Big music by Sánchez/Alexa for big ‘Existencia’ choreography at The Soraya

Dance · Music

Ed. note: This story by Debra Levine was commissioned the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Arts.

The spasms of explosive percussion that jump off the screen of Birdman, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2014, are the work of a brilliant and innovative musician: the Mexican-born drummer Antonio Sánchez. In the decade since that game-changing soundscore, Sánchez has become a mainstay at jazz venues around the world, often partnering with his wife vocalist/loop artist Thana Alexa. Together they will soon journey from their Barcelona home to join their artistic collaborators for Existencia on The Soraya stage. The added element of Sánchez and Alexa’s live performance promises a theatrical spectacle in which dance and music go mano a mano.

Existencia, 30 Years After the Northridge Earthquake, an original Soraya production, will have its premiere on the precise anniversary date of the natural disaster that was centered near the CSUN campus. The ambitious production, which opens Wednesday January 17, 2024 with a repeat performance Friday, January 19, aims to couch the tragedy in hopeful, artistic terms.

A drumming score was the vision of Soraya Executive and Artistic Director Thor Steingraber, who commissioned the music. He believed that a master like Sánchez would invoke in sound a world turned on its head. Layering in Alexa’s melodic vocalizing would add fragility and poignancy.

“Antonio and Thana command instruments at two extremes,” notes Steingraber. “Antonio’s music-making requires physical command and full-body commitment. By contrast, Thana’s ethereal sound emanates almost invisibly from her vocal chords.” These opposing qualities, in Steingraber’s belief, resonate with the catastrophe of an earthquake. “On one hand, the destruction,” he says, “and on the other, the humanity.” 

Sánchez and Alexa understand this. A soft-spoken man who is a major musical thinker, Sánchez’s roots in rock-and-roll led to a long stint in the musical academy (Berklee School, New England Conservatory) and an equally long association as drummer to the Pat Metheny Group. Alexa, who met Sánchez in 2008 after seeing him perform at Carnegie Hall with Croatian pop star Oliver Dragojević (she also bears Croatian heritage) had Sánchez’s drumming on her album, “Ode To Heroes”; conversely, she sang on his “The Meridian Suite” (CAM Jazz) with his band Migration. Alexa’s recent Grammy-nominated song, ONA (it means “woman” in Croatian), is a feminist anthem that also features Sánchez’s playing.

“It’s big, it’s earth moving,” the two pronounce nearly in tandem during a recent Zoom interview, apropos Existencia. “We have been composing to videos [of Existencia’s movement sequences] that Diavolo sent us. We are very impressed, in awe of all the things they have been doing, the props also.”

“Our brief,” explains Alexa, “is to create a score not only in commemoration of a specific earthquake, but for a piece about disaster and destruction in general and community rebuilding.” She continues, “The Soraya told us that physical movement, voice, and drums are the three most primal forms of expression.” 

“The dramatic theme is so heart-wrenching,” say Sánchez. “And we both have a personal connection. I was in the Mexico City quake in 1985, when over 10,000 died. I was 15, and on my way to school, I saw the earth rattling, everything. I was traumatized; we were completely in shock.” Alexa, too, has been touched by an earthquake’s devastation, the one that hit Croatia just as the pandemic struck. “In March 2020, a huge earthquake hit Zagreb, it destroyed parts of the city. My father basically lost his home.”

As for Existencia, “The choreography is big—and there’s a lot of people,” says Alexa, “so it’s difficult to sustain with just drums and voice. It seems like Jacques [Heim, Diavolo’s creative director] wanted bigness.” That’s where Alexa’s expertise in looping come in. By use of a recording device, she can create a multi-part arrangement, in real time, by building percussive and melodic layering, and more orchestration. “The looping gives us more sound, more sonic possibility—to do justice to the choreography,” she says. “We don’t have any harmonic instruments on stage, so I am creating harmonic effect, by looping layers of different notes.” Sections of the score feature fully composed music; others are improvised. “There are songs I’ve written, with lyrics and melody,” says Alexa.

Soraya audiences have grown accustomed to dance performed to live music, including the many collaborations between Wild Up and Martha Graham Dance Company. “It’s a commitment of resource and effort, especially when commissioning something new,” explains Steingraber. “In the end, it’s an opportunity for artists to collaborate and go far beyond their usual creative boundaries. For audiences, it’s a thrilling full-sensory experience.”

In approaching Existencia, audiences can take Sánchez’s score for Birdman as a jumping-off point. Music critic Monica Tan described in The Guardian that his playing, “maps out the emotions … with precision and almost no sentimentality.” Onto this foundation, Sánchez adds “fury in a shower of thunderous drumming” and “uneasy lashings of irregular snare drum tapping.” Thana Alexa’s Grammy Award-nominated “ONO,” too, garnered poetic critical praise: “Hearing her is like watching a thunderstorm or maybe a wild hawk in flight,” wrote one critic. “She doesn’t just sing but uses her voice as an expressive precision instrument … Her rich contralto can also be honey-smooth and soothing.”

“Coming out of the pandemic, this piece is very cathartic,” says Sánchez. “We’re writing about destruction and chaos and being completely destabilized. It’s about how to come together to lift others up. So we’ve been trying to go toward that, thinking, what is the representation of chaos, in music? What is the story we are telling musically? And who are our characters?”

Existencia | The Soraya | Jan 17, 19

Arts journalist Debra Levine is the founder/editor/publisher of artsmeme.

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