An interview with composer John Corigliano (part two) | Bleader

An interview with composer John Corigliano (part two)


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John Corigliano
  • Composer's personal collection
  • John Corigliano
Yesterday I posted the first part of my conversation with John Corigliano, who will be in town next week to attend four different performances of his music. The most elaborate performance comes on Tuesday night at the Harris Theater, when the Fulcrum Point New Music Project will play Corigliano's score to Ken Russell's Altered States (1980) alongside the film. In the first part of the interview, I spoke to Corigliano about his experience of writing that score. In the second, we get into how it relates to some of the concert pieces he wrote around the same time and his observations on the life of a film composer.

Ben Sachs: Could we talk a bit more about your clarinet concerto? That piece premiered a few years before Altered States came out.

John Corigliano: In 1977, yes. And I wrote the score for Altered States in 1979.

Was it the last thing you wrote before the movie or was there something in between?

Oh boy! You're asking somebody with no memory. [laughs] It could have been, but it's hard for me to say.

I ask because that concerto feels so cinematic. There are parts of it that I could picture being the score for a horror movie or a suspense film.

Not the second movement [a somber section titled "Elegy"], but the outer movements maybe.

There's just so much tension in some of those passages.

And it's very theatrical—very virtuosic too. The first movement, you know, is called "Cadenzas," and it was written because the performer for the world premiere was Stanley Druker, who was the champion clarinetist of the world at the time. And Leonard Bernstein was conducting.

I have a recording of that performance.

Oh really! The sound isn't great, but the performance is extraordinary!

In preparation for our interview, I've been listening to that and your Pied Piper Fantasy, which premiered the same year the film came out.

Was it 1980? Or was it '82?

The record I have says 1980.

If you say so! I have no idea what the dates were, but I remember that when I started working on Altered States I was right in the middle of writing the Pied Piper Fantasy. The offer came in to score the movie, and I had to drop that piece right at the "War Cadenza" and finish it later. In fact, there are sections after the Candenza that are very reminiscent of Altered States.

I was thinking that when I listened to the piece the other night. Like the first and third movements of the clarinet concerto, the last sections of Pied Piper were so much more unnerving than I expected them to be.

The battle with the rats gets very ferocious, and a lot of the ferociousness comes from the battle between the little ape man and the dogs chasing him in Altered States. You know, I tend to learn things from film music and incorporate them into my concert music. I also adopt things from my concert music into my film music. For Revolution [1985], which is another film I did, I wrote [music for] this eight-minute battle scene as a war lament—it was very, very slow and anguished and built to a huge climax. In my "First Symphony", you can hear it in the first movement. About three-and-a-half minutes in, you'll find similar music. So I go back and forth. Some of the clarinet concerto is in Altered States.

Which part?

You know the part where the ape is in the basement and you hear these low, primordial sounds? You know, the bass clarinet is going [sings a few bars], that sort of stuff? All that's from the first movement of the clarinet concerto. I don't see any problem with that, since I wrote them both. I feel free to repurpose moments from my own music.

The ape man from Altered States
  • The ape man from Altered States

Changing the subject a bit, had you been approached to score a film prior to Altered States?

No, never. I think if I'd been on the west coast, it might have happened. But, you know, I was in New York doing my music, and nobody asked me to do a film. I did some commercial work for National Geographic and the Smithsonian, things like that. But I think that the filmmakers who were interested in composers were on the west coast. So, if you wanted to be a [film] composer, you hustled out there to meet them.

Had you ever wanted to work in movies? I ask because there's such a cinematic quality to some of your concert works.

I loved films and film music, but I never thought about how I'd get there. Also there's a danger in writing too many film scores because the concert world doesn't take you as seriously as a composer. This has happened to friends and former students of mine. They'll put out a serious piece of music, and critics come and say, "Oh, this is a film composer branching out." So I didn't want to go there. And I really haven't—I've only done three films.

Do you feel there are there any film composers who maintained a symphonic mentality while working in movies?

Well, there are different extremes. Elliot Goldenthal [who wrote the scores to Heat, Frida, and many others] was my student. He studied with me for seven years. And I love what he does. John Williams does another kind of thing—a very grand thing. It's interesting: the night that the L.A. Philharmonic did the clarinet concerto and I met Ken Russell, I also met a man backstage who came up to me and said, "My name is John Williams. I love your music, I love this piece." And I said, "You're John Williams!? You wrote [the score for] Jaws!" Because Jaws had just come out a couple years before, and I loved what John did with it. You know, that Prokofiev kind of throbbing . . .

And everybody knows that main theme. It's got to be one of the best-known themes in the movies.

Yeah! It's so recognizable! And he said to me, "That was my 60th film." So he had written 59 other scores before he did Jaws that I didn't know. That's another reason why I didn't think of [working in movies]. But we've become friends, as I have with several film composers.

It sounds like you don't envy their careers.

I've really never seen a happy film composer. Most of them are very frustrated, because their music is so distorted by the time it reaches the screen that they barely recognize it. And they're often treated in a very bad manner. They have to argue their case and usually lose it. And then the concert world doesn't respect what they do—people say they're "film composers," not real composers.

Now, obviously, there are happy film composers. But they have to deal with so many difficulties because they're often at the bottom of the [filmmaking process]. The director will say this, the producer will say this, the executive producer will come in—the man bringing the coffee in will get asked his opinion about the music! And they'll have to change what they've written if one of these people doesn't like it.

In concert music, the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloist all try to do what you envision. In film music, it's the opposite; you have to do what someone else envisioned.

Your experience on Altered States was pretty exceptional, then.

It was a very good experience. I also had a good experience on The Red Violin because the director, Francois Girard, was very musical.

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