The Magic of Ascanio, Volume 2: Studies of Card Magic by Arturo de Ascanio & Jesús Etcheverry
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2006)
Studies of Card Magic following gist a bit more than a year after "The Structural Correlation of Magic," is the second volume in the monumental trilogy of The Magic of Ascanio. That debut installment was an extraordinary work of theoretical material, laying the groundwork for the two volumes of card material to come. In my review of Volume One (Genii, March 2005), I wrote, "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 the-ory in light of the tricks, will students really have a fighting chance in attempting to grasp the nature of Ascanio the artist." Volume Two clearly demonstrates the validity of that conjecture.
There is a staggering quantity of material here, gathered from many different sources, including lectures, journals, conversations, and previously unpublished personal correspondence. The author has, in most cases, rewritten the material himself, and combined with the efforts of translator Rafael Benatar, the result is a detailed and elegantly written text that does thorough justice to the caliber of the material. Considering the complexity of much of Ascanio's work, this is no small accomplishment, and all the collaborators, but none more so than Mr. Etcheverry, deserve our gratitude. His deep understanding of Ascanio's work is clearly demonstrated in the insights he offers throughout his thorough descriptions of trick after incredible trick.
In 10 chapter and more than 300 pages, Ascanio's work is meticulously recounted, reflecting the scrupulous detail that he invariably brought to his material and the exhaustive detail he communicated to his students. There are 27 tricks all-told, and the overwhelming majority are full-length productions; only a handful are what would qualify as "quickies" by any stretch, although even here, Ascanio's take on tricks like Larry Jennings' "Look—An Illusion," "The Hotel Mystery," and "The Last Trick of Dr. Jacob Daley," all clearly reflect Ascanio's stylish and distinctive touch.
The opening chapter explores one of the best-known pieces of Ascanio's legacy, the Ascanio Spread. When this technique first leaked across the Atlantic in the 1970s it was poorly understood, frequently demonstrated as a discrete series of mechanical steps, rather than the liquid, "weightless" flow that characterizes the move when correctly executed. The Spread is an alternative to the more commonly used Buckle spreads and other similar techniques more generally seen outside of Spain, but when properly executed, in a context that is consistent with a larger stylistic approach, the Spread, and its many elegant variants, is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly deceptive technique. In combination with Ascanio's various methods of "laying down" or tabling a double card addressed in depth in Chapter Two—the result reflects an arsenal of truly astonishing technical tools.
These techniques are put to use in the eight following chapters, which include Ascanio's personalized takes on classic close-up card plots including Vernon's "Slow-Motion Ace Assembly" (one of several versions here requires a 27-page description!), "Cards Across," "LePaul's Torn-and-Restored Card," and "Triumph." Of course, the Spanish fascination with the plot popularly known as "Oil & Water" is also reflected here, with four different versions included, each as distinctive as it is deceptive.
But to simply inventory the sleights and tricks does little to capture the substance and power of this book. This is, to echo Mr. Giobbi, a blueprint of the architecture that constituted Ascanio's approach to magic, an approach that was as loftily artistic as it was usefully systematic. It is easy to point to certain aspects of Ascanio's work and label it impractical he was an amateur magician in the full sense of the Latin origins of that term, one who did magic for the love of it and that is admittedly reflected in his taste for elaborate multi-phase routines and conditional requirements that often include seated performance and close-up pads, among other facets. But this is to miss entirely the inestimable value of his example and instruction. In my development as a young magician I was fortunate enough to be able to study and frequently witness the work of masters like Albert Goshman and Slydini and, while I may rarely perform in their preferred conditions or use their specific material (a point that Ascanio actually addresses, namely the comparative repertoires of mentors and their students), their influence is present throughout my work. Similarly, Ascanio's sleights, tricks, and theoretical approach provide invaluable sources of study and guidance and it is of little importance, if, in the end, the student adds the master's tricks to his own repertoire as long as he adds his presence.
