The Gospel According to John Corigliano

What is Style?

FJO: You said that you won’t write another opera, but you continue to write for orchestra which is another problematic arena for new music.

JC: Well, it gets performed a lot more.

FJO: But there’s also a ton of political maneuvering: having to deal with rehearsals—maybe there are only two rehearsals—or the ego of the conductor. Some will champion your work. Others couldn’t care less. Then there are administrators and marketing departments who, anytime they see a name they don’t recognize, and now many of them can’t even identify some of the standard repertoire names.

JC: It’s very difficult, but it exists and I was a part of it. I’ve done a lot of it, but at this point in my life, I don’t want to write for the orchestra. It’s not what I want to do. I don’t know what I want to do right now. I’m looking for a place where I could write music with my particular kind of intelligence and thought. I don’t have a real direction. I did finish this band piece and it has been a very good experience because I had never really written a big piece for concert band. This is a monster piece and, in addition, I was able to do stuff that I could never do with an orchestra because the bands rehearse. Because it’s not “See it on Tuesday, play it on Thursday.” In fact, it’s quite a different deal. They rehearse months ahead of time. So I was able to do a 40-minute piece that’s totally spatial, in which people have to relate to each other for all that time, and you can’t do that with an orchestra where they have two rehearsals dedicated to you. So it gave me an opportunity to do something new. That’s what I’m looking for. And when I find it, I’ll go for another commission. Until then, I’ll think about what I want to do because just doing it isn’t right. I don’t just write; I have to have a reason to write. I don’t have one right now. And I don’t think I need to, either. I just finished a big piece. I need to read some books, go to some plays, travel, take care of myself, meditate a little, become a more relaxed person, and then compose something. It really is important. I think composers tend to compose a piece to the double bar and then the next day start the next piece. I think they need to separate them a little bit and go out in the world and experience things in life, because it helps the music. It helps you change. And unless you change, the music stays the same and you’re writing the same thing over and over again. Part of it is experiencing things, new things, things that you never thought of politically, artistically, visually, dramatically, sensually: [like] food or another area of the world. I’m going to Argentina. I’ve never been down there. I want to see what it’s like in that southern half of South America. And I’ll come back refreshed. Maybe I’ll think of something; maybe I won’t. But it’s nice to open it up.

FJO: In terms of composers who finish a piece and then start another piece, there’s often pressure. Whether it’s from a publisher, a manager, whomever, other people who help that composer and whose careers are tied in to that composer’s accomplishments…

JC: Not really. My publisher doesn’t pressure me. I don’t think that anybody needs our stuff until we need it.

FJO: But there is sometimes a pressure to write something in the style of what you’ve written before. A painter has an exhibition that sells out and two years pass and it’s time for your next show at the gallery and there’s inevitably a gallery dealer saying, “Do some more of those.” And if your style is completely different, the dealer might say, “What’s going on here?” You defeat that in your own work to great success by being a chameleon, by creating a poly-stylistic vocabulary that’s able to embrace so many different elements. You never write the same piece a second time.

JC: I always conceive a piece as a different set of challenges. I always ask, “Why are you writing this piece?” But I have to say one thing about style. It’s a word that can be used many ways. [My music] is not poly-stylistic; it uses a multiplicity of techniques. Twelve-tone music is not a style. I use twelve-tone techniques, and aleatoric techniques, tonal techniques. These are all techniques. What I think of as style—and I’ve gotten to this over years of really thinking about it—is that style is the unconscious choices I make. When you sign your name, it’s your signature and you don’t think about it. But nevertheless, it’s your signature. When you compose, there are certain signature things that you do that you don’t think about, certain harmonic worlds you gravitate to, textural spacings, rhythmic tropes. Stravinsky is very recognizable because of spacing. You could just hear one chord, which shouldn’t tell you anything, but you’ll know it’s Stravinsky because of the peculiar way the instrumentation is spaced. I think that’s part of his vocabulary. And it carries through from Les Noces to the serial pieces. If you look at a chord in the serial pieces and you look at a chord in Les Noces, I think you’ll find a similarity in spacings even though one came about from a completely different set of rules than the other. The stylistic handwriting happens naturally. What I need is an architecture that makes the diversity seem inevitable. Stylistic wildness is the best thing in the world but it could also be a mess. You can use everything and it’s a mess. Or you can be economical and really build a piece where this is the tutti but here it’s very bare and then you make something else. If you deal with techniques of the world, microtones, everything, you really need to have a piece that calls for those things.

