Composer  John  Corigliano

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie


It is always enlightening to read ideas from a few years ago.  The thoughts and predictions from the recent past reveal our prejudices and fears as well as our hopes and dreams.  With the benefit of observation and hindsight, we know what has come true and what was just a needless worry.  Remember the panic of Y2K?

I bring this up because the first of these two interviews with John Corigliano, which dates from the end of 1987, starts off with both of us lamenting the then-imminent demise of the LP.  The long-playing record, which had been a major part of our
boomer generation, was about to go the way of the 78.  Its death was pushing our technology forward, and held great promise with vastly improved quality and durability.  And, indeed, this has come to pass for the most part, even as we observe the phasing out of this format now in 2010 as I post these conversations on the internet.  But back in 1987, there was the worry which loomed large over certain segments of the musical population that this latest gizmo would hamper or even eliminate the niche of contemporary concert music.

Even as we chuckle at our naïveté from back then, let us remember that for a few years we did bump along with very little new music being distributed, and for those whose entire lives depended on this, those were dark and unproductive days.  We can only thank the creators and performers for being patient and willing to carry on despite the bleak prospects which surrounded them for a bit of time in their journey.

In the second decade of this new millennium we have other worries, and those who read this in the future will know whether our society has been able to weather the storm or not, and assuming we do, they will understand how well we have been able to maintain and grow despite tough economic times and ever-changing social demands
— to say nothing of the accelerating march of faster and (perhaps better) technologies.

Having said all that, it is with great pleasure that I present two conversations with John Corigliano.  We know that he has embraced much of that march of progress, and has earned a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award and an Oscar.  More than sixteen years separates our meetings, the second of which took place in July of 2004, and in that time we both learned so very much and produced a great amount of material.  A full biography from his publisher can be seen at the end of this webpage, and all the expected details are on his official website.

We begin with our first meeting, which took place in his modest apartment near Orchestra Hall in Chicago.  He had recently been named the first Composer-In-Residence of the Chicago Symphony, and was settling in to his new digs.  Since the first use of this interview was for the radio, the composer was generously giving me several LPs to use on the air . . . . .

John Corigliano:    These are out of print, by the way, so I’m giving you some of the very few I have left.  And that’s because it’s radio; I’m not giving these to performers, but a radio station should have them because I figure they’re never going to be seen again.

Bruce Duffie:    They might come back again, but only in a few years.

JC:    I hope so!

BD:    The vagaries of the record company never cease to amaze me.

JC:    The economics of it is that they’re so expensive, and I rarely see a lot of contemporary stuff.  It’s a real problem.  The American companies are not doing a lot of contemporary music on LPs.  The Europeans are, but the Americans are not, and we may lose the less economical, more esoteric pieces because of that
which is wrong.  It just costs more to make an LP and it costs more to buy it, and the companies are going to figure, “We can’t make the money we want.  We’re not going to sell enough records to make a profit, so we’re not going to put out new music.”  CDs are much cheaper to produce, so this whole thing, I think, has some ominous overtones for us.

BD:    A lot of new things seem to have been coming out, and a lot of things have been back that haven’t been around for years.  So it’s a two-edged sword.

JC:    It is a two-edged sword, but from what I’ve seen of the American companies, they’re not doing a lot.  The European companies are doing more.  And what happens to the small companies like Louisville and CRI?  They’re going to have to start issuing CDs.

BD:    CRI has been going into cassettes.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’ve had a couple of other composers complain to me, saying it
s not good.

sr&jr JC:    I can’t buy a record of my Violin and Piano Sonata with my father doing it!  I tried to buy another record but they’re out of print and they’re not printing any more.  And a cassette is not the same quality at all.  That is a fabulous performance with Ralph Votapek, too.  [Photo of the three of them from the CRI CD booklet at left]  It was quite wonderful.  It was made in 1966 and it’s a good record, I mean really.  As far as the performance goes, it’s much better than the Eugene Fodor one, it really is.

BD:    Was it special to have your father playing your music?

JC:    Yeah, it was.  It was more than special.  I wrote it for him and I dedicated it to him, and he didn’t look at it.  He was discouraging me from being a composer, and he didn’t look at it.  Then it was played in London by the concertmaster of the London Symphony.  Then it won the Spoletto Prize.  Finally Roman Totenberg did it in Boston, and he had to look at it.  He was in the process of telling me that I’d never make a living, and that it was a hard life, and that the worst thing I could do was become a composer.  So his whole point there was to cut me off from any appreciation on his part.  Then he had to look at it and he learned it, he played it and recorded it, and played it from then on, and was very encouraging after that.

BD:    Was he right to try and discourage you at first?

JC:    Sometimes I think so.  [Laughs]  I think so today when I go into Rose Records to see if there are any copies of The Pied Piper, and I see that it’s an esoteric record!

BD:    I would think with James Galway playing it would be a success.

JC:    That’s what frustrating me so much about it, but it’s mainly due to the lack of promotion on the part of the record company.  But it’s a real problem.  [Note: At this point, Corigliano noticed a noise being made by his refrigerator, so he went to unplug it.]

BD:    It seems that only people like you and I are concerned about sound pollution.

JC:    I think most people are not aware that there’s even such a thing, let alone how much of it that their ears have already been polluted with
like the refrigerator sound or traffic sounds or subway sounds.  Their ears are deadened; they’re inundated with sounds.  Cigarette smoke at dinner is a lot less of a pollution to me than sound.  People’s rock sets are always coming through walls!  And people stop listening, of course.  The end result is it deadens your ability to really discern sound, besides being physically dangerous, I might add.  There was a report in the Times some years ago that the average teenager now has the hearing of a sixty-five year old man because of the hearing loss from rock and earphones.  I know in Los Angeles some years ago, in every place that played disco music they had to put up a sign on the front door by the Board of Health saying “This establishment plays music at a level that will injure your ears.”  I thought it was very good that they did that, but most people don’t read it!

BD:    It’s like the warning on the side of the cigarette packs.

JC:    Yeah, and everybody ignores that, too.  But the fact is that sound pollution does deaden, and damages us irrevocably.  I think it’s important for us to realize the freshness of sound is important.  If you ever stop up your ears for a few minutes and then let them open, you hear the sound with such clarity because in a sense you cleaned that pollution out.  The concert hall used to be the only place you could go to hear an orchestra.  It was really a sacred kind of place.  You could not hear an orchestra any place else.  Now you walk down the street with earphones, you go into elevators and to supermarkets and you hear these glutinous strings and these French horns Muzaking away, and it really diminishes the ability to listen with perception and taste!  It’s like if you wanted to taste wine and you kept on drinking different kinds of wine, after a while your palate goes.  I remember a very interesting sound pollution event, which was when my father was choosing his violin.  We went to Emile Harriman’s cellar in Connecticut.  He had a twenty-five foot table, and on that table were at least twenty or thirty Stradivariuses and Guaneriuses.

