The Gospel According to John Corigliano

The Composer and the Public

FJO: I’ve already seen you twice this week in an ad on the subway that shows you teaching a student at Lehman College. It’s weird. The ad is silly, but it’s also wonderful because it subliminally makes people aware that there actually are living composers in this country.

JC: Just last week, I was coming back from the airport and this cab driver looked at me and said, “I know you; you’re famous. I’ve seen you; I know your picture.” He couldn’t identify where, so I said, “In the subway.” And he said, “Now I remember.” I really wanted to say that I’m the star of a soap and of course you know me from there, but I didn’t do that. I think it’s great. I love the graffiti on it. I really enjoyed the blackening out of my eyes and the arrows with various statements about my personal life that they suspect. I think it’s good for composers to be in front of people. We don’t get many chances. It’s a nice thing. I wish the picture were better but I don’t photograph well; I’m vain [laughs].

FJO: Do you think this cab driver has ever heard a note of your music?

JC: I doubt it. He just recognized the face. A lot of the world’s sense is based on the recognizing of a face. That’s what stardom’s all about.

FJO: Could that somehow translate into him winding up in a record store buying one of your CDs or attending a concert that features your music?

JC: I don’t know. Sometimes I’ve had weird experiences with cab drivers. One time I was in a cab and some piece was playing and I asked my friend, “What was that?” And the driver said, “It’s Schoenberg, for Christ’s sake!” and continued driving. And I thought, “Wow, only in New York.” He was really irritated that I didn’t know what it was.

FJO: Do you think he knew who you were?

JC: No, but I think it was great. Who knows? Maybe he listens to all this. A lot of cab drivers listen to classical music. I love the idea that people are doing it because they enjoy it. Of course the real thing about so-called classical music is that a lot of people listen to it because they find it relaxing and feel comfortable with it. So when I say, “I write classical music,” they say, “You write relaxing music,” and I say, “No, it’s not relaxing at all; sometimes it’s very jarring.” And they’re surprised because a lot of the public thinks of classical music that way, or as something upscale. You see ads advertising an expensive car or a luxury hotel, and you’ll have Vivaldi or Mozart playing in the background. “Buy gold,” and you’re bound to have the Vienna Philharmonic doing something pacifying. So the thought of what our music is all about is very distorted.

FJO: So do you feel comfortable calling yourself a “classical” music composer?

JC: I never have. It has no meaning because “classical” is a period of 75 years of music. And “symphonic,” what does that mean when you write chamber music? There really has never been a good word. I think that we need one and no one’s found one in all these years.

FJO: The term “serious music,” of course, is an insult to every other kind of music.

JC: It’s wrong. First of all, a lot of music that’s not so-called classical music is serious, and some of my pieces I hope are somewhat silly and funny and not serious in that sense of the word. It doesn’t mean I don’t write them seriously, but they’re not always meant to have a threnody appeal. I don’t think of that as a goal for everything.

FJO: In addition to what you were saying about the public perception of classical music being relaxing or upscale, it’s all from the past.

JC: And European. European even more than the past. In fact, I wish our American orchestras and critics would stop thinking that classical music is so European. It’s still haunting us. The heads of many orchestras are Europeans. The artistic administrators are very often Europeans. Certainly the audience looks towards that. And the critics respect a European composer. I find respect for a mediocre British composer, as opposed to a really good American, ridiculous because they automatically respect a composer if he’s from England. He’s gets kudos for that, for being an authentic composer and a really serious person, whereas Americans are judged rather savagely by the press. In England, it’s quite the reverse. The English are very lucky because their critics love them because they come from their country. They’re very loyal to their composers. It’s a great thing. We don’t have that.

FJO: It’s shocking to me that an orchestra in America or a public classical music radio station, especially those that accept taxpayer dollars toward funding, can get away with not playing the music of composers from this country.

