Hunting the Unfamiliar

It takes years to shape a Bösendorfer piano. The wood, carefully selected among the forest of possibilities owned and maintained by the Bösendorfer company, is weather-aged for four years or more. Each shell is then hand-carved, hand-curved, workers molding the forms with the stroke and care of a devoted lover. They believe that they transfer some essence of themselves into these instruments through their touch, that their emotional bearing as they work can affect the timbre and character of the final product. This is not a pedestrian piano. This is the culmination of nearly 200 years of devotion to craft and care—the exquisite, dark richness of sound released from within incomparable to any other.

All of this and more will one day be written upon a placard and placed within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame …perhaps even installed right next to one of these magnificent creatures whose music once held audiences under the enchantments of its melodic mistress.

Many things can (and have been) said about Tori Amos, but above all else, one truth is clear: She is uniquely focused—in her effort, in her skill, in her creativity. The world as filtered through her mind and released through lyrics that often defy comprehension is equally magical and malevolent. She is a pragmatist and a dreamer, her hands possessed by a musical sorcery when they come in contact with the keys of her mighty Bösendorfer beauties. There are few pianists who can rival Amos’s preternatural aptitude. Hyperbole be damned—to watch her play is to watch divinity set free.

Not everything that Amos has done throughout her career has resonated with me on a positive level. However, I will never deny my admiration of the desire that presses her onward in her exploration of sound and meaning, even when it falls short of my own personal boundaries of enjoyment. She stands unafraid of pulling forward whatever lives within her, examining it and presenting with an unparalleled candor. She is also unafraid of expanding beyond the rote safety of one specific genre, as so many musicians of her longevity are. Those musicians often stagnate within the confines of sound and style that no longer suit them, too afraid at this point in their careers to embrace the duality of salvation or failure that change could bring.

Fortunately, Amos has practically made a career of embracing change. And so it goes with her latest release, Night of Hunters. Her first offering on new label Deutsche Grammophon, this release marks Amos’s entry into yet another previously unexplored genre, the reinterpretation of classical music concepts through her distinctively contemporary lens. I was admittedly wary when I first heard about this release and have yet to purchase it. I’m not entirely certain what I find so off-putting about this concept. I’m still wrestling with that.

I can say, with all certainty, that last night has convinced me that Amos needs to continue with this particular collaborative exploration. She returned home to us last night, playing Constitution Hall in downtown D.C. This was my ninth time seeing her in concert—and it might qualify as one of my favorite performances. Amos is bliss by herself, but when joined by the skilled efforts of a string quartet, she transcended expectation in extraordinary ways.

It wasn’t her new music that reached me. In fact, the new songs that appeared at the beginning of last night’s playlist left me feeling a bit apprehensive regarding how enjoyable the rest of the concert would be. Also, the sound technicians overcompensated in their attempts to raise her voice above its accompanying instruments, which left the quality distorted and painfully sibilant. Once the technical glitches were sorted and she began to move more deeply into the bramble of her musical oeuvre, that was when the hunter captured me.

Amos has always had an uncanny ability to reinterpret her own music when playing to a live audience. It’s one of the reasons I love going to see her whenever she comes to town. Last night, with the added layering of violins and cello, she took familiar standards to levels of surprising complexity and reinvention. The standouts of the evening were a musical mash-up of her song “God” with Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”; “Winter,” which has always been one of my favorite Amos songs and took pride of place as my favorite song from last night’s performance; and “Cruel,” in which her accompanying string quartet embraced Amos’s approach to the untethered exploration of their musical instruments.

For the moment, there are clips on YouTube of each of these songs. The version of “Winter” that I found wasn’t quite as expansive as the version last night; I do believe the artists are growing more comfortable with their freestyle expressionism with each playing. The version of “Cruel” that I found, however, is quite close to what we heard last night. I only wish you could see more of the quartet. I encourage you to enjoy them while they remain online, denizens:

I would love to see what we witnessed at last night’s concert turned into to a revisiting of her earlier music in this fashion, for studio release. I doubt that will happen, but one never can tell when it comes to Amos.