FJO: Speaking of microtones, I love your two-piano quarter-tone piece.

JC: Well, it’s its own piece. I probably will never do that again but it was a wonderful experience for me to do. Again, the reason was, “Why should I write a two piano piece when I could write a one piano piece that sounds like two pianos. What’s the point? Why do I need the second piano?” I couldn’t figure a reason until I realized that because of the piano’s fixed tuning, quartertones can really be heard between two pianos. Whereas, on strings or something else, they very often sound like out-of-tune playing. So I thought, “What would happen if I wrote a piece in which the lyrical possibilities of the quarter tone were demonstrated and worked over and I could really make something beautiful happen with it?” That’s how I got that. But it’s always in answer to the question, “Why am I doing this? [In this case,] what’s the purpose of a two-piano piece and why do we need one?”

FJO: So what would you say are your stylistic signatures?

JC: There are certain harmonic progressions and certain kinds of leaps that I know that I’ve done many, many times. The way I became aware of all of this was because Leonardo Balada from Pittsburgh came into New York quite a few years ago and he wanted to meet me. He’s a lovely man and a wonderful composer. We were talking about this whole thing and I said, “I don’t believe in this whole style business. I don’t feel I have one.” And he said, “Oh, excuse me, you do. It’s very recognizable.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Have you got a copy of the Fantasia on an Ostinato and of Etude Fantasy?” I said yes and I took them out. The Fantasia on an Ostinato was based on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the second movement [hums]. The whole piece is based on that, the major chord and then the minor chord, and that rhythm. Fourteen minutes in, there’s a big climax in which the piano ripples and goes above and below with the left hand in major and minor thirds with a note in the middle in the right hand and then both hands and then finally just one hand. The Etude Fantasy was written as a large solo piano piece and the first movement was written for left hand alone. I wrote that first and used the material of that for all four movements. So it’s based on the mechanism of how the left hand works. And there were exactly the same pitches and rhythms and textures in the two pieces: one derived from Beethoven and one derived from the left hand. I didn’t know it. And I said, “My God, you’re right. It’s true!” I can show you.

And I’m an “A” person. Eighty percent of my pieces gravitate towards an A, as a tonal thing, not at the beginning, but somewhere in it.

FJO: And in the excerpts from the band piece you played for me, I heard ostinatos broken up with sudden bursts of sound which I hear in a lot of your pieces.

JC: It’s full of that. But you can’t control those. That’s style. That’s who you are. And you don’t know it; somebody else tells you. But those are what make your music sound like you, the unconscious choices. Once he showed that to me, I found so many other things that I didn’t realize because I wasn’t concerned with those when I was writing. Musically those were the right notes. I had those notes because they were the right notes for Beethoven. I had those notes because they were the right notes for the left hand. I didn’t know they were the same. And there it is.

FJO: And of course, those unconscious decisions are the things you can’t study.

JC: Those are the things you can’t calculate, and therefore, when you talk about style, there’s the use of techniques and then there’s the personal style that you have no control over. And so I use many techniques but what holds it together are two things for me. One is the style that I have in common with myself no matter what techniques there are. And the other is architecture. When you build a piece in which you need certain things that are very disparate but they have a reason for being there. When they happen, they sound surprising, but inevitable. It’s what I love about Beethoven.

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