JC: I believe that the big institutions, like Chicago (where I was once composer-in-residence but now does a much narrower presentation of new music), have a responsibility to be wide. I think the small groups that organize can have very limited goals. Bang on a Can can do a certain kind of thing. And Continuum does this and so and so does that. They are small parts of a large picture, but the big institutions have a responsibility to be wide which is why I feel very positively about the conductors that do that sort of thing. There are conductors in the United States that have done that. Leonard Slatkin is the prime example. He has conducted Boulez and Carter all over the place, but he does everybody. He will do the widest range of music and I think that’s so healthy. That’s what we have to encourage.

FJO: Your music exists beyond these specialist ensembles you were just talking about. Most of the performances of your music are done by mainstream ensembles and soloists on programs with more standard repertoire rather than on specifically “new music” concerts.

JC: Although I wouldn’t mind once in 25 or 30 years to have them put a piece of mine on a program. That would not upset me. The fact that I always support them financially, sending my checks in and all that, and always read about a whole different list of composers, I can’t say that it always delights me. But I understand it, I really do. They are doing what they think is a supplement.

I was music director of WBAI radio. It was 1962 or ’63. At that time, Pacifica Radio was mostly a music station. Eric Salzman had been there before me, and I was the Music Director for two and a half years. My job there was not to do the Beethoven symphonies or the Brahms symphonies, but to supplement. And the reason for that was WQXR and WNCN at that time, and WNYC, but especially the first two, had major programming in the standard repertoire and they filled that out completely. So I went in and got the other stuff. Charlotte Moorman and all of that wild stuff she was doing with the cello and the electronics, or Charles Wuorinen and the Group for Contemporary Music. Those are the people that I went after because I had to supplement the New York scene. So I do think that the smaller groups need to supplement very often. They’re right to do that. It’s the big institutions that have the responsibility to be wider than they sometimes are.

FJO: To take this back to you, without question, most people would agree that in this country you’re among the top five most famous composers alive today of new classical music (for lack of a better name).

JC: It’s possible.

FJO: You’re at the top. But in the world today, to the mainstream public out there which includes that cab driver you mentioned earlier, it’s mostly irrelevant. What does it mean to be a living American composer? Can a composer be famous in this country?

JC: Can Beethoven be a composer and not a dog? When I was a kid, it was very different. It wasn’t that long ago that immigrant families came over with a tradition of teaching classical music. The school system taught it when I was in school, in high school and in grade school. It’s not done now. So where are these kids going to get the excitement about a music that’s felt to be European and elitist and white in an age where the opposite of those things is really the goal of most kids who are interested in music? It’s not going to happen unless we make it passionate and real and really believe in it. I’m always amazed at the vast numbers of young composers that are around today, really young composers. I’m talking about teenagers and people in their early 20s. These people are so accomplished and so good.

I facilitate the chair without voting in the First Music competition for the New York Youth Symphony. I have done that for years because I have seen so many competitions that have the same jury every year that get very political. This one always changes; no one ever does it twice. I go there because that way I can run it without voting or saying anything about the pieces and there are all these new people with new voices and completely different ideas. We’ve had every gamut of composer judging this. The same piece of music can be entered for several years in a row and that way it is ensured to be seen by different people. That’s what I think is fair. What I found in these young people’s work is an astounding diversity and craft that I don’t remember when I was a young composer. And it’s so strange because it’s a field that seems to be dying around us. They can’t sell records, even of Beethoven. Orchestras are going bankrupt and white hair predominates in the concert hall, and yet there are more young composers than ever before. That’s a paradox and that’s what people need to know more about. But, you see, that’s the future. That’s not living off another performance of Wagner, Beethoven, or another Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which is frankly fairly boring. And that’s what our field thinks it’s all about: recreation as creation.

FJO: Maybe it’s O.K. that the Beethoven symphonies aren’t selling if people are buying the John Corigliano symphonies, or the latest John Adams or Tania León piece. Pick any composer you want.

