Tori Amos channels the classics for Night of Hunters

For Night of Hunters, songstress Tori Amos conjures the ghosts of composers like Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach
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There’s often something spooky about Tori Amos’s music, a sense that she’s in touch with other worlds. But the singer-pianist’s just-released Night of Hunters marks the first time that she’s made an entire record out of lengthy, séancelike encounters with the dead—some of whom may be familiar to regular readers of the arts pages.

“Even though they’re not in physical body, they were very much alive to me,” Amos explains in a telephone conversation from Florida, where she spends half the year. “So much so that my husband would come in and say to me, ‘Come on! It’s time to open the wine! It’s 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘I’m with the dead guys!’ And he’d say, ‘Well, they’d better stay dead, wife. They’d better stay dead.’ But they’re very much alive, if I’m honest with you.”

Her ghostly company, as can be deduced from the liner notes for Night of Hunters, included Charles-Valentin Alkan, Enrique Granados, Erik Satie, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Modest Mussorgsky, Domenico Scarlatti, and Claude Debussy—the classical composers whose scores, alchemically transformed, served as the source material for Amos’s dizzyingly complex and dazzlingly accomplished new song cycle.

“I felt like I knew some of these men, that I was having a relationship with them,” Amos reveals. “Because when you’re handling someone’s music, it’s very provocative.”

That relationship, in some cases, goes back decades: before becoming a pop idol with early records such as Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, Amos studied classical piano at Baltimore, Maryland’s respected Peabody Conservatory. But the idea for Night of Hunters was generated from an outside source: Deutsche Grammophon head Alexander Buhr, who was eager to sign Amos to his Berlin-based label.

Buhr, whom Amos refers to only as “the German musicologist”, suggested that she make a record of songs that reflected the classical repertoire through a contemporary woman’s world-view.

Amos didn’t quite get it at first, she admits.

“Originally, I said, ‘Well, are you thinking I’m going to use ancient poets?’ And he said, ‘Well, how would that be from the woman’s voice? That’s not her voice, and that’s not current.’ And we began to realize that the more exciting marriage was that of the dead male composer with the female, 21st-century voice. And that in itself is also a love affair, a relationship that’s happening: her words and ideas with their original musical themes.”

From this dualistic concept, Amos has spun a cycle of contemporary lieder that embrace themes both mythological and domestic. Opposing forces abound: in addition to examining the interplay between male and female, Amos explores the tension between her own mixed European and Native American ancestries; the paradoxical notion that the creative act requires both a passionate quest and a passive willingness to lay oneself open to inspiration; the honoured place of the poet in tribal society; the supplanting of nature mysticism with religions based on sky gods; and the insights that can be gained from parenting.

Most of this, it must be said, is delivered in highly metaphorical form. Amos explains that the songs represent a long, visionary night, during which the narrator is visited by a guiding spirit, Annabelle—played on the record, with remarkable confidence, by the singer’s 11-year-old daughter, Natashya Hawley. The work is almost impossible to précis, but in essence Annabelle leads Amos’s character through a past-life-regression experience and a peyote ceremony, at the end of which she emerges inspired, ready to renew her troubled marriage while returning to her own, temporarily forsaken art.

Amos freely admits that her own life served as a crucial source of inspiration, but cautions listeners not to read too much into her tale of warring lovers.

“The things that happen to my character didn’t just happen in one night, or in a couple of weeks,” she says. “I pulled on everything I knew over the last 16, 17 years of having been together, then I made a story of it. I didn’t tell it exactly how it happened, because that’s not what I do. Some people write about things exactly how they happen, but I don’t find that very exciting.”

More exciting, she says, is how classical music served to inspire her tale, sometimes in very mysterious ways. She cites the song “Fearlessness”, which follows the narrator’s journey, in a past life, from North America to ancient Europe. The story line developed as she was recomposing Granados’s “Orientale”, from 12 Spanish Dances.

“The piece itself was pushing me to the New World,” she says. “But what I didn’t know was that Granados was afraid to go on a boat. But he went to America—his opera was opening, I think, in New York—and the president of the United States asked him to come down to Washington and play, so he and his wife missed the boat back. And the boat that they did take was hit by a torpedo on the last leg of the journey. He was rescued, but he saw his wife drowning in the distance, and in fearlessness—he couldn’t swim—he jumped off the boat to save her, and they both died. So sometimes pieces were guiding me, pushing me, with a subtext of the composers in them as well.”

Art, in the case of Granados, did not save the composer’s life. But Amos credits Night of Hunters—which she’ll re-create on-stage with the help of a young Polish string quartet—with reinvigorating her own muse.

“I’ve realized that I have to keep listening to some of these composers in order to keep my palette expanding,” she says. “If you’re just turning to other pop musicians who don’t have a big vocabulary, then how is yours going to grow?”

Tori Amos and the Apollon Musagète Quartet play the Orpheum on Tuesday (December 13).

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