The Gospel According to John Corigliano
FJO: So this inevitably leads to teaching composition. You’re one of the few composers who actively teaches who probably doesn’t need to at this point in your career.
JC: I don’t need to, but I love it. I think it’s good for the composer to teach because you always have new students and you have to begin at the beginning and make things clear. You’ve got to find a way to clearly communicate all the basic truths about music, all the things you want to talk about. And that’s good for you. I think one of the biggest problems we have is the insular quality of music and musicians and forgetting about the clarity issue and reaching out to people who are not musicians. Talking to new people makes it always important. You have to be clear. You have to be able to describe the same basic truths. And you should never lose sight of them, because people do.
FJO: What’s interesting about how you choose to teach is that while you’re at Juilliard, which is perceived by so many people to be the very top of the top, you’re also at Lehman, which is part of the City College system. So, while the top students in the world can study with you, so can anyone, theoretically.
JC: I love teaching at Lehman College as well as at Juilliard, and I don’t think of them as opposites in talent. I think of them as different worlds in the way they operate. Juilliard composers want to go into our symphonic world to write chamber music and symphonies and things like that. The students at Lehman will either go into education or they’ll go into commercial work. I had at least two students that won Emmys while they were studying with me at Lehman because we also teach all ages. Our program is connected with Musicians Local 802. Musicians who want to come back to school can come back and get degrees. I’ve had the first bass player from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the trombonist from the City Opera Orchestra, famous jazz musicians in the class, people 60 years old, people 22 years old. So it’s a very interesting, diverse class and some of the people have a lot of world experience. We have one year of composition class and one year of orchestration class. It’s so much fun to unlock this idea of creativity to people who’ve never composed in their lives. Some of the pieces are so ingenious and so full of spirit that it’s hard to believe. We get players from the class and I conduct it and they play it. So they always hear it. It’s a very different experience and I wouldn’t want to be without it. We have a lot of fun and we get along so well. I have a kind of world experience that they want to hear about, and they do too. I’ve had students go off to play with major people and say, “I can’t see you this week because I’m playing at the Carlyle.” And I say, “Great. More power to you.” Then they’re going to put stuff they learned into their jazz charts, etc. Michael Bacon, Kevin Bacon’s brother, studied with me and won an Emmy while he was in my class.
FJO: What about the Juilliard students?
JC: Totally different. They come to Juilliard as symphonically-oriented composers. That doesn’t mean that they won’t end up doing film or something. It means that what we talk about is abstract music mostly, setting something occasionally, but mostly architecture and form, writing and composing. Very serious. I’ve had some great students. Two of them were Rome Prize winners in the last couple of years. Jefferson Friedman is having a piece done by Slatkin that he commissioned and performed in May with the National and he’s bringing it to the New York Philharmonic this spring. And Mason Bates is a composer who also won the Rome Prize who’s writing this outstanding stuff. The L.A. Phil just did a piece of his.
FJO: He also does electronica as Masonic.
JC: He’s phenomenal, a really amazing talent, an ear from God. Most of the time people try to integrate pop tropes into so-called classical music and it really feels snuck in. But with Mason, it’s so much a part of him. He’s got an ear that’s so fine so that when he does it, it seems like they were always supposed to be there. The naturalness of the two merging is totally bewildering to me. I just sit in awe when I listen to it.
JC: Let’s say I had never consciously heard them, because I did hear them finally. A student of mine at Lehman actually put together Bob Dylan singing all of the songs in order and gave it to me on a CD and I was very surprised by what I heard. I may have heard “Blowing In The Wind” years ago in the ’60s in a coffee house. But I have to say in all honesty, and with no lack of respect, I don’t think my ears would have focused on it. Because the phrasing was very standard folk music: four-bar phrase, three-chord harmony. It wasn’t like the Beatles songs where I turned around and said, “What is that? Who’s doing that?”
FJO: It’s astounding to me that you wouldn’t have heard some of these songs over and over and over again. How could you possibly escape something that was that pervasive in our culture?
