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 Bohr, 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 Bohr 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. Bohr 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 Bohr 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, Bohr 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.”
ROCKIN’ THE CLASSICS
Tori Amos isn’t the only rock star to have explored her classical roots. Other composing converts include:
Paul McCartney It figures that the only Beatle to record with string quartet (on Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby) would eventually fancy himself a “serious composer.” Even though McCartney can’t notate music, much less orchestrate it, he has found collaborators to help him create and record two oratorios, a tone poem and, most recently, a ballet. Guess you really can get by with a little help from your friends.
Elvis Costello One of the first rockers signed to Deutsche Grammophon, Costello is easily the most accomplished of the rock/classical crossovers. He wrote an album for string quartet, The Juliet Letters, a work for orchestra, Il Sogno, a ballet and even has an opera in the works (based on the life of Jenny Lind). Proving that he goes both ways, Costello also produced an album of pop songs for opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter in 2001.
Billy Joel Joel liked to boast that, when he was a kid taking piano lessons, he would work around bits he hadn’t learned by improvising passages that sounded enough like Mozart to fool his teachers. In 2001, he released Fantasies and Delusions, a collection of his own classical piano pieces performed by Richard Joo. See? He still knows how to get out of playing the hard pieces.
Sting A self-professed “muso” who liked to impress interviewers by practising Bach on the guitar, Sting has recorded several albums for Deutsche Grammophon, including Songs from the Labyrinth, in which he imagines John Dowland as a 16th-century singer/songwriter, and Symphonicities, a performance of his songs in orchestral drag.
Deep Purple Back before they composed the easiest guitar riff in the history of rock ( Smoke on the Water), Deep Purple had serious classical aspirations and even recorded a piece by group member Jon Lord called Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which was released in 1969. Although the band went on to louder things, it did another orchestral album 2000, and Lord has released several albums of his own classical work, the most recent being a piece for flute, piano and strings called To Notice Such Things.
Metallica Not only did this pioneering thrash band inspire a group of Finnish musicians to record an album of Metallica songs arranged for eight cellos (the resulting band, Apocalyptica, continues to write and record), but it also made a symphonic album of its own, called S&M, in 1999. It’s not every day you get to see a head-banging string section.