The Gospel According to John Corigliano

Overthrowing Composer-Gods and Performer-Gods

FJO: You talked about recordings in the early days being really limited. During my growing up and early adulthood, it was an amazing time for recordings. But now everybody is saying the record industry is dying and it’s all going to go away. No one’s really recording American orchestras anymore either, whether they’re playing new music or old music.

JC: They don’t deserve to because they insist on being paid so much and you can’t sell the records. The unions are screwing up everything. We can’t pay those recording fees and put out a record of the most popular work and sell enough to make money, therefore it’s dead. What has to happen is they have to understand that it’s profit sharing. Put out a record and let the players get a percentage of the sales. If it does well, they’ll do well. If it doesn’t do well, they won’t do so well. But they’ll be aware that this is something we’re all in together. I think that what’s happening with recordings is that the big guys have collapsed, but the small guys are actually really inventive and are still going on. I say that just having returned from Finland, recording for a small label, Ondine, which is absolutely wonderful. They’re putting out a second CD of mine. And, today some 23-year-old can actually record and process and sell a CD that’s of the same quality as something Deutsche Grammophon can make. That’s unbelievable. With just a few thousand dollars worth of equipment, they can now put out their own [recording]. So it’s all broken down. You can go on the net and have your own website and sell your own stuff. You can make a company. You can distribute through another company if you want. There are a million avenues. So while the big people have collapsed, the small people are getting higher and bigger and better and that’s going to be the way of recordings in the future.

FJO: Yet here you are, one of the most famous names among living American composers, you even have a string quartet that’s named after you. How many living composers can say that besides you and Penderecki? And you write a symphony that wins the Pulitzer Prize which once upon a time was the highest honor. And it was premiered by the Boston Symphony, one of the nation’s top orchestras. And it wasn’t on a CD for quite a while. It took a small Finnish label to put this thing out with a Finnish orchestra. It’s great but it doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t the Boston Symphony record it?

JC: They can’t afford it. They were recording that week. They did a Rachmaninoff Concerto and they recorded a Tchaikovsky concerto with Volodos. Sony didn’t want my piece. They wanted Volodos playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. That’s the real world. We can’t make them record things they don’t want to record. It’s ridiculous in a way, but on the other hand, some of these smaller orchestras play just as well as the big orchestras. And some are even better, because they really play the music, so it’s not that we’re going to get worse performances. And the engineering is good because the equipment is not that expensive anymore. So it’s just a question of the prestige of a Sony or an RCA or a Columbia. That’s all gone. I don’t think it’s going to come back ever. Sony has just merged with BMG which sounds like a disaster to me in the making. I have a lot of records with BMG and I have not been fond of the way they distribute things. We’ll see what happens. Maybe it’ll be better. I’m not going to hold my breath. The smaller labels are wonderful. Individual composers are getting together and doing it. The orchestras are doing it themselves with their own labels: Chicago, New York Phil, etc. Perhaps that’s the only way they can afford it now. They have to rethink everything but, you know, it’s like AA. You have to crash before you really know what your problems are. I keep thinking that until one of those big monoliths crashes—and it will happen—they’re going to go on thinking that the European conductor and the young, beautiful soloist is the solution to everything. It’s unbelievable, yet people’s entire lives are built upon believing this.

FJO: The irony is that until the record companies flooded the markets with ads for Volodos I had no idea who he was. They created him.

JC: I guarantee you the record sales are causing the promotion because he’s an artist. Our world is artist driven. The artists are the creators in the minds of most people. We are not. We’re the arrangers. When I was on tour with Jimmy Galway—he had recorded my Pied Piper Fantasy and we went on tour with Zinman and Baltimore down the East Coast— I forget where we were and he had played it to six thousand people and a standing ovation and I stood on stage at the end too. And there was a record signing and there I was sitting with Jimmy Galway and there was this line of 150 people waiting with the Pied Piper Fantasy. And they would go up to him and say, “We love your Pied Piper Fantasy; would you sign.” And he said, “What about him? He’s the composer.” And they looked at me and half of them closed the record and walked away because they didn’t even know what I did. As far as they were concerned, I think they thought I was the back-up arranger and that he made it up. I think they think he made up the Mozart concerto. I do. And that mentality is encouraged by our field. It’s all wrong. It’s nuts. But it’s what they believe. And it’s what everybody working in all the divisions believe: the management, etc. So they built this false idea that the artist is a creator and they market it. They could resell repertoire with the new artist because people who want a new refrigerator also want a new CD set. Now, there’s nothing more they can do. So the bottom drops out because artists are not the creative act. It really doesn’t matter that much if you hold something just a little bit longer. It’s not everything. It’s important, but it’s not the creative act.

