The Magic Atmosphere

Magic begins with resistance, at the point where resistance is overcome.

It was that night in Madrid of 1954 when everything changed. I was not there but I’ve heard the tale many times and I’ve recreated it in my mind many more. The great Fred Kaps (1926-1980) was there performing a clandestine close-up session for a little crowd. They were deeply captivated, surrounding him squashed in like sardines trying to get a good view of the improvised stage. There was a special thing floating in the air, it was as if that night at that very place nothing were impossible.

A young Spanish stage magician was in the audience, Arturo de Ascanio (1929-1997), later he would become a master of the art and one of the most relevant figures in magic too. That night Fred Kaps turned Arturo’s world upside down and changed his life forever, and with it the life of many others that would come later. Arturo abandoned stage magic and focused in close-up magic, trying to understand what he experienced and how it was possible to recreate it. He became a very successful lawyer and an extremely cultivated person, magic was never his day job but his passion and obsession. The quest for the “Magic Atmosphere” would accompany him all his life. Arturo theorized, conceptualized and put into words the empirical knowledge of the magicians laying the foundations of the so called Spanish School of Magic (see the Structural Conception of Magic) inspiring magicians from all over the world to this day.

“MAGIC ATMOSPHERE: The magical atmosphere (and I do not pretend that the concept is new) is the feeling of magic, surprise and mystery that is achieved when the magician executes his effects so that the spectators cannot see, let alone suspect, the secret cause that produces them. The spectators DO NOT SUSPECT even the EXISTENCE of that cause, and the series of effects always catch them totally unprepared. That is to say, the magical atmosphere occurs when, in a sequence of effects everything happens as if the authentic magic really existed. Effects and emotions develop so naturally and so unexpectedly that the effects produced are really mind-boggling. Conceived in this way, the magical atmosphere is the SUMMUM of perfection to which every magician can aspire.” Arturo de Ascanio 1958

Arturo would also become close friends with Fred Kaps and years later would remember his experience that night like this:

“I was totally dazzled, shocked. This was something else, it was impossible to think that could even exist …”. 

That was how two legends wrote a great episode of the history of magic.

So that’s what we are talking about, that feeling of “anything is possible right here right now” when all mental resistance is dissolved and the imagination flies free.

Luckly I’ve experienced that it as an spectator a few times. As a magician I don’t get there many times but sometimes when the moment is just right I think I’ve been close. As the master Gabi Pareras use to say “The magical experience in never guaranteed before hand”.

I am going to share with you a short clip of one of those moments and we’ll talk a little bit of that. To put it in context, that’s the final effect of the last routine of the act I was performing at the marvelous Magic Castle a few months back.

It is a pet routine of mine, a version of the “slow motion” ace assembly plot by Dai Vernon: all four aces segregated in four piles that magically assembly in one pile one at a time (Precisely one of the favorite plots of Arturo de Ascanio). In this case the conditions are interesting since the four aces are identified (signed) in the face and in the back and the pile where the aces arrive is wrapped around with a rubber band, but that’s not the point. For the first two aces I just mimicked with my hand as if taking each ace and putting it in the other pile for the magic assembly to happen, that is the magical gesture, the catalyst that produces the magic effect. With the last ace it is the same but I let the spectators, two loveable women, cast the spell themselves.

They are already engaged with the magic, they have seen the effect happen twice and they are familiar with “the magic spell” so they give it a try, and they do it with such grace that all the room breaks in laughter. At that moment everyone knew the impossible did happened and that confirming it was just a necessary formality.


There many things we could comment:

  • The capital relevance of the magic gesture. First it exists, many times is vague or missing, The magical gesture is the first line of defense preventing the fateful question “How you did it?!!” to pop out. Second it is not cheap, it the congruent throughout the routine and talks about the effect so the spectators can relate and play along with it. The idea of the magical gesture (with a magical idea behind) producing the effect shall be much more interesting than the trickery behind the illusion. (See Luis Garcia and Gabi Pareras work)
  • Letting the spectators have their moment. I don’t try shine above them, I don’t put a magician’s clever punchline on top but I just acknowle it. I try to get as far as possible from the “look what I cool thing I can do!” attitude (Gabi Pareras)
  • At the same time for the sake of clarity of the effect I respect the initial situation by freezing my left hand (avoiding “anti-contrast parentheses” in Ascanio’s words). Waving the hand at this point would cloud the effect and take the focus out of “what it is magical” putting unwanted thoughts in the minds of spectators (like “he is doing something!”).
  • At that moment I am at a really desirable position, the spectators need to see and touch the outcome of the magical moment they just experienced, a moment they created and it is meaningful for them. We are all in the same boat because they want the last ace to be in that pile AT ALL COST. They would hate me if I fail to satisfy their need*. They would be like:

For me is it a much more interesting approach trying to generate that need of the impossible in the spectators rather than trying to convince them of it. Inducing thoughts like “I want my ace to be there so bad because I imagined it and it would be awesome” rather than others like “I can’t understand how this snaky bastard managed to put my ace there!”. But this enters directly in Gabi Pareras’s “Fictional Magic” philosophy, we will talk about it on another occasion.

*Note that I could fail to satisfy that need by actually screwing it up or by providing an scripted kicker ending like producing the last ace from my pocket as I wink my eye with a “Got’cha motherfuckers!!” attitude.

Thanks for reading


Recommended readings:

Arturo de Ascanio  “Magic of Ascanio – The Structural Conception of Magic”

Gabi Pareras on Ascanio’s work “La depuración constante de lo mismo”

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