BD:    The best in the world!

JC:    The best.  My father then played all of them, and I stood with my back towards him, not looking, so I couldn’t tell what he was doing.  He played and I’d tell him what I thought.  After fifteen minutes I couldn’t tell anything, and we all had to stop and go outside and walk around a little bit, and then come back inside and do it all over again, over and over again until we could tell.  After fifteen minutes of that kind of listening, your ears were saturated.  So it’s a very important thing to realize that.  One case where I really think it’s a problem is critics.  Their ears are saturated.  I don’t think they hear subtlety; they hear only grand, big things.  The idea of hearing in a very delicate kind of way is lost to somebody who’s got to go to a concert every night!  I don’t know how they do it, and I think it’s the wrong thing to do.  They have no control over that.  Obviously, the paper hires them and wants to make full use of them.  I remember Tim Page, who used to be with the Times, telling me once, “This is the third concert I’ve been to today.  I can’t hear anymore.”  I thought, “Of course you can’t!”  He was on his way to a recital, and then you think about the person who hired the hall and probably spent fifteen thousand dollars
everything that he or she could get together to do thisto get one review from the New York Times, and the person who comes is not equipped to be able to really listen to it.  So it’s a very serious problem for everybody.

BD:    Does this even matter in a single concert?  Can a concert be too long and too overbearing, or are we only talking about night after night after night?

JC:    A single program can be too much.  A person who chooses pieces for a concert has got to be careful about building the program.  I was talking to someone recently about the decibel count and how it has changed.  They did some research into the programs twenty years ago and the programming now, and it has become a much higher decibel level.  The pieces of, say, baroque music and other pieces that would have brought the level down are being replaced more and more by late nineteenth century blockbusters and a lot of twentieth century music — which I’m all for
but the end result has been that the audience is very often battered from just the level of sound.

BD:    Are they not trying to compensate for the fact that you need to batter more to get the same effect as in earlier, more quiet times?

JC:    That’s exactly what they’re doing!  That’s exactly what they’re doing, and by the way, the musicians on the stage have real problems.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the Plexiglas that’s been rising and rising around the musicians.  The timpanist feels like he’s in prison by a little barrier all around him.  It’s because the levels are getting so loud that the players’ ears are starting to be damaged.

BD:    My old teacher is Wilbur Simpson, the second bassoon player of your new orchestra, and he sits right in front of Plexiglas so the trombones don’t blast into him!

JC:    Absolutely!  That’s a real problem; they’re not making it up.

BD:    Does that misbalance the acoustics, then, for the rest of the place, because the sound is bouncing an extra couple of times?

JC:    Probably, but I don’t know.  I think it’s just something that all of us have to be aware of — I certainly have to be, as a composer.  I think that’s it’s very important when I have something of high tension and decibel level to realize that I’ve got that and be able to surround it with things that perhaps relieve that pain and power.

BD:    Have a Bach suite and a Haydn symphony, instead of a Bruckner?

JC:    Yeah, or even in the sections of my piece!  When you plan a piece that climaxes, you have to be careful.  If you want the kind of climax that shatters — and I certainly do — you have to know that it’s doing that physically to somebody.  Physical sound can do that, and also sub-audio frequencies.  I haven’t talked about that, but that’s rather a peculiar little problem is that below the threshold of sound.  They can produce tension, agitation and all sorts of very serious emotional problems.  My old teacher, Otto Luening, who is in his nineties now and is still a very active guy, worked with Vladimir Ussachevsky on electronic music.  Orson Welles had them do the first electronic score ever for King Lear at the City Center in the fifties.  Welles asked them to produce a reel of sub-audio frequencies that had nothing to do with their music.  He then had two huge speakers placed out in the audience, and whenever he was doing his mad scenes he played that.  The audience started perspiring and just feeling terribly agitated, and thought this was the most incredible acting in the world; it was really 1984!  I mean, THE 1984.  It was mind control by using sub-audio frequencies to agitate to produce an audience reaction.

BD:    Are there people in the advertising industry who are now using this to manipulate?

JC:    I guarantee there are.  I’m sure there are!  I just don’t know who they are.

BD:    The opening of Verdi
s Otello has that storm scene which uses an organ pedal.  You don’t really hear it, you just feel it, and more of what you feel is when it quits once the storm is over.

JC:    Right, absolutely.  It gets you in your stomach.  And of course rock does that!  The whole point, I think, of disco and rock music is not the sounds you hear, but very often the sounds you don’t hear; those sounds which are hitting you in the stomach and giving you that queasy feeling, that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that you get when you’re in a place like that, which of course has a kind of rollercoaster-pleasurable feeling.  People like that, and I think that’s one of the reasons that that music is successful.

BD:    With this constant diet of it... 

JC:    Terrible!

BD:’s raising the threshold of pain, so that you have to do more and more to get the effect.  How is this affecting the audiences who haven’t experienced it so much?  All of a sudden they come into something that other people are so used to.

JC:    I don’t think there are audiences that haven’t experienced it.  I bet you that you could go to Fiji and find a bunch of people with little earphones on, listening to the loudest thing you ever heard in your life.  What’s happened is that this miniaturization and power has gone through the world so fast that it’s a different world.  It’s like when Bartók ran around with his tape recorder desperately taping Hungarian folk music, knowing that it was going to change so fast!  Nowadays with television and audio conveniences like Walkmans, it’s irrevocably changed no matter where you go.  You probably have to go into Afghanistan, maybe, to find someone whose ears have not been affected by twentieth century sound.

BD:    This is very sad, actually.

JC:    Yes, it is.  It’s like we’re all losing our accents, our American regional accents.  The same thing is happening.

BD:    Is there any hope for the music of the concert hall?

JC:    The awareness is part of the hope.  A composer has to be aware of these things when he writes.  I’m not saying that he has to think about it every minute, but he has to be aware of that give and take and how it’s changing, to produce music that is valid and does good things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  What exactly does that entail?

JC:    It entails anything you want it to, in a sense.  Its basic function is to look over new scores and to compose a piece for the orchestra.  But that’s just a beginning.

BD:    Composing a piece for the orchestra — that’s obvious; you have to do that.  But when you’re looking over scores by other composers, what helps you decide whether to suggest this one to Solti or keep that one away from Solti?