FJO: I remember a speech you gave in Chicago years ago describing our obsession with comparing performances to fine wine tasting.

JC: That’s exactly what it is. It’s a bunch of people going to a concert and listening to a Beethoven concerto and discussing afterwards the quality of how it resolved as actually being really important. They think that’s what is. Hearing nuances from pieces they know. New things are a threat. At this point audiences want to read the new novel, they want to see the new Broadway show, they want to go to the art gallery, all of these things, but new music is seen as a threat. It’s considered something that is above them and beyond them and in which they cannot be participants. They love and they want what they are familiar with and comfortable with. What they want to be critical about is, therefore, how one artist differs from another.

FJO: Why do they think new music is such a threat?

JC: Because it was for a while. We have to take a little bit of the blame. When you have a philosophy that you don’t give a damn what the audience thinks, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer told me that he considers a concert a private communication through public means, the answer is that at a certain point when you’re not talking to people and they know you’re not talking to them, they go away. Instead of making it a new adventure where they’re permitted to dislike something—the biggest problem is we’ve taken away their rights—when they dislike something, they’re told they’re idiots. When they like something, they’re told they’re idiots and that it was really just pandering. And after a while, since its diametrically opposed to their feelings and since the composer prides himself because of this romantic vision of not reaching people rather than reaching people, on being unintelligible rather than being intelligible, they don’t understand it.

I trace this back to the birth of romanticism. Benjamin Britten said the rot began with Beethoven. I feel that the rot began with Wagner. Mainly because all composers up till then wrote to God—it was a Mass, it was a Missa Solemnis, a Requiem, whatever—it was to God. Wagner wrote as a god. He made that very clear. And everyone treated him that way and this vision he had was of a god artist. Religion was dying and art became the new religion. God became the composer. If you go to any church, the one thing you know is that you don’t understand God. You can’t understand God. If you understood him he wouldn’t be God. He’d be mortal. God is incomprehensible. So, all of a sudden, this virtue of incomprehensibility sprung up. I am incomprehensible because my message is so much more complex and morally stronger than the message of those people who were just speaking to you that you can understand. Therefore, you shouldn’t understand me. But you should worship me and come to these concerts. Well, OK, but composers are not gods, they’re people. And this has been the most destructive thing to art I have ever seen, art ruining art. The dark side of romanticism has never been talked about. Hitler was a romantic. We have to know that. He saw himself as a moral, ideologically pure person. If you were a standard German living in Germany at the time, he was going to build an Autobahn so you could go to Poland and drive there in a new car. He was concerned with ecology and animal abuse. He was very civic minded. He just wanted to get rid of pollution like Jews. That was part of his romantic message. His message was purification and perfection. Where do we hear that? Sometimes in Paris and sometimes from certain modernist people who talk about art that way, but it’s very destructive. Romanticism ruined the 20th century as far as I’m concerned and we have to get rid of it in the 21st. What it did was it gave us is the egocentric idea of the artist-god and the audience-worshipper—the non-communication that that means—and bathed us in this until finally the audience was alienated by this and left like they leave churches. Now we want to win them back.

FJO: And, in a way, having a composer-god be dead is a lot safer than having a living composer be a god. A living composer can cough and make mistakes. So it’s better have Beethoven and Wagner and Chopin. They’re no longer real people.