JC: I’ve had things play in the background and not listened. I could have been at parties and heard it. But I would not have gravitated towards it. If I did hear it in the background, it stayed background. It never became foreground to me. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s, I think, what it is. I think the words are astounding and I think the music’s O.K. Many people think it’s masterful and that’s fine. Some of the pieces of Mozart that people love I think are extremely boring, whereas other pieces of Mozart I love.
FJO: So do you think it could still be possible for someone to grow up now and not be aware of popular culture?
JC: It’s possible. I would say that 99 percent of people are aware of popular culture, maybe even 99.9 percent. But there’s going to be someone who isn’t and who doesn’t care and sees no reason to because there’s so much other stuff. It’s a wonderfully free world we live in where that can take place, and it should.
FJO: Your growing up was a rather unique experience for this country. Your father was the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. Classical music must have been a part and parcel of your daily life.
JC: Well, my parents were separated. My father lived in a hotel in New York on 57th Street. We got together in the summers, but basically he didn’t get along with my mother too well. She taught piano in Brooklyn and I lived in Brooklyn or I went off to boarding school. I basically didn’t live with my father except in the summers when he practiced a lot. So my knowledge of classical music comes more from my mother teaching Chopin and those various pieces, but I wouldn’t say that I was immersed in it. When I was young I actually wasn’t that interested in it. I played pop music by ear. In those days, pop music was show music. I improvised things. I started writing things down in high school and then went off to college before I really started composing. In high school I did a thing called “The Sing” with Mrs. Bella Tillis, and she encouraged me in music. She was my teacher and an extraordinary person. She’s still alive, thank God. She lives now in the Dorchester and goes to three concerts a day!
What really got me interested in contemporary music was—I don’t know what year but in those days it was monaural because there was no stereo but the LP had been invented—my mother got me a Hi-Fi set with a cabinet and a 15-inch woofer and a tweeter. And there was a Capitol record, a full dimensional sound recording, that was a sample disc, and it had the Gunfight Scene of Billy the Kid, which had a big bass drum which shook everything when it played. And of course, I was in love with that and with my new system. I played it over and over again. Right after that was the Dancehall Scene with the piano playing and the strings [hums]. The idea, the simplicity of those harmonies yet the complete originality of the way they were set, spaced, rhythmically done, just fascinated me. I started learning it by ear. Then I went out and got the whole ballet. Then I got the score. Then I got more things, like Stravinsky, because I could get them on LP. In those days, you never got an LP of a 25-year-old composer. You got Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and you got Copland and Stravinsky. Really not much else was available. So my world was much smaller in those days than the world now.
Then stereo came in and then Columbia put out this series of modern music that really opened my eyes. And in college I went to concerts. I was in college from 1955 to 1959 at Columbia. I wasn’t a great student because basically they were teaching that tonality was dead and you must learn row technique, which I did, but I was very rebellious. I wrote things like a piece dedicated to my teacher Otto Luening called “Kaleidoscope” which is published now for two pianos, and it was very sassy like the “Scaramouche” of Milhaud. I did that as a rebellion.
FJO: Otto Luening should have loved that piece.
JC: He did. He was very encouraging. He said, “I don’t know why you write what you do, but I like it, son.” He didn’t understand why I would write it—it wasn’t comfortable with the whole department’s idea of what music was and where music was going.
FJO: But Otto’s own compositions were also all over the map musically.
JC: He was all over the map. But in those days, it was really much tighter than we can imagine unless you’d been there. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Otto. Right up until the day he died a few years ago, we’d been in touch with each other. But I wanted to get out of school—because the atmosphere seemed to be closing rather than opening—and get into the living idea of what classical music was in the world, [to find out] what I could do and how I could be of service. So after my bachelors, I went out and got jobs: WQXR radio, writing program notes and programming; WBAI…things like that. I worked for Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts for 13 years. There were only four shows a year, but I did a lot with CBS television: Horowitz‘s Return and all that. Record stuff: I produced André Watts in the early ’70s. I was a producer at Columbia Masterworks just to stay alive. And it’s benefited me lot. For example, as a producer, I know what I want sonically now. When a piece of mine is recorded, I don’t say just, “Make it more beautiful.” I say, “You’ve got to pull those mikes in there; it’s got to be tighter.” It’s very nice that I had the ability to do that because I learned [from it].