JC:    I haven’t done a lot of that yet because there have been so many other things to do.  But, for example, this morning I was looking at a bunch of scores of young composers for a Civic Orchestra reading session that I’ve instigated.  Next month they’ll have a chance to hear their pieces read and recorded.  These are Illinois composers, and then we’re doing it later in the spring for national composers.  To answer your question, I certainly try very hard not to let style be an influencing factor.  First of all, if I’m going to recommend something for the CSO, it has to be expertly written, technically.  It has to be written neatly enough that I know we’re not going to have a disaster in terms of rehearsing technical problems of badly copied parts and score.  Then I try to find a piece that in some way speaks to the concert hall audience.  I don’t think that I try to say how it should be.  The language is not the situation, but I look to see if a composer is indeed trying to speak to the concert hall audience, in whatever manner he or she wants to do, and is doing it technically with skill.  In terms of the Chicago Symphony, that composer needs to have risen to the level where he or she should be presented.  And that’s an important thing, because although there are great young talents, there is a stepladder of growth up to the Chicago Symphony, which is at the very top of that ladder.  That’s why we’re doing these things with the Civic Orchestra, for example.  I think that we should be of assistance to all composers, but I don’t think that somebody getting out of the conservatory should think that his first symphonic work should be the thing that Solti should be playing with the Chicago Symphony.  Just like any other position, one has to achieve it by hard work and a series of credentials that build towards it.

BD:    What about the older, established composers?  Do they still send you works, those sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety year old composers?

JC:    Oh, absolutely!  Absolutely!  I have over a hundred works sitting in Orchestra Hall right now, and a good number of them are by very well-known people.  They send them in, or their publishers send them in.  That’s another whole thing.  The publisher very often contacts me or the Chicago Symphony, saying, “Would you be interested in So-and-So’s newest piece?”  Or, “So-and-So is going to be seventy-five next year.  Would you be interested in a piece honoring that,” and we look at the material.  So it’s a combination of things.

BD:    Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, here’s a composer who is seventy-three or maybe even eighty-two or ninety, who is showing a piece to a man just hitting fifty deciding whether or not it will go into the stream.

cri JC:    Well, not totally.  The Associate and Assistant Conductors, Ken Jean and Michael Morgan, will look at some of these scores, too.  But there is a real problem with that.  Last year I was on the panel of the National Endowment for the Composer Grants, and they have had a consistent problem with policy on whether to make the submitted scores anonymous or not.  They had been anonymous for years, and this year they started not to because they felt that many very important composers had their stuff returned with form letters.  It was getting to be embarrassing and people were not submitting music because it was getting to be a kind of problem.  I’m not sure what the answer is because I don’t know if it’s a good idea to be influenced by someone’s name in the quality of the work.  I’d like very much to have the work itself tell me that it’s right.  But somewhere between the two has got to be the answer.  In other words, it’s not the man’s name that should make you do it and it’s not the quality without the name, but it’s the combination that says this should happen or that should happen.

BD:    Maybe they should be submitted with the name covered up, so you don’t see it
til after you’ve looked at the piece?

JC:    There are ways like that, but it’s a problem and there’s not an easy answer.  Trying to be fair is always difficult, it really is.  For any composer to look at another composer’s work and try to be fair is a great problem because to be a composer is to be someone with strong views.  If you don’t have strong views, you can’t write strong music of any kind.  You have to believe in a certain road you are taking, and you need to believe that that road is perhaps more valid than someone else’s road.  Otherwise, you don’t write that particular world.  So you believe this, and then you see someone else’s work in a whole different world, a world that you have rejected.  And to say, “That is a wonderful piece,” is a hard job for any composer, and I think that it’s something to fight to do!

BD:    Is it a world that you have rejected, or is it just a road you haven’t taken?

JC:    Sometimes it’s a road you haven’t taken.  Very often it’s a road that you’ve thought about taking and decided not to.  For every note you write, you don’t write a lot.  I’ve thought about writing just about any kind of music, and very often I’ve written single pieces or journeys into roads that I then come back and say, “No, I don’t like this.  It’s not for me.”  For whatever reasons, I don’t go there again.  

BD:    And yet somebody else does.

JC:    And yet someone else does.  So it’s very hard for a composer to be fair, and yet it’s the job, just like the job of composing is to say something to an audience, and you can’t deny that by saying, “Well, I’m out to express myself.”  You have to do both.

BD:    Have you been on the other side of the coin, submitting works and having them rejected or accepted?

JC:    Yes, I have, and it’s very annoying!  [Laughs]  I can understand that problem; I really hate saying
no to people and turning them down.  The difficult part of this job is that you do have to do that.  In any executive position, you’ve got to say, “I take this and I reject that.”  It’s a hard thing to do, and I certainly don’t mean to hurt people when I do it.

BD:    How many new pieces can be done in a season?

JC:    It varies.  My job is to try to get as many as possible and make the pieces as fine as we can find.  That is really the bulk of it.  There are a lot of other sub-jobs that we haven’t even gone near, that we’re trying to take care of at the same time, but that’s a very important thing.  If you look at next year’s programming of the Chicago Symphony and compare it with this year’s
which I have no control over because I came in this September — you’ll  see a quite incredible difference in the amount of contemporary pieces.

BD:    If you could control all the programming for thirty concerts, how would you divvy it up?

JC:    I would play a contemporary piece at every single concert, but not necessarily a major work.  It might be a five or eight minute work, and sometimes a half hour.  I think that our century has enough variety and quality in it to do that.  Also, I happen to think that recreation and creation have to be combined for the listener to really be satisfied.  The biggest problem we’ve had is that art has economically tried to exist on recreation, found it can’t do it and is inventing new forms always to exist on recreation, whether it’s CDs or quadraphonics or whatever.  They always have a new way that they can record the nine symphonies of Beethoven again, whereas in Beethoven’s time they were looking for more symphonies.  That’s the healthy way, and that’s the way it is in theater
the musical theater, the play theater, in novels, in the art world — they’re always looking towards the contemporary art as the main thing, and pieces from the past are subsidiary.  For classical music it’s been the reverse, and the unfortunate part is that the music lover has gotten to think of twentieth century music as something that he has to listen to, but not really like.

BD:    How do we change the attitude?

JC:    It’s changing in a lot of ways.  One of the ways is that certain composers have been proving to the economical side of our industry that they can do them a favor.  We have certain composers now writing music that are selling records and selling out houses.  Certain operas written by Americans are selling more tickets than the standard repertoire.  I think it’s terrific!  Even if I don’t like the piece, I think it’s terrific!  I think it’s wonderful that the image of the living American composer is turning into one of, “Hey, we may have a hit here.”  We think of commerciality as bad, but the fact is that concert managements think of it all the time!  They market violinists, they market pianists and conductors and orchestras.  They talk about how well they can sell a record of So-and So playing the Such-and-Such concerto, and yet they always leave out the composer.