JC: Yes, I agree with you. I like that. That’s the way it used to be. The new has to dominate and then the old becomes an ancillary part of it. It’s not a matter of the old composer dominating the culture in previous centuries. It’s always been the new, but the old will be played also. That’s healthy. But whether we can think of abstract concert music without any visualization in this day of total visualization as something that can capture the imagination of people, I don’t know. Because we look and we hear, and everything has changed because of that: our computers, films, our pop songs have videos that make them really popular. Everything is seen. To do that with classical music is just too expensive. As you know, we get 2-track recordings of our music, not 64. A band of four people is going to have 64 tracks to play with. But a symphony orchestra of 108 with a chorus and soloists is only going to have 2. That’s what we do. We can’t afford to do more. So where can we do these videos? Where can we do the kind of work that will bring us into the mainstream? How can we afford it?

FJO: We say this is the only era where the past is dominating. But that’s a big myth. The past isn’t dominating at all. Pop culture is. As you said, most people think Beethoven is a dog because of some stupid movie that was really popular a few years back.

JC: Of course. Popular culture, unfortunately, has gotten further away from melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or compositional interest than it ever was. Again, looking back to when I was young, the popular culture was very mixed with musical theatre. Musical theatre at that time was rather sophisticated harmonically: Rodgers, Kern, Gershwin, and other people were extremely good composers. And then their music was taken and sung by Frank Sinatra and the other pop people of the day. Today it’s quite the opposite. Sondheim is art music. And what they bring on Broadway to be pop is basically a movie, an animation, or a rock show. Elvis, I hear, is coming back in the spring.

FJO: You have to admit there are rock groups and other groups around today who are creating music that is compositionally sophisticated.

JC: I do. There are groups that do things that are sophisticated. But they always have words and they always have certain lengths. They don’t deal in big structures or complete abstraction like the building of a 25-minute piece without words, only music.

FJO: But there are groups who have.

JC: There might be, but I don’t think that’s the popular culture. I think that’s like jazz. Jazz is not the popular culture. Jazz is in the same position in our culture as classical music. A very small minority of people really love it.

FJO: Of course what’s happened now with rock music and other forms of so-called popular music is that it’s so splintered into sub-genres. There are lots of alternative groups doing things within rock that are experimental but that’s not what’s selling millions of copies.

JC: That’s what I’m saying. It’s always going to be for a smaller group. And there’s nothing wrong with that if we can afford to do it. As long as we can write a piece and get it performed and recorded and out there, it’s fine. You don’t need to have everybody know your name. I don’t think it’s necessary.

FJO: To riff on what you said about film and video, you’ve written film scores now for years.

JC: Not really. I’ve written only three. It’s actually a very small amount. People think I write a lot for movies, but I don’t and that’s because I don’t want to. I don’t know what I would contribute. Most film composers do what they do so well. They’re so good at what they do. I don’t know why I would get in there.

FJO: But the film scores you have done have been so successful. You’ve even won an Oscar and were nominated for another one.

JC: Yeah, but those are very special projects. Altered States was directed by Ken Russell. It had 10- to 12-minute scenes with no dialog, purely sounds and picture. At that time, the kind of techniques that I was involved in were not being used in film, except 2001 that was using somebody’s recordings of Ligeti. Nobody was really doing that. I came in because Ken Russell went to a concert and heard my Clarinet Concerto and said, “I want you to write the wildest thing you can do for Altered States.” And, again, The Red Violin is a very different kind of picture. I grew up with my father as a violinist. That tradition that I’ve had all my life was a thing to write about. A movie in which the main character was a piece of wood that had to come to life and be a violin over three hundred years, that makes sense. But I don’t see any point in my doing other kinds of films because I don’t think I’d do it better than people who are wonderful at it. My former student is Elliot Goldenthal. Boy, he can write a film score. I wouldn’t be able to touch it.

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