"When I'm improvising, I'm reacting to my environment."
When Antonio Sanchez was a teenager in Mexico City, he used to listen to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on the radio, where he served as a DJ for much of the '80s. "I used to listen to his show quite a bit," says Sanchez, a 44-year-old jazz drummer based, these days, in New York City. "That was the first place I ever heard the Pat Metheny Group, this tune called Last Train Home, it blew me away. I became a fan of that band, and fast-forward a few years, and I started playing live with them. In 2005, Alejandro came to see us in Los Angeles. After the show we met — although at first I didn't know it was him — and we hit it off. I told him that story, and he loved it; and I'm a big fan of his. After that we were friends. Then, in 2013, he called me out of the blue, and said he was working on his next film, and was thinking of a film score that was just a drum-set, and asked me if I wanted to do it."
"When you improvise, you are still composing, but as opposed to having a long time to think about composition, your every choice, your every edit, is second-by-second."
That film score was for Inarritu's fifth film, Birdman, a showbiz satire about the comic-book-isation of the film biz. Its screwball energy is kept to the pulse of Sanchez's drumming, the director staying true to his initial idea to have a score that was just a drum-kit. "It was very easygoing, and very enjoyable; we did the whole thing in two days," Sanchez says. "I improvised the whole thing. When you improvise, you are still composing, but as opposed to having a long time to think about composition, your every choice, your every edit, is second-by-second. When I'm improvising, I'm reacting to my environment. Usually, that's to another group of musicians, or a tune. But, in this case, it was to a plot line, and images."
Birdman would go on to be a huge commercial and critical success, but, at the time, that was the farthest thing from Sanchez's mind. "You never can tell the kind of cultural resonance or commercial appeal that an art piece is going to have," he says. "The reward, for me, was to be a part of that film. So, when the score and the movie started gaining steam — from the time that it opened at the Venice Film Festival, all the way through to the Oscars, it was like five months of complete craziness — it was all icing on the cake."
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
With Birdman's success, Sanchez has taken to performing the score live in one-off shows, everywhere from concert halls to Bonnaroo ("this crazy music festival where everybody's high"). On stage, he improvises the score every night, watching on a monitor to hit its precise timing marks, those moments when he finishes right as a scene ends times "when the crowd goes crazy."
"Just changing this one element [of the screening] means people react in a completely different way," Sanchez says. "When people go to a live performance, they go to have fun, so they're already on your side. And the first thing that you hear in the film is me, really loud, along with the credits, so right away people wanna participate, and they start yelling and screaming — the kind of things that never happen when you're just watching a film."