BD:    They’re not marketing Beethoven?

JC:    No!  Not really; it’s So-and-So’s Beethoven.  It’s Levine’s Beethoven, Bernstein’s Beethoven, Perlman’s Beethoven.  That’s the thrust of sale for them, because Beethoven’s Beethoven has been out there for a long time!  Everybody knows Beethoven’s Beethoven, so it isn’t the same, no.

BD:    Is it better for you to have had the Pied Piper recorded by James Galway, rather than the principal flute of a symphony?

JC:    First of all, I wrote it for him and it’s specially tailored to him, so it’s the right thing.  That piece was suggested by the personality of its soloist, and it’s the right way to go.  But the nice part about it is that a lot of other flutists have already played that piece.  In fact, all of the concertos I’ve written were written for certain people, and specifically so.  The Clarinet Concerto was for Stanley Drucker, who played it fantastically, and after he played it every clarinetist told me that it’s a one-man piece.  This will be the piece that Stanley Drucker plays.  And he does play it a lot, but, so do a lot of other people.  Larry Combs has done it here many times in Chicago and on tour with Solti and the CSO.  Dick Stoltzman has played it; he said next to the Mozart Concerto, it’s the one he plays most, and he recorded it just recently.  It’s coming out this spring.  It has a life of its own.  And they play it differently, I might add — very differently than Stanley does.

BD:    Are they both right?

JC:    They’re all right, because it’s works!  It’s wonderful.  In fact, Stoltzman is so unusual that when I heard it, I felt like I was hearing a new composition.  I’ve never heard any performer play a piece of mine that so re-did it in the right sense of the word.  There’s distortion of a good and bad kind, you know, and if you’re talented and you happen to be able to do it in the good way, a composer is thrilled.  If you distort it in the wrong way, he’s horrified because you ruin his piece, but Stoltzman did a very wonderful union of his imagination and my piece into a third thing that I never heard before.  I loved it, I just absolutely loved it!  I find, as a composer, if he can show me my own piece another way and make it really work that way, then he’s done something just great!

BD:    So you encourage this kind of thing?

JC:    Yes, because I believe in live performers and the idea of the interaction of the live performer and the piece of music that is in itself frozen into an object, and the restatement of that object.  But I don’t believe in it to the exclusion of new pieces.  I think that that has been over-amplified by the industry.  In a sense, the industry controls thought because they promote it.  Between the record people and the concert managements and the critics, you’re told, more or less, what you should like, what you shouldn’t, and so forth.  Basically, performers have taken over, but I do definitely believe in performers.  My father was a performer.  As a kid I was going to Carnegie Hall to hear him play with the Philharmonic, and I had that incredible sense of tension and excitement when he did a great concerto and a great performance of it.  I love it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You write in a more accessible style.  Is this the way you want to write, or has this kind of been forced on to you by economics and performance problems?

JC:    First of all, I don’t write in any one style.  That is important.  I feel I do not approach a piece thinking of any style at all, but I evolve the style when I know what I have to write for that piece.  If you listen to the Pied Piper and the Clarinet Concerto and the Oboe Concerto
— which are three woodwind concertosyou’ll see that they’re totally and completely different from each other.  I use style in a different way.  I tend to think of style as a variable.  I do have stylistic things that come backcertain intervals, certain kinds of progressions, certain sonorities that I use because they’re part of me.  That is an unconscious style.  But as far as the idea of style as it exists in music today, in which one associates a sonority or a sound or a total piece with somebody, and he writes the next piece in that style and the next piece in that style, as Brahms did, I don’t feel I’m that kind of composer.  As far as accessible style, the piece that’s probably been the most successful thing I’ve written is the most advanced technically and the least accessible in many ways, which is the Clarinet Concerto.  The outer movements of that piece are very, very abstract.  I think that that is not what makes people like a piece.  What makes people respond to a piece is feeling a powerful sense of directions and goals that the composer has set up.  Whatever means he uses to make you feel that is his business, but if he’s aware of those things and he writes with a real sense of focus and goal and direction, I think you respond.  All the composers who’ve had pieces that entered the repertoire have written with that sense of goal and direction.  I don’t think it’s style.

BD:    Going the next step or two beyond this, when you’re writing a piece, are you in control of the pen or is the pen in control of you?

JC:    First of all, I don’t use a pen; I use a pencil, but I don’t even use that until I’ve more or less written most of the piece.  I don’t start writing music.  If I write a piece that takes me a year or more to write, probably seven or eight months of it is without any music written at all!

BD:    It’s all in your head?

JC:    Not even music is in my head, but concepts, ideas, structures.  I type them out.  I draw pictures of them.  Goals.  I build the piece before I write the music.  I search for the music after I know what kind of music I need, because I want to know what the piece is.  Before I write a piece, I don’t know what the piece is.  I design the piece, build the piece, find out because I think the big questions are the ones I want to answer first.  A melody or a few notes or a chord are very minimal parts of a piece.  The biggest thing about a piece that takes forty-five minutes is what happens in that forty-five minutes?  So that’s the question I try to answer first.  Then I ask if it is a multi-movement piece, and if so, what shape are the movements and how do they relate to each other?  Would I need motific material for this or thematic ideas or what?  And so forth and so on.  I narrow the scope little by little until I get in a position where I know what I need.  Then I look for and find music.  You see what I mean?  So the pen doesn’t have anything to do with it for a while, in terms of writing music.  It’s the opposite.  Copland said he takes a fraction of music and sees where it leads him, but I don’t do that.  And God knows I admire and love Copland!  So it’s nothing to do with better or worse.  It’s just that my feeling of it is that I have to know more before I can find out what the pitches are.

BD:    That’s simply your way of working!

JC:    I’ll tell you what it is — it’s very nerve-wracking!  [Laughs]

BD:    Why?

JC:    Because when you have a deadline and you know the orchestra wants to have a score by a certain time and you haven’t got a single thing on paper at all, months go by and it gets you very nervous!  The minute you can look at notes, you’re reassured.  You say, “I have something on the page.”  But when it’s all amorphous kinds of textural and sonic and structural ideas without a single part being real music, note music, pitched music, it’s scary.  It’s a horrifying time, and it’s the time I really hate about composing the most.

BD:    Is it all worth it in the end?

JC:    Yeah, that’s why I do it.  I do it because it’s worth it in the end, but it sure isn’t worth it when I’m doing it!  I have the most miserable time composing of any of my colleagues.  I’ve talked to them about it and I just can’t stand it.  I have to go into a room and shut the door.  I usually make telephone calls or try to get myself boxed in with appointments or do something to make sure that I don’t have to sit by myself and face my inadequacies for another day, which is what composing really is!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What is the purpose of music in society?

