the volume. It also provides a bit of personal and magical history about Ascanio, including his earliest influences, and the fact that he cites Fred Kaps a Dutchman as one of his earliest and most important mentors. Ascanio makes an establishing case here for the value and importance of theory, and states his important claim that "There is no theory without practice, but no practice that is not endorsed by solid theory."
This lecture is followed by an excellent article, "Conception of the Magical Atmosphere," which addresses key elements in the creation of effective magic, including technique, naturalness, "disarming looseness and nonchalance," misdirection, timing, patter, and psychology. He makes a case for the value of technique, stating that "In magic, the law of maximum effect is more important than that of minimal effort." He also points out that raw technique becomes increasingly valuable as the distance between performer and audience decreases. In the segment on misdirection, he introduces the three degrees of misdirection, from subtlest to strongest. Additional entries in this first section include specific articles on timing, technique, and the psychology of palming. Herein he introduces, for example, the terms "static naturalness" and "dynamic naturalness" to describe the difference between striking a natural pose versus using active gestures to achieve the impression of naturalness.
Part Two consists of a number of interviews from different magazines, conducted variously by Aurelio Paviato, the late Docampo, and including three conversations between Ascanio and Juan Tamariz. I particularly enjoyed the conversations with Tamariz, conducted from 1979 through 1983. Here you can see some of the relationship between mentor and protégé, and you can also see slender flashes of points of disagreement between them. Although this element is not terribly obvious, it is as unsurprising as it is interesting, considering that Ascanio was a lifelong amateur magician a fact which is clearly demonstrated in the occasional naiveté of his ideals while Tamariz, albeit an artist of passion and obsession equal to that of Ascanio, also was on his way to making a place for himself in the real world of paid performances. There is, and always will be, a difference between the two experiences; a difference that is often apparent to professionals but transparent to amateurs.
The third section of the book is made up of five lectures that Ascanio presented in Madrid in 1985, comprising a series he titled "The Structural Conception of Magic. This is the most substantive and rigorous portion of the book. Ascanio begins by discussing "presentation as a quality of the magician" meaning his personality, character, demeanor the "smile" as he generally tags it else-where and then "presentation as an aspect of a trick," which is a bit closer to the usage more familiar to magicians. Here he spends time discussing emotion in magic, how tricks can connect with emotions, and how to connect emotion-ally with spectators through gesture and other elements of performance.
"Cover" is Ascanio's general term for all the strategies magicians use to conceal the method of the trick, both at time of performance and later, on considered reflection by the audience. Ascanio discusses the various elements that can con-tribute to making a good or great trick, be it method, technique, presentation, personality, or cover. He returns to the subject of static and dynamic naturalness. He addresses "looseness and nonchalance" as elements of non-verbal communication. This is a rich chapter that provides much food for rumination.
In "Construction" Ascanio attempts to further clarify the elements that help to render a trick's method impenetrable. He briefly mentions here Tamariz's Theory of False Solutions, one of the most important theories of contemporary magic, in which the Too Perfect Theory is heard to echo. This chapter is actually quite wide-ranging, and many concepts are reviewed and discussed. Ascanio also makes a case for why it may be wise to first learn the tricks of the masters—like Vernon and Dr. Daley—as they were originally described, so as to gain a better understanding of the thinking of these masters, before we rush headlong into making changes. "Parenthesis of forgetfulness" is examined here, which is largely another term for what we generally regard as "time misdirection," a phrase coined by Al Leech, and which refers to putting time as a separation between method and effect as a means of misdirection. Ascanio's theory of "anti-contrasting parenthesis," on the other hand, has to do with avoiding interruptions and digressions that can interfere with the clarity of an effect. Oftentimes such diversions are inserted unintentionally by inattentive performers, but in some cases the nature of the procedure can force such unwanted insertions, in which cases other steps must be taken to compensate for the potential costs.
In the section on technique, Ascanio begins by identifying the three groups into which he divides what he considers the "gifts and virtues" of a magician, these being "brain, smile, and hands." The titles are quite evocative in and of themselves, and I daresay we all tend to assess performers in similar manner, be it deliberately or merely intuitively. The discussion of technique is lengthy and was clearly a subject dear to both the master's hands and heart.
The 30-page segment on "How to Study Magic" will be immensely useful to any student in the early years of his or her approach, and I highly recommend it to anyone attempting to approach the art in a serious manner. Ascanio discusses pragmatic issues such as allocating time, deciding on subjects to study, practice and rehearsal, and provides an interesting analysis of the pros and cons of various "sources of knowledge," including books and the oral tradition. He discusses the importance of "performance in front of an audience," and strategies for learning tricks. This is a wonderful discussion that I highly recommend to new students.
The final segment on creativity is also wide-ranging, reflecting, as does so much of the book, Ascanio's broad range of artistic influences, including for example his love of poetry, literature, and the arts in general. He coins a wonderful phrase here, with regard to how difficult it is to achieve the apparent simplicity in the work true masters like Kaps (or, I would add, the late Derek Dingle): "Only those who beat the dragon of difficulty can conquer the princess of simplicity." He speaks of the value of cultivating admiration for other magicians, and points out how masters like Vernon and Kaps openly valued their mentors and influences.
After these many years of the English-speaking world's limited access to Ascanio's theories, it is a major and exciting event to finally gain access to these thoughtful and challenging and insightful works. A complete understanding of Ascanio's work, like that of most theoreticians, cannot be acquired via a single rapid reading of a book of this nature. And indeed, I strongly suspect that in some ways, this volume is woefully incomplete as a tool with which to try and gain such understanding, without the companion volumes that are still to come. I think that only when one studies Ascanio's tricks, and then not only considers the tricks in light of the theory, but also reconsiders the theory in light of the tricks, will students really have a fighting chance in attempting to grasp the nature of Ascanio the artist. "There is no theory without practice ...."
No theoretical work in the history of magic can stand on its own as a complete textbook, and this one is no exception. Few theoreticians truly invent ideas about misdirection, presentation, technique, construction, and so on; most identify and build on existing practice, sometimes improving and expanding principles along the way, other times clarifying our understanding of such principles. Some of Ascanio's ideas strike me as the work of a logical and orderly mind the mind of a lawyer, perhaps trying to organize and label the world of magic as he found it. Thus we may already have useful terms for "parenthesis of forgetfulness" and "anti-contrasting parenthesis." But there is more than such labeling to be found in these pages, and we have been waiting so long for them. Ascanio is gone, but his work is just arriving for some of us. And thus great art continues to live beyond the life of its artisans.