'Birdman' Composer Antonio Sanchez on the Difficulties of Playing the Drum Score Live

Atsushi Nishijima
'Birdman'

"What was done with the beginning credits and the end credits, where the drums hit every single little letter — that’s really hard to do," he says.

Jazz percussionist Antonio Sanchez has never had the chance to do a two-hour drum solo in concert before. But that's essentially what he'll be doing Thursday at L.A.'s Theatre at the Ace, where Birdman will have a special screening stripped of his one-man percussion score so that he can reproduce it onstage for roughly 1,600 viewers. He must have spent a lot of time rehearsing for this landmark event, right?

"Unfortunately, they kind of sprung this on me just last week, right before I went to London for the BAFTAs," Sanchez told The Hollywood Reporter, before getting down to the Ace. "So it's not like I had all the free time in the world to practice. But as soon as I arrived from London to L.A., I went to the Yamaha headquarters, and they were very kind to set me up in a really nice room with the kit I'm using tonight and a great monitor. I've been practicing for the last two days, so hopefully it will be at least decent. It's not easy, I've got to tell you. You've seen the film? What was done with the beginning credits and the end credits, where the drums hit every single little letter — that's really hard to do." And you thought you had a crammed work week.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had Sanchez effectively improvise the Birdman score. And if you're thinking it might be tough to replicate something that was composed spontaneously rather than with a great deal of premeditation, you'd be right. But he already did it once before, when Inarritu had him re-record the score because they agreed the sound of the first drum set they used was too clean.



"To re-create something that was improved using your stream of consciousness is one of the hardest things you can do as a musician," he said. When he rerecorded the soundtrack on that dirtier kit, "I would follow the general energy of what was required for a specific scene, but I wouldn't re-create it note for note," he said. "As long as it had the same vibe and the same sound, you can change little things that are the really hard ones to re-create verbatim." That will hold true for Thursday's performance. "I think that's what's cool about it, that every time people come and see it when I'm playing to the movie, they're going to see a different version."

Every time? Does that mean this show isn't just a one-off? "We're actually planning on doing it a few times," he promises, with shows planned in New York, his native Mexico and a few other locales as well as a return to L.A. under less hectic circumstances.

Sanchez won't be looking up at the big screen — "I have a bad neck, so that would be really hard for me" — but relying on a monitor with a time code bearing some numerals to cue accents and other bits of mathematics that he hopes to have memorized by 8 p.m.

"Drums are the most visual instrument you can think of," Sanchez says. "The eye/ear combination is a lot easier to follow on the drums than pretty much any other instrument. So visually, I think it'll be interesting. But I want people to concentrate more on the movie and for me to be really in the background, visually. I still haven't been to the theater because they're still setting up, but I want to make sure the light on me is not too prominent so people really focus on the movie." With work as riveting as both Inarritu's and Sanchez's, that inherent battle for attention could be a tight contest.

Speaking of competitions…

The screening/performance is part of "the last push before the Oscars, which, you know, I don't even need to tell you what I feel about the Academy right now, because of the disqualification of the soundtrack." Famously and controversially, Birdman's score, which was as acclaimed as any of 2014's movie music, was disqualified because of the use of other source music in the film. "So I just hope that people who enjoy the movie come. I obviously don't have anything against the voting members, because a lot of people that are part of the Academy said that if the chance had been there to vote for my soundtrack, maybe they would have or at least would have considered it. But the 15 or so people — I don't know how many there are — that decide if a movie's going to participate or not, I hope they don't come," he says, laughing.

Sanchez's mind is still boggled by the awards season, some parts of which he's participated in more than others, since he did win the Critics' Choice award for best score and was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.

"I was looking at the amount of nominations and wins Birdman has gotten, and it's in the hundreds. I'm a jazz musician, and they give us like two Grammys for everybody, and that's it. There are no other awards, really. There's the Downbeat Awards, but there's not even a ceremony or anything. They just call you over the phone and go, 'Oh yeah, you won,' and that's it! So I'm in the least glamorous industry of all, which is jazz. And then all of a sudden, I'm in the most glamorous of all, which is Hollywood. I've experienced the weirdness and subjectivity of this whole awards-season thing firsthand, and I have to say, it's very surreal." Sounds like a premise for Birdman II — and maybe they can find a way to keep the sequel's score in contention.

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