JC:    There are a million purposes
— to sell toothpaste, to promote things — but actually, if you’re talking about concert music, the romantic thought that music is an expression of a composer who wants to say something is partly true.  But I think it’s very important to realize that before the nineteenth century, composers tried to find purposes, and that within the purpose they found the solution.  Mozart and Bach and all those people were working people looking for jobs, and when they found a job, they did the job and it was very healthy.  Today we don’t really think of composing that way.  We think of the guy sitting in his garret thinking of a great symphony that nobody wants, and in two hundred years they’ll understand.  That’s very, very nineteenth century romantic.  I like to be useful!  I was just talking to John Downey, who wrote a wonderful bass concerto.  The double bass needs concerti because it’s a very wonderful instrument that has almost no repertoire.  That’s being useful.  It’s much less useful to write another piano concerto or violin concerto because there are incredible masterpieces already in the repertoire.  So if I’m a composer and I have my choice, I’d rather write for instruments that need the repertoire and occasions that need the repertoire, and within that, try to write something beautiful and important.  One of the things I tell my students is that in this age they should be aware of the constantly changing media, and instead of just crying, “Well, it isn’t right and it isn’t good,” find a way to be inventive in it.  I’m thinking about audiovisual combinations because we all know that for better or for worse, ninety-five percent of the people who get information in this country get it from visual-audio combinations like television and film.  So it seems to me that we’re waiting for a great composer and a great visual artist to show us a new art form which combines those two things in a significant way.  And when a Beethoven or a Stravinsky comes along and does that, everybody will say, “Oh, that’s how it goes,” and we’ll all understand that.  That’s got to happen because that’s where things are changing to, just like when they changed from courts to concert halls.  Now they’re changing from concert halls to homes, and soon, when you have a seven-foot square television on your wall with hi-fi stereo speakers around it, there’s got to be art for that, not just entertainment.  Art is the highest and noblest form of entertainment.  People are horrified when I say that, but it is ennobling entertainment.  We have to find a genius who can give us something to watch that’s meaningful!  So the young composers today, instead of only writing for the symphony — which I encourage them to do, too — should be thinking of perhaps that strange situation ten or twenty years from now when people are going to be at home watching these boxes, and how they can write something for that, as well as, I might add, revitalizing the concert hall and writing pieces that are special for the concert hall.

pied piper cd BD:    So they should live in tandem, not separately?

JC:    Absolutely!  I write pieces all the time that are better in the concert hall than on a record because I know how effective records are.  The Pied Piper and the Clarinet Concerto and several other pieces of mine must be seen and heard in the hall.  They don’t work as well on records, and I meant that to happen.  Now that the concert hall is not the only place you hear this music, one of the challenges I had when I wrote those pieces was to find out if a twentieth century composer can reposition the orchestra and rethink the relationship of the audience, the conductor and the orchestra as part of the creative process, and put that into creating a piece that does something special with the concert hall that you just can’t go home and plug in your speakers to your ears and hear better.

BD:    And yet you don’t disown the recordings that have been made.

JC:    No, I don’t; they’re good recordings, but anyone who’s heard the Clarinet Concerto live and heard the recordings says, “But you really have to be there.”  And that’s very good when they say that!  The same thing happens with the Pied Piper, which uses children in the audience, and exits through the hall.

BD:    It’s more of a theatrical piece?

JC:    That’s happening a lot.  Theater and music are being combined in non-traditional ways, not just opera and ballet, but also in orchestral music.  George Crumb has done that a lot.  Peter Maxwell Davies, and a lot of composers have been experimenting with crossovers where performers on instruments are actually acting theatrically.  And the Pied Piper certainly is an example of that.

BD:    You’ve mentioned a number of other composers.  Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

JC:    Oh sure, but not consciously.  I am a giant computer, like everyone else who takes in information.  I love to listen to all new things, as well as old things, and put them inside and see what happens.  Very often I’m more interested in hearing what I don’t like because it gives me ideas about how I could have done something I do like.  So I listen to everything.  I love listening to new music.  The most exciting thing is to hear a piece where you don’t know how it goes.  It amazes me always why people want to hear something they know over and over again, when they could hear something they don’t know and be challenged and surprised and entertained by the unexpected!  That’s so exciting to me.  A new piece at a concert is by far the high point.  Even if you hate the piece, it’s got to be the high point of the concert.

BD:    You said you’ve done some teaching.  Is this teaching of composition?

JC:    Primarily, yes.

BD:    Is composition something that can be taught, or must it be innate within each young composer?

JC:    It can be taught, and it should be innate.  What you teach is not so much how to compose, but perhaps how to get objectivity.  I think the hardest thing for a composer to do is pull back and see what his piece really is, what it’s really doing to people, and whether they’re really hearing what he thinks they’re hearing.  That and technical help are the two things I try to do.  Technical help is easy.  It’s just,
“This instrument doesn’t go down that low, and this shouldn’t be done because they can’t play this, or whatever.  But as far as objectivity, it’s very similar to what a psychiatrist does.  When a psychiatrist deals with you, he doesn’t say, “You’re to go home and you say this to your wife, and then your wife’s going to say this back.  But then you’re going to answer with this.”  That’s not the job of a psychiatrist.  His job is to make you objective enough during a situation of emotional turmoil that you can react the same way that the psychiatrist would, because the psychiatrist is objective.  He tries to give you objectivity so that you cannot react emotionally and lose control, but have the ability to control the situation by being objective.  It is the same with the composer.  When he’s writing a piece, he thinks that’s the way it goes because he wrote it.  And if he’s stuck, he only sees the way he was going on the dead road, the barrier.  I have that situation with myself, and when I’m writing a piece I’m just as stuck as anyone.  I tell my students all the time, “It’s very easy for me to sit here and tell you what’s wrong with your piece.  Don’t think that because I can tell you that, it means that if I were writing it I would have the same solution.”  That’s different.  So you have to pull yourself back and ask yourself questions, and become objective and find out why this is not working.  Ask yourself, “What am I doing?  You must understand what you’re doing well enough to see that perhaps you’re repeating that bit too long, or you’re not moving out of this key, or whatever, so that you know how to fix what the problem is.

BD:    Where is the balance, then, between the inspiration of the idea, and the technique, the craft?

cso cd JC:    They are intertwined and, being perfectly honest, I think they’re inseparable.  I do not have craft without conception.  When I start writing a piece and I have no ideas, I can’t harmonize the Star Spangled Banner.  I’m so befuddled, the ideas sound so trite!  When I get an idea that I like, all of a sudden how to do it becomes apparent along with the technique.  People say that it’s either technique or inspiration.  Technique is inspiration.  They’re combined; they really are.  They’re inseparable.