This is not to suggest that the material is not useable far from it! But this is not a book of tricks to be kept by the bedside, along with a pack of cards, in order to quickly gloss through a new trick to try for the wife before bed-time. Rather, this is a book that demands, and is worthy of, nothing less than the same uncompromising commitment that Ascanio invested M his magic, not only in the interests of his own beautiful work, but on behalf of the very art itself and the work of its future practitioners. It would be a mistake to think of this as merely a book of tricks exceptional as those tricks might be. Rather, this book is a course of study in magic—of a way of thinking about magic, a way of creating magic, a way of performing magic. It is a personalized guide, rich with profound insight and ideas the guiding hand of an inspirational teacher, with a generous portfolio of lessons to offer.
Following a routine for "Oil & Water," for example, students are presented with two pages of analysis, dissecting no less than seven theoretical issues; following the "Wriggling Aces," a sort of packet trick based on the use of the Ascanio Spread. The author walks us through six or seven theoretical principles at play within the routine, most of which we were previously introduced to in Volume One. This is a model for thoughtful instruction in lessons that reaches far beyond the borders of any single trick, enabling the student to effectively put theory into practice.
Ascanio utilizes shrewd elements of misdirection that must be closely examined to be fully appreciated, but if approached with sufficient attention, these are principles that will reap dividends throughout your work. In one trick, Ascanio uses a slight tongue-twister in his script in order to slightly divide the audience's attention for just a brief instant. Elsewhere, as in discussing approaches to the Oil-and-Water plot by Fred Kaps and Charming Pollock, we are introduced to an extremely subtle idea that—with sufficient acting and boldness—will convince an audience they have been allowed to see the faces of cards that have in fact repeatedly been concealed from them. These are not methods to be mastered in a day, nor lessons to be grasped in an hour.
Throughout, Ascanio peppers his technical instruction with lessons in art and life. He reminds us, for example, that "... a true master is not the one who can do difficult things, but one who can do the simple things exceptionally well." And the author informs us that "Arturo believed that a magician should approach his material as a gardener, rather than as an architect." (He provides further explanation, but I will leave that thought as is for you to consider on your own.)
Clearly, the contributors have approached this work as the proverbial labor of love so that the legacy of this highly influential artist can be gloriously gathered and pre-served for the present and future of magic. The book is beautifully designed, as was its predecessor, reflecting an attention to detail that would doubtless have made Ascanio proud. In light of this, while I do wish to offer a couple of small complaints, I would not want them to obscure my high regard for the final product. That said, I must mention that the habit of frequently referring to illustrations that must be searched for in sections of the book at great distance from the description at hand is an annoying and at times torturous habit that seems inconsiderate of the reader. In some cases there are pages in which the reader is sent to two or three distant locations in the book in as many paragraphs, trying to locate isolated illustrations in order to make sense of the description at hand. More often than not this occurs on a page that is other-wise filled with sufficient blank space in which such illustrations could have easily been duplicated. And even in the handful of cases in which duplicating such illustrations might have added a very few pages to the book's overall total, I think the benefit to the reader would have far out-weighed the cost.
Also, with regard to the otherwise helpful quantity of illustrations, I think it's unfortunate that these drawings are all done from the audience view. This is, to me, a very old-fashioned habit, and one that serves little purpose here except to frustrate and confuse the reader, and force one to constantly turn the book upside-down in order to mimic the student's own point of view. If and when the audience view is needed as a checkpoint, provide that where necessary, but in fact that is not so common an occurrence in this kind of material and students would be better served by a more readily apprehended perspective.
These suggestions aside, it is impossible to adequately capture here the depth and potent complexity of Ascanio's thinking, nor the care with which it is communicated in the pages of this fabulous book. One must face the fact that it is not a book for everyone. Ascanio liked to say that, "The misdirection must be so effective that you could get away with sloppily executed sleights, and the sleights must be so good that they hardly need misdirection." You needn't have achieved that ambitious goal to enjoy this book, but you do need to at least appreciate Ascanio's stated desire. This is admittedly a book that will hold special appeal for advanced students of card magic, but above all, this is a book for artists. Not since The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley has such an epic and inspirational work of card conjuring, based on the output of a single creator, been seen. It will be a long time since another like this will reach our shelves—or at least until we get to Volume Three.