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M Music & Musicians (US)
November 2011

Turning ancient sounds into a modern soundtrack for "cataclysmic change"

by Eric R. Danton

Although Tori Amos studied at Johns Hopkins University's elite Peabody Conservatory of Music in Maryland for five years as a child, classical music had long since been a thing of the past for the singer, songwriter and pianist who rose to fame in the 1990s with alt-rock hits like "Cornflake Girl," "God" and "Silent All These Years." That is, until last year, when the Deutsche Grammophon label asked if she'd be interested in writing a new song cycle based on existing classical themes. Intrigued by the challenge, Amos sifted through 400 years of music by composers like Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy and Franz Schubert to help create her 12th studio effort, Night of Hunters. In keeping with her recent emphasis on album-length story arcs, Hunters tells the tale of a woman dealing with the end of a once-passionate relationship. "Song cycles work because there's a mythological element to them," she says. "I think that's when they're at their best."

Amos produced the album herself, working with arranger John Philip Shenale to create parts for strings and woodwinds. Though it had been decades since she studied classical music, there are things a prodigy never forgets. "Somewhere in there the structures have remained," she says. "It didn't seem so foreign to me to work with some of these melodies and bring them into a contemporary expression without losing their resonance." Her next challenge: The Light Princess, a musical set to open in London next year. We spoke to Amos about her clearly still-evolving methods of musical expression.

How did you approach recording?

The piano vocal had to be recorded and done before the arrangements could be recorded, otherwise you'd possibly be doing the arrangements twice. These kinds of musicians, they follow the page. It's not about jamming. So you have to make some committed choices in the piano-vocal master take, which is very different from how a lot of the records have happened for me from '98 on. A lot of the time I was alone with Mark [Hawley, Amos' engineer and husband] on the other side of the microphone. It was at times very close and raw, and very exposing. This felt very lonely at times, but there was an intimacy because we would just close the door and I would perform. Although "perform" is the wrong word: I would expose these songs to somebody that I know very well, and who is a muse for me. So that was different.

Did basic tracks take long?

It took a few weeks of getting it wrong and being frustrated. There has to be a level of trust, because when you're not getting it, your self-worth can start to take a tumble. Mark was really supportive, and there was a protective energy coming from the other side of the microphone. I didn't feel like I was being judged, although if something wasn't good enough, it's only the two of you. It's hard to hear someone say, "We don't have it yet." You've just sung your guts out, but you listen back and realize that it doesn't contain what we need to tell the emotional story.

Were you familiar with a lot of the music going into the project?

I didn't know any of these pieces. The ones that I knew before weren't speaking to me in a way that said I should do variations on them. A lot of those I knew were recital pieces, and I felt they needed to stay in that place in my mind. So it took forever. While on tour, as I took the stage and came offstage, I was filling my mind with classical music. Then I got home to Florida and started building it. A song cycle has to work like a sonic cathedral. It's a big piece of architecture, as is a musical. But the musical I'm working on weaves in and out of dialogue and a book, whereas this had to work without dialogue.

How did you shape the story?

The music really guided me to the story. I had been reading The White Goddess by Robert Graves [1948], which became the bible for the mythology of this project. I began to realize as I was on tour that so many people were going through upheavals in their lives, there was this cataclysmic change that was happening to people in so many countries. I've never seen that happen before, and I've been touring for a long time. Song cycles always work when there's an intimate issue that's happening, as well as a global crisis -- and when I say global, that would look different in 1825 than it would in 2011. But that pattern is foundational for a song cycle.

How did you translate that?

I decided that we had to have the shattering of a relationship -- yet there's a much bigger crisis looming that she has to understand, and that understanding will help her in her own life. I thought the story needed to involve her having a transformation in a very short period of time, from dusk to dawn. But within that framework, you can go on these psychological journeys to places that are out of time.

Was there one key piece?

The Schubert piece ["Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959," 1828], which became "Star Whisperer," was the first to lock itself in. Once the Schubert piece started haunting me, it began merging with this refrain that I came up with many years ago: "I heard you scream from the other side of the mountain."

I couldn't hear one without the other. Then the trick was to develop the instrumental section. Once this piece got cracked, it was clear that everything else had to work around it -- it was the centerpiece. This had to be a place of discovery for her on the record. We had to arrive at this place, and then we had to transform from this place. That was the key component of the story.

How did you develop that?

We began to see a sensuality and get a sense of what this world sounded like, smelled like, tasted like, felt like. "Star Whisperer" was our guide. But "Your Ghost" [based on a piece from Schumann's so-called 1854 "Ghost Variations"] was the one where the emotional side of their relationship came into focus. It's where she understands how she wanted him. You get to see their love for each other through this song. I had to understand that love in order to break it apart. Once I understood "Your Ghost," other things fell into place.

All led by the music?

Those melodies from the ancient masters were driving this, because they're so romantic. You don't hear those melodic structures in a lot of contemporary music. They were giving me a huge gift, as if they were saying, "We're guiding you to what the drama could be, if you'll just listen to what we're telling you." Music has its own consciousness. If you listen to it and analyze it, it tells you all its secrets. It's all there, but you can't impose your will on it.


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