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The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada)
Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tori Amos rehearsals at Royal Albert Hall in London on Nov. 2, 2011
(Brian Rasic / Rex Features)

Tori Amos takes an old-school turn

J.D. Considine
Special to The Globe and Mail

Back in the 1970s, when Tori Amos was a pre-adolescent girl in the preparatory program at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, none of her teachers would have imagined that one day she would be recording her own compositions for the renowned classical label Deutsche Grammophon.

To tell the truth, they didn't imagine she would have a future that involved classical music at all -- which was one reason the scholarship kid got turfed from the performing arts academy.

"The reason I was kicked out of the Peabody was that my attitude was not suitable," she says, and laughs. "Or so they felt. I wanted to be a composer -- I knew that -- and they let me know back then that female composers in the classical world didn't do very well. It was a boys' club; it wasn't like the pop world."

So Amos went over to the pop world, and did very well as a composer, thank you very much. After her breakthrough in 1992 with Little Earthquakes, she became a critical and commercial success, selling more than 12 million albums worldwide. And she missed the classical world not a jot.

She was therefore quite surprised when, a few years ago, she was approached by Deutsche Grammophon to compose and record a collection of songs based on themes taken from classical music. "When I left the Peabody, I turned my back on all kinds of things, including the idea of classical music," she says. "I think I had a projection of what it was, that it was very closed to any other forms of music."

But Alexander Buhr, a doctor of musicology who works as a product manager and producer for DG, was certainly open to what Amos had been doing. It was Bohr who proposed the project that would become Night of Hunters, Amos' latest album, and he did so because he was impressed by the integrity of her pop songs.

"He said, 'I've been studying your structures for a long time, and I think that it's clear where your foundation came from,'" says Amos. What Buhr proposed was that Amos write a set of variations on themes from the classical repertoire, and she accepted -- with certain provisions.

"The deal was," Amos says, "if I was going to take on such a dangerous project -- and it was dangerous because if you get it wrong, you get it really wrong, and you never want to show your face again -- [Dr. Buhr would] send me endless, endless amounts of music that had spoken to him over the years." And so Amos wound up spending "at least two hours every day just studying what I'd been sent. Every day."

In classical music, writing a set of variations on some other composer's theme is a hallowed tradition. Perhaps the most famous of these is Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," but Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and dozens of others have added variations to the classical catalogue. "I think people who aren't aware that it's part of the tradition might think that you're messing with the masters," says Amos, "but it is very much a form in itself."

For the album, Amos would play piano, but with woodwinds and a string quartet instead of guitar, drums and bass. She would also sing, and that posed an entirely different challenge. "I realized that a 21st-century way of talking was not going to work against Chopin," she says. "I needed to find a poetic language."

She thought of simply drawing from actual 19th-century poetry, but Buhr dissuaded her. "He said to me that the provocative side to this project is putting a 21st-century woman's voice with these dead guys," she says. "And I got that." So, with inspiration from Irish poetry and Robert Graves' The White Goddess, Amos composed her own story cycle.

Having the right words often made it easier to choose the right music. "I was working on the story of this woman, and I knew that we had to start with 'That is not my blood on the bedroom floor,'" she says. "When you know that, the thing that drives is you is, well, that's not going to work with this composer, or that composer." For that lyric, Buhr suggested a piece called "Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore," Prelude Op. 31, No. 8, by Charles-Valentin Alkan, which Amos eventually made into the song "Shattering Sea."

There's also a bit of Bartók in that song, particularly in the way the piano's left hand works against the vocal line and the string quartet. Amos, "a big Bartók fan," couldn't draw from that composer's works, because they're still under copyright. "But I guess I imposed, stylistically, a bit of him onto this piece, because the left hand doesn't really exist like that in the original piece," she says. "I thought that I needed to bring the madness to it, since it was called 'Madwoman on the Sea-Shore.' So in trying to harness what the original piece was carrying, and the madness that my woman was going through, the marriage seemed to work quite well."


[Wikipedia: The Globe and Mail]

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