BD:    Do you write differently for the Chicago Symphony that you would for the Civic Orchestra or some other orchestra?

JC:    You write differently for every orchestra because you know the orchestra.  You know the sounds in your ear and players that do certain things that are wonderful.  It automatically makes you do it.  Look at the Queen of the Night aria.  Mozart didn’t write that out of the blue!  He wrote that because there was a lady who was running around then who could do those things!  And the job of everybody since then has been to find someone who can do it.  But Mozart knew someone who could do it, and that’s why he wrote it.  The same thing is true of writing for orchestras.  When you write for the Chicago Symphony, you know there are certain things that that orchestra can do, and you can write for them.  It’s not an intellectual thing.  It’s just that when you start thinking of a piece for the Chicago Symphony, ideas occur to you that would not occur to you with another orchestra.

BD:    And yet, another orchestra will take it and play it.

JC:    Absolutely!  But as the Queen of the Night aria, which has not been unperformed since Mozart’s death, other people have to find a way to do it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for the young conductors coming along?

JC:    Get an orchestra!  [Both laugh]  It’s a hard road, I’ll tell you.  Go to Europe and change your name, and pretend you come from Europe when you come back to the United States because unfortunately, this country does not usually recognize its American talent.  It’s very hard for a young American conductor; it’s a very hard thing to get started!

BD:    Is it really easier to get an orchestra if you’re Luigi Baroni or Heinz Krumholtz?

JC:    Absolutely!  You look at Musical America’s list of conductors of the orchestras of this country
small and bigand see how many American conductors there are for this country of Americans.  We have great young conductors available!  It’s absolutely the truth that the boards especially are more interested in a more glamorous name, and they think of music as Western European.  They think of concert music as coming out of Germany and Austria, and they think that the great interpreters must come from Europe.

BD:    They’re wrong, obviously.

JC:    Oh, absolutely!  They’re totally and completely wrong.  But this is a real problem.  So a young conductor who is an American is going to have a tough time unless he can do something special and get some attention.  When the lucky moment happens, he grabs it.

BD:    Are you suggesting they actually go to Europe?

JC:    No, not really, excepting that it really may not be a bad idea to make a European career and come back here.

BD:    I ask this because for years, singers have had to go to Europe to get started.

JC:    Yes.  They did that because of the fact that every little town had an opera house, and we don’t have that here.  And they could sing major roles in small companies and work their way up.  With the conducting it’s a little different.  We do have a lot of orchestras; we do have a lot of music going on, but there is a real problem for them.  And how to change that?   There are a lot of things that need changing.  We now have our Bernsteins and Levines, and there’s no question that people know that there are great Americans.  But there’s still that prejudice that goes back a long time.

BD:    Little by little are we exploding the myth?

JC:    I guess so, yeah, over time.  But it should happen faster!  There’s no question it should happen faster, and it should happen much more dramatically than it is.  We need to keep on talking about it; keep on telling people that you should look to the young American conductors.  You’ll find them and they’re wonderful!

BD:    Is there a difference between an American conductor and a European conductor?

JC:    Probably not any more.  There used to be, because European conductors did not learn mixed metered kind of rhythmic pulsations that Americans automatically had as a part of their lives.  They had a lot of trouble conducting American music, certainly.  If you hear recordings of performances of European conductors of twenty years ago trying to play American music, I think you’ll see they were not always very successful.  The European style was to always subdivide the big beat into kind of funny little irregular things, but always have that nice big, stodgy boom, boom, boom.  To have a fast, irregular pulse was alien.  They just didn’t feel it.  They were busy beating these big things, and a lot of things could happen against these big pulses that were very sophisticated.  But quick pulses that were little jabs of the baton were not comfortable for them, so they didn’t know how to do it!  Now I think that’s changed.  There’s just too much music that entered the repertoire from The Rite of Spring on to change that.  But of course, Pierre Monteux re-notated the whole thing in two-quarter time!

BD:    [Laughs]  The same notes and the same pulse, but just looking different on the page?

JC:    Yes.  You can re-notate it so that you beat two, and the orchestra plays on various off beats. 
So you can take which version you wantthe multi-metered original of Stravinsky or the two-quarter re-make and conduct that one.

BD:    But that’s not the right approach!

JC:    It’s a funny thing.  I don’t know what the right approach is anymore, because I have found — and a lot of people are talking about it now — the idea of irregular pulsations, and whether the conductor has to conduct them, or whether, in fact, done as off beats they’re just as good.  For rehearsal time, it’s always better to have a nice steady beat.  Everybody can count it and they always know where they are.  Bernstein, for example, is wonderful at conducting those irregular pulsations.  He does it with such jabs of energy that the music does change because he is throwing gestures as they’re playing sharply.  If he were just beating two and they were playing off beats in those gestures, they would not be as dramatic.  But that depends on the conductor.

BD:    We’ve gotten to the point now where the conductor will just simply stand and wait for the music to happen, and then hold up a finger to indicate the next section.  I’ve seen Leonard Slatkin do that.

JC:    That’s non-pulsed music.  I’ve done that, too; I’ve written it.  That’s a whole other thing.  That’s where you work with music as cues rather than steady beats because there’s no beat present.  And if there’s no beat present, some of us have realized that it’s kind of waste of time to write them.  All you have to do is write events.  If there are three events, you can do it as three beats.  But they don’t have to do regular beats.  For example, they can do down for event number one, to the right as event number two, and up as event number three!  That could take twenty seconds and you don’t have to do that thirty times in between those twenty seconds!  Saves us all a lot of work.

BD:    [Laughs]  I see!

JC:    That is a method, but it’s used when you don’t want to be rhythmic, for avoiding rhythmic things, or for having several rhythmic things happen at once.  You cue in one player and you say, “Play about a quarter note equals sixty.”  Then you cue the second player and you say, “You play a little faster than the oboe.”  If you try to write those at the same time in a steady beat, you’d be writing very complicated music.  But if all you want is the fact that they’re not the same speed, sometimes it’s easier just to tell them to do it and just cue them in if it’s solo players.

BD:    Is there ever a case where you would want to make it an exact differentiation?

JC:    Then you notate it.

BD:    Are you ever asking them to be machines?

JC:    No, I don’t think so.  I certainly am not because I appreciate the personality of performers.  But there are composers who do.  The minimalists very often do.  Dick Stoltzman told me that Steve Reich was coaching him on Vermont Counterpoint, and he said that every time he thought he would do something interesting, Reich said, “Don’t do that.”  [Both laugh]  He said, “But that’s interesting!”  Reich replied, “I don’t want you to do anything but play the notes the way they are written.  Nothing.”  He realized that he did not want Richard Stoltzman to be Richard Stoltzman.  He wanted Richard Stoltzman to be a clarinet.  That’s neither right nor wrong.  Stravinsky used to tell people, “Don’t interpret my music, just play it.”  He had that view of certain pieces of his.  It’s a way of thinking.

BD:    But now, looking at it in hindsight, was Stravinsky just simply trying to get his pieces played as right as they can, and add any interpretation later?  In other words, if he were alive today would he agree to interpretation because people can play them accurately?

JC:    I think that Stravinsky probably would have.  I think he was exaggerating when he said things like, “Music means absolutely nothing.”  He was trying to counteract erroneous opinions on the other side, like,
The interpreter must feel and emote.  What he was doing was just going overboard with his opinions.  You know, he was caustic guy!  He was not exactly Mr. Nice Guy, and I think that was his way of telling people, “Please do not over-interpret my music.”

BD:    But not too many years ago, the principal of the finest orchestra in the world would work very hard to get a certain piece.  Now every high school player is doing it pretty well!

JC:    But that always happened.  That happened with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto when it was written.  Leopold Auer, who taught Heifetz, said it was unplayable.  Now you go past the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard or any conservatory, and ten year olds are playing it!  It is like the four minute mile
— once people hear other people do it and know they can do it, they simply do it and it becomes part of the repertoire.  My Clarinet Concerto is a case-in-point because the opening breath is a hundred and eighty notes, or something like that.  It’s quite demonic, and when Stanley first saw it, he turned white!  I remember!  I was in the room and handed him the music and saw the expression on his face, and he is the greatest virtuoso of the clarinet in the world!  No one doubts that, and he was just sick when he looked at it!  Then he took it home and practiced it, and he learned it.  After he played it, it was a Stanley piece, as I said.  Only Stanley could do it.  About four years ago when I was in Chicago, I went up north to one of the colleges and a kid said, “Want to hear this?”  And he played the opening of this piece really better than anybody ever played it!  He said, “That’s our test piece for all of us clarinetists.  If we can play the first page of this piece, then you can play your instrument.  I’ve been practicing that for six months!  I can play it.”  Well, that’s wonderful, of course, but that was unplayable, and now this kid who was eighteen years old played it hair-raisingly!  That’s what happens to technique, you see.  It changes all the time!

BD:    Doesn’t that encourage you to write something which is now beyond Drucker and beyond this eighteen year old kid, that ten years from now will be easier?

JC:    Not for clarinet.

BD:    For any instrument?

JC:    It always happens.  I was going to write a trumpet concerto for Marsalis until he gave up playing classical music in public last spring.  I would have stretched him to his limits.  He’s a terrific player and he was always telling me, “This is easy and this is easy,” and all sorts of things like that.  And I always thought to myself, “Well, wait
til you see what I’m going to write for you!”  [Both laugh]  But he’s not going to see it because he didn’t carry through on it.  But the fact is that I would do that for a virtuoso concerto because I think part of the excitement of the concerto form, which does intrigue me, is taking a player to his limits and then going that little step beyond, which suddenly makes things light up in them.  Either wonderful or terrible things happen.  You take your chances.  There’s going to be something wonderful, or you get egg on the face!  But that’s the challenge of the virtuoso concerto, which I think is exciting.  Can this one person take this one instrument and rise above this orchestra and so dominate the musical experience with his strength and personality that he can make the impossible happen?  And the impossible has to happen.  I spent my growing up years listening to concertos, so I guess that was part of what I got in my head and I’m fascinated by that.  That doesn’t mean the piece isn’t lyrical or tender or simple in certain parts.  But I think it does need that, and it’s great for the instruments, it really is.  It doesn’t hurt them.

BD:    What are some of the other responsibilities of being composer-in-residence?

corigliano JC:    One is the association with the Civic Orchestra.  I’m trying to involve them with a contemporary music festival so we have an orchestra for more twentieth century music.  I reprogrammed them this year so that every time there’s a guest composer coming
like Karel Husa or William Schumanthey play a piece of his, too.  I also do a lot of talking to the Women’s Committee, and take care of many of the pre-concert lectures that are very important, especially when you’re talking about something like Boulez and serial technique, which is something that people are very intimidated by.  There’s almost no analysis when you look at a serial piece, excepting to tell you that it’s serial and that it has fleeting high strings and suddenly an abrupt motive in the double bass or something.  But they never really guide you through it because it’s almost impossible to do.  When Boulez was here conducting, I thought it was important that we go into what this technique is.  So I tried, within forty-five minutes, to take a lay audience through what twelve-tone technique is and then how it developed as serial technique, and what they did have to concentrate on and what they didn’t.  They had to have no bad feelings or no inferiority complex about the fact that they could not understand certain things because they couldn’t be heard by the ear.  That alone was such an enormous relief to some people who were so intimidated by the fact that they couldn’t hear it, but they thought everybody else did.  That let them listen to the piece and appreciate it, instead of getting this terrible feeling of cringing through the whole thing and feeling inferior.  So I think there are a lot of ways that we can help.

BD:    Do you ever write anything that you can’t hear?

JC:    Occasionally, but I certainly don’t make it the basis of a piece.  If it’s a moment in a piece, then I see nothing wrong with it, or if it’s something you want to do to amuse your soloist.  They did that in the Renaissance all the time!  They used to have lots of little games where the players would see something.  They’d say the word
sharp and there’d be a sharp.  They’d have all sorts of funny little things that no listener would be possible to understand, and yet it didn’t matter because the pieces were very beautiful and they were all logical to themselves anyway.  Bach used retrogrades and you can’t hear a retrograde; it’s impossible to hear something backwards.  But that didn’t become the basis of a composition.

BD:    It was just there?

JC:    It was just there.

BD:    Should every piece be beautiful?

JC:    I think that certain sounds people consider ugly are beautiful, so you’re using a term that may have no meaning.  In the last movement of my Oboe Concerto, I had my oboist playing an Arabic oboe, wailing with his lips around the string of the reed and his cheeks blown up.  He didn’t want to do it because he said, “I have to train my whole life to play beautifully!”  I’d say, “Well, that’s a different kind of beautiful.  The Arabic oboe’s beautiful, too, but it’s not the beautiful you trained to do.”  I had to really talk him into doing it.  But yes, I think it should be beautiful in the sense that it is wonderful to hear.

BD:    What advice do you have for the audience coming to hear new music, or any kind of music?

