I had never heard of The New York Society for Ethical Culture, but last Saturday I got quite an introduction. Mexican genius/drummer Antonio Sánchez performed the jazzy score live for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar winner Birdman. I made sure to get there early to do some people-watching. Some of the would-be audience members gave off the kind of vibe that makes you wonder if they even know why they’re there… I mean, sometimes you can smell pretentiousness, and I definitely did. But this is New York, and it was The New York Society for Ethical Culture (even the name is preppy.)
It was a pretty strange venue choice; it felt like a church and the acoustics weren’t great. There were times I couldn’t understand anything Michael Keaton or Edward Norton were saying. I had to rely on my fellow spectators for cues to what was going on. In other words, I laughed when the rest of the audience laughed. It was a good thing I had already seen the movie, but for someone watching it for the first time, it must have been difficult to follow. But, maybe they were just there for the music. The audience mostly looked like white jazz musicians. You know the types, the tiny hats, flannels, glasses, tattoos, long beards… Wait, that sounds like a description of a hipster. There were probably some of them too.
Only a few minutes behind schedule, one of the event organizers jumped on stage and gave us a brief introduction. He explained that this version of the movie — with the musical score removed — had only been seen once before at a similar event in Los Angeles. Then, he hinted that there were a couple of people in the audience that could better explain Antonio Sánchez’s role in creating the music for the movie.
The Oscar-winning screenwriters of Birdman, Alexander Dinelaris and Nicolás Giacobone, joined him on stage and took over the microphone. The crowd cheered and applauded. The scribes looked really excited; one of them said they weren’t yet used to getting all this attention. They talked about the importance of the drum score Sánchez composed, and how difficult it was to imagine the movie with any other kind of music. Then came the words we had all been waiting for, “Ladies and gentlemen, Antonio Sánchez.”
I thought Sanchez might say something to the crowd but he walked directly to his drumset and the lights went off. The crowd stood up and applauded. As a Mexican myself, I felt really proud seeing all that admiration for a paisano. All the prejudices I had against the audience disappeared at that moment. It became obvious that they were all there for the same reason: to see a world-class drummer give a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
The drum set was placed to the right of the stage, just a few feet away from the screen. Finally, the movie started and Antonio Sánchez started playing. He was lit up with green and blue lights that would sometimes match what was happening on screen. The sensation and feelings that emerged from his performance were incredible. Sometimes, I forgot he was actually playing. The music would blend seamlessly with the image. But then, I would turn away from the screen and see him sitting there at his kit, and would remember it was a live performance.
Although Sánchez stuck to the rhythms he composed, he still left space to improvise. Ironically, the score that ended up in the movie was an improvisation. At first, Sánchez created a strict motif for each character, but Iñárritu scolded him, saying that it sounded too forced. So, Sanchez sat down at his drums while watching the movie, and started riffing (using a little bit of what he had written before) and listo!
During the screening, there were a few times when the live music didn’t match exactly with the accompanying scene (like when there was a drummer on screen, it appeared out of sync), but the rest of the audience didn’t seem to notice. The crowd was too busy cheering and applauding during most of Sánchez’s mini-performances.
When the movie ended and the final credits started, me cayó el 20 (it hit me.) Sánchez had left the best for last: a five-minute-long improvised solo that simply blew our minds. I then realized that both Nicolás and Alexander were sitting behind me and even saw them headbang a little bit. When the credits finished Antonio stopped playing, then he stood up. The whole venue did the same and gave him a standing ovation.
Since I’m not a jazz expert or a drummer, I wanted to get the opinion of someone else who is. José “Niño” Márquez is a Mexican musician, producer, engineer, and yes, a drummer currently living in New York. We caught up with him right after the show to ask what he thought about it.
Playing live along with the movie is sort of like Antonio Sanchez doing a two-hour drum solo. As a drummer yourself, what do you think would be the most difficult thing about that type of performance?
“Antonio Sánchez is one of the great ones, not only for his technique and abilities as a drummer… but for representing Mexico all around the world.”
I think it would be the stamina, both physical and mental. It’s a very long performance with very few room for mistakes, where you have to follow visual cues and keep up with both the rhythm and flow of the movie as well as provide that same rhythm and flow to the movie. I would not consider it like a drum solo. For me it is a dialogue between the drums, the sound effects, and the script.
Would you ever want to do a performance like that?
I believe every musician (myself included) would love to have an opportunity like that, not only to do the live performance, but to do so playing your own music score.
What impressed you most about the show?
That’s a tricky question. As a drummer, the absolute musicality, control, and independence that Antonio has on all his limbs. As an overall musician, how well the “melody” of the drums carries and accentuates the scenes. As a regular member of the audience, it’s not an everyday occurrence to watch a multi-nominated/Oscar-winning movie (including an Oscar for Best Picture) with the score played live by one of the best drummers in the world.
Had you seen the movie before or was this your first time?
It was my first time, and I have to say I’m grateful it was at this great venue and with such an amazing performance.
Do you think a live score added something to the experience of watching the movie?
There’s always a certain amount of excitement when you go to any live show that you don’t usually get when watching a movie. This combination of film and live music gives that excitement and awe to the viewer.
I was thrilled with the whole experience and I’m glad I had the chance to be a spectator. For me, Antonio Sánchez is one of the great ones, not only for his technique and abilities as a drummer and overall musician, but for representing Mexico all around the world.