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

Thursday, April 18, 2013

An interview with composer John Corigliano (part one)

Posted By on 04.18.13 at 04:31 PM

William Hurt in Altered States
  • William Hurt in Altered States
On Tuesday at 7 PM the Harris Theater will host a special screening of Ken Russell's 1980 cult favorite Altered States with a 100-piece orchestra performing a live accompaniment alongside the film. The composer of the score, John Corigliano, will be in attendance and take part in a Q&A after the movie. It's one of four Chicago events Corigliano plans to attend next week as part of a citywide celebration of his 75th birthday. Also on deck are performances of the composer's music by the Chicago Chamber Musicians (at Roosevelt University on Wednesday) and the Pianoforte Foundation (at the Fine Arts Building on Thursday). Last week I spoke with Corigliano about working on Altered States, how the score relates to his concert music, and how he got along with Ken Russell. Decades after the height of his notoriety, Russell (The Devils, Tommy) remains a love-him-or-hate-him figure for his over-the-top stylistics and brazen mixtures of high and low art. If any director's films call for the presence of a 100-piece orchestra, it's his.

Ben Sachs: Altered States was the first film you worked on. Who proposed that you write a movie score?

John Corigliano: Ken Russell did; he was a huge classical music fan. In fact, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the big symphonies by every major composer. So, he was going to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to hear a piece by Richard Strauss, Thus Sprake Zarathustra, when he was in the middle of editing Altered States; my Clarinet Concerto was in the first half of the concert that night. As soon as he heard it, he said, "That's the composer I want for my movie."

I flew back to New York the next day—because I was only in town for the concert—and when I arrived I got a call to come back to Los Angeles to meet with Ken. He asked me if I'd be interested in working on his film; I was interested, and so we had a wonderful time together. He really liked composers, so we got along beautifully.

Had you seen any of the films he made about composers, like Mahler or The Music Lovers?

Oh yes.

What did you think of them? I know they were somewhat controversial in their day.

I loved them. They're excessive, but so were a lot of composers! Tchaikovsky's life was excessive! So to make those excessive [directorial] gestures in the film about him, I thought it was really fantastic. Also I think Lisztomania is the funniest movie in the world. Have you ever seen that?

No, I haven't seen that one.

It's about Liszt as a rock star, with Roger Daltrey as Liszt. You should see it. It is so outrageous, even though everything about it is true! I won't even tell you anything about it—you should be surprised by that one.

So you hit it off well with Russell?

John Corigliano
  • J. Henry Fair/Composer's personal collection
  • John Corigliano
Yes, I did. We got along, and he loved the music I wrote. I couldn't play it for him on piano, because a lot of the music is unplayable on piano. There are a lot of [tone] clusters and sounds made by the orchestra that don't sound like instruments. I wanted to do that because I felt it could have been a problem if the score had all sorts of neo-Stravinsky writing. God knows I love [Igor] Stravinsky, but if it had kind of "horror music" writing—like Stravinsky or [Bela] Bartok—it could have sounded funny or corny. And I wanted to make the orchestra sound, at times, like it was not even an orchestra. To do that, you have to develop techniques for the musicians that aren't orthodox.

Were you thinking about experimental composers like Gyorgy Ligeti?

A little, but mainly it was [Krzysztof] Penderecki. In the 60s, he wrote a lot of music in which he invented symbols that instructed players to use their instruments in very different ways. I developed a bunch of them myself. That was a learning process for me.

When I was in Hollywood with Ken, I stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I thought of the love theme for Altered States when I was at the swimming pool—I had a piece of paper with me at all times so I could write these things down. And I wrote down a lot. When I got home, I realized this [score] was going to contain more music than I'd ever written for a single piece. I only had a few months to do it—normally it would have taken me a year!

So I put up a piece of music paper on my piano, and I wrote above it "Motion Sonority." What I mean by that was I needed a single symbol [in the score] that indicates a lot of activity will take place. The simplest example of this is a trill: you write it over a note and you get a tremolo effect. But I developed different things. I'd put a box around two notes. If there was nothing except those notes and the box, it meant a half-step cluster of all the notes between those two notes. If there was a line above [the box], it meant the players play eighth notes in and between and including those outer notes. Two bars meant sixteenth notes, and three bars meant as many notes as possible. That was my own device. I used it a lot in Altered States, and I've used it a lot since then. [You can hear an example of it here.]

Tell me a bit more about working with Ken Russell. You say he was a great admirer of symphonic music. Did he come to you with ideas for the score or did he leave it all up to you?

Well, I had a talk with him at the beginning where I said, "Ken, I don't want to use traditional 'horror music,' I think that would be wrong for it. I want to use things that are more abstract." And he said, "I agree with you. The usual horror stuff would be corny." So he was on my side.

Now, as far as anecdotes about Ken's working methods . . . there's this one hallucination scene in the movie with William Hurt, where a snake is crawling around his legs, then it crawls up, and finally he's got his mouth around the snake and it's all around his head. It was a short sequence of about a minute or two, but Ken filmed it endlessly—because while Ken loved musicians, he hated actors and he hated writers. You know, he kicked Paddy Chayefsky off the set of Altered States.

I understand that Chayefsky took his name off the movie because of that.

And he used the name Sidney Aaron, which is the name everybody uses when they remove their names. I don't know why. Don't ask me.

Maybe because it sounds just generic enough?

It's well-known now, so everybody knows it means the original writer removed his name. And since the credits say, "Based on a book by Paddy Chayefsky," it was pretty clear who took his name off the film.

Anyway, Ken really loved tormenting actors. So with Bill Hurt, the snake was around him, and the crew had gotten all the film they wanted—in fact they were out of film—and Ken said, "Oh, keep the cameras rolling anyway." He kept the cameras rolling another 20 minutes. [laughter] So that's one Ken Russell anecdote. He was wicked with everybody but music people.

Did you remain in touch with him after Altered States?

No, we lost touch. I tried to contact him once in England, but didn't get anywhere. I felt very bad, because his movies . . . got less successful than they were when we worked together. I think he's a great talent, but you see, the thing about him was that he always felt he was going to bore people. So he'd start at the dynamic of forte then go up to fortississimo, if you know what I mean.

The infamous snake scene
  • The infamous snake scene
Like in that hallucination scene with the boa constrictor, I had composed a piano trio—violin, piano, and cello—playing a variant of the love theme. It was like the Schubert B-flat trio, but he said, "I don't know that; I don't know any chamber music. I don't like it." So, I couldn't convince him that underplaying the music and making it very elegant at that time—when you're seeing a boa constrictor crawl up Bill Hurt—that that would be more frightening than scary music. That's where we had minor disagreements. He'd always want more. If I gave him more, he was happy; if I tried to underplay, he would always ask for more.

That sounds in keeping with his filmmaking in general.

Yes, it is. I think he wanted to fill every second of a film with action and sound—so much so that it's exhausting, really.

A lot of people have said that they find his films exhausting.

On the other hand, he was a master and he did some great things that will live on. I respect him enormously.

Read part two of this interview

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