JC:    They should come with a sense of expectation of something wonderful, and hope it happens.  And be disappointed if it doesn’t, but do not worry.  And if you don’t understand something, don’t always blame yourself.  Try to understand it, read the program notes, go with the piece.  There’s nothing wrong with not liking it, either.  You don’t have to like it!  If you don’t like it, that’s okay, and if you like it, that’s great.  But the point is, it’s a challenge and it’s a wonderful new experience.  Anybody hearing something new should think it’s wonderful to hear.  Then what happens after is the worth of the work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You get a whole pile of commissions.  How do you decide which ones you’ll accept, and which ones you’ll say, “No, thank you”?

JC:    I usually say no to anything.  I’m always very, very wary about taking on commissions.  Mainly because I feel I’ll never be able to do it and I have to sort of get confidence up.  The marimba piece I am working on now was something I ordinarily wouldn’t have done, excepting I’ve never written for marimba.  I thought it would be a great way to learn about the instrument by really writing a piece for it alone.  I’d never incorporated it into an orchestral sound, and so I said I would write it!  It’s tough.  It is extremely difficult, because I keep on wanting to put a pedal down, like the vibraphone, and hold sounds.  It just doesn’t sustain!

BD:    But those are technical things.

JC:    No, they’re not.  They’re musical things, because if you want to have a palette of sound, the only way that you can make a legato line is going [makes buzzing sound], like a mandolin.  I tried to think of another way to do it, but that’s a musical problem!  It is a technical problem, but it’s also a musical one because it limits you severely in what you can think of!  You want to think of other things and you can’t unless you’re willing to have a certain kind of scenario that I don’t find attractive, particularly.  How to make the marimba into a legato, sustaining instrument is one of the problems I’ve had.  It worked by using very soft sticks and the lower register, where you can get away with certain things; also using six sticks instead of four, which is a traditional way to begin the piece, so that I can get a cloud of sound.  Those are things we’re experimenting with to change that into a more legato and kind of fuzzier, more veiled sound.  And then I’m going to want the definition.  In fact, I love the col legno, and the idea of that which has very seldom been done.  A marimba is a wooden instrument, and when you hit it with wooden sticks you get this fantastic wood on wood sound, which at the end of the piece I want to use.  I want to go from that cloud to that very, very wooden sound.  So in a sense, the problem of this piece is whether I surmount the limits of this instrument and write a piece that does what I want it to do for the marimba?

BD:    So it’s not a piece that Lionel Hampton is going to be able to touch.

JC:    No, no.  Although he probably plays with six mallets a lot more than a lot of classical marimba players do, I’ll tell you.  They’re not used to that!

BD:    Should there be this immense gulf between concert music and popular music?

JC:    There is much less of a gulf now, and there are all these crossover people, performers who do both kinds of things.  When you look at Sondheim and various theater composers, the gulf certainly blurs a lot!  So I don’t know what to say about it.  Concert music should be popular music!  That is the thing I would like to have happen.  I would like concert pieces to be so exciting that you can take an untrained person who’s never heard an orchestra play, put them in the middle of a hall, play a piece and he says, “God, I want to hear that again!”  And then still have all the goodies in the piece that you worked for several years to put in.  Perhaps it’s the job of the concert composer to try to reach people and still write music he considers worthwhile.  That’s a tough job, but I think it’s an important one today because you do have this vast audience that can listen to music, is prepared to listen to it and has the equipment to listen to it.  You just have to find the right way of reaching that person, and that’s creative; that’s part of the creative job.  You see, the creative job’s not just starting your symphony with the first theme, but also thinking about what you are writing and why you are writing and who you are writing for and how to change that in a creative way.  I think that’s part of a creative person’s job and of his intelligence.  So before you start a piece, to take them all for granted and say, “Oh, I’m writing for this and this is the form and this is the way it begins,” would be tossing out the most interesting decisions of the whole piece!  So it’s part of the composer’s creative process.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

JC:    I think so.  I think it’s very nice to see American composers on the Billboard charts for the best-selling records.  It shows us that we’re starting to move upwards, so that at least people are now starting to hear a new piece and not knowing whether they’re going to like it or not, rather than just automatically disliking it before the first note.  So things are getting better.  Whether they’ll get to the point where it becomes the most important and exciting part of a concert, I don’t know.  But I think it is, and other people do, and audiences are starting to get excited more and more by new pieces.  Hopefully that is the goal.  The goal is to restore it to where it was before the early parts of the century, to restore it into the fact that usually the new piece is the most sought-after thing in music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve written a film score.  Is that particularly different, or difficult?

JC:    It’s very good because it gives you a nice series of limits and boxes to write within.  You have this much time to write this much sound because it’s accompanying this much action.  You have to stop and lower your music here because it has dialogue.  You can bring it up here.  It gives you healthy limits, but the thing to remember about film composing is you’re an employee and you are not able to control things as you are in symphonic composing.  When Sir Georg Solti did my Clarinet Concerto, he asked, “How would you like this done?”  When Ken Russell is putting my music on his film, he does not even think about how I would like it done!  It’s only how he would like it done, and if he wants to play it backwards, upside down, add sound effects or throw it up and do something else, he can do it!  So, they’re not comparable because when writing a symphony, the goal of the performers is to realize the composer, whereas the goal of the film director is to realize the director.

BD:    So it’s a different set of parameters and expectations.

JC:    Yeah, it’s totally different, yes.  Totally different.

BD:    Are you going to write any more film scores?

altered states JC:    Not for a while because I don’t want to right now, but I will, probably.  But I’m going to audition directors, I really am.  Ken Russell was very good because even when he changed the music, he changed it in a musical way.  Hugh Hudson tried hard, but the problem there was that Pinewood Studios in London has a bunch of sound mixers that not only no regard for music, but basically are only interested in sound effects, and music as a kind of minor sound effect.  They have no thought whatsoever of line or drama, and frankly I wouldn’t do anything in that studio again.  I’d never go and do a British film with Pinewood Studios, and they’re the biggest studio in London.  And besides that, I think we have the best players in the world in the United States as instrumentalists.  When we did Altered States in Los Angeles, the quality of the orchestral playing was so staggering that you could not go to any other country and get anybody to play as well.  In addition to that, I would be very careful about a director, and know that he trusted me enough to know that I was doing the best thing for him, too.  I was going to help the director in both cases get a better result, but there’s an element of trust directors are not used to having, because they’re used to being the head of a ship, and there’s forty million dollars invested in the ship.  They’re afraid of trusting anyone around them because they might be misled.  There’s a lot of suspicion and a lot of crazy tension.  It’s very hard for them because they’re scared.  They’re running scared