JC: It’s much better if you’re a conductor. One of the problems with doing the music of living people is that the conductor doesn’t get to play God. I’ve been told by people who work for certain very famous conductors that I’m not to say a word to that conductor or to the orchestra during the rehearsal. If you say, “Maestro, could you take that a little faster?” Well, there’s somebody above them. He is Wagner. He is Beethoven. He’s Mozart. But he’s not me, while I’m alive. We’re not gods but we certainly are the generators of the original material. Therefore in a performance of works we created, our word is more important. That’s not egocentric; that’s just fair and logical. We created this vision. They are executing this vision. Once we’re dead, we’re not able to do that anymore, then the mantle goes to the performer who becomes the composer in a certain sense. And that’s where everything gets distorted, because the creative act is not the performance. And I say this with great respect and great admiration for great performers. The conductors that have a real understanding of this are the ones that get my respect. But many conductors operate the other way and it’s really hard to get them interested in a piece of music which communicates to an audience in which they lose, as far as they’re concerned.

FJO: To take this back to what we were saying about facial recognition, that is the core problem with the composer. The composer is so rarely the face that you see. Everybody flocked to Galway on that line. Well, they saw him on stage.

JC; You’re absolutely right.

FJO: In the pop music world, they’re doing all new music. Some do their own songs, but there are also the Britneys and Chers of this world who have committees who write their songs for them. But the audience doesn’t care about who is on those committees because all they care about is the image they see. The same is true with movie actors. They’re not saying their own lines.

JC: Screenwriters are ignored. A great screenplay can make or break a film. But great screenplays by great writers are really not that important at all. It really is about the performance. But that means, as far as I’m concerned, that composers have an obligation to appear and speak to audiences as often as they can and not speak down to them but to really tell them why they do what they do. I understand they may not be comfortable, because many people go into composing because they’re not particularly verbal and it makes them uneasy. I think all composers should strive, if possible, to stand on a stage and to speak to an audience. I have found that the minute you say three words, whatever they are, and youÕre friendly and warm to them, they’re so on your side. They so want to love this piece. You suddenly become a human being. I think it’s our job to try to balance that out as best we can. We can’t tour and perform all over the world, but we can go to major performances. And we can make very sure that we do a pre-concert talk, or a talk during the concert so the whole audience hears it, say for even three minutes. All of a sudden, they’re thinking of you as a human being in their society who is writing music that could speak to them.

FJO: So what are the obligations of a composer in society?

JC: You can ask that of anyone. What are the obligations of a human being to a society? It depends on the human being. Some people feel very strongly about the world around them, some people don’t. One can look at political issues and social issues and write about that. Many composers have done that. Not just [in response to] September 11th. Many composers in our country have written pieces to engage various social groups. I think that composing can also be an abstraction. I don’t think that a string quartet has to be any more than a string quartet. There are many [other] ways you can help. I think the first thing is to be a good colleague. No matter what world we write in, we should encourage all composers and support them because we’re all in it together. I think a composer who has gotten to a certain stage in his life should judge competitions, should donate his time to looking at young people’s music and encouraging people, not simply take care of his or her own needs. It is a wonderful country, no matter how bad we feel about its political situation, because unlike other countries, we have the diversity in our art as well as in our society. You can write any kind of music in this country and find an audience. There’s always a place for you. I encourage people to get together and understand that, the communal quality of what we’re all doing and work for composers, and that means also for yourself. Because when you go to an orchestra and stand up in front of an audience and say something, you’re not just saying something as a composer. You’re also saying composers are people.

FJO: The name Aaron Copland has come up repeatedly in this conversation. And, he was one of the greatest citizens for composers in this country. Nobody has taken up that mantle. Maybe it’s because we have the 500 cable channels so there’s no mainstream anymore. You’re closer to it than most, but the world is a different place now than when Copland had the authority to speak for composers. Even if a prominent composer today were to be called up against something like the Committee for Un-American Activities as Copland was in the ’50s, would it be on that many people’s radars?

JC: That’s an interesting thing because I don’t think it would even make a dent to the average citizen. And that’s a shame. We had Stravinsky and Copland. Well, now we have Philip Glass and John Adams. Philip even more because he’s become an icon of a certain world. I must say what I love about Philip is that he’s an extraordinary colleague and he’s very good to young composers. He’s given money for recordings and performances of young composers and is very encouraging to them. He’s a very good music citizen. So, whatever personally I think of his music, I respect him completely because he’s not just a composer. He’s more than that.

FJO: In a way nowadays, you have to be more than a composer.

JC: You don’t have to be, but you should be. I think you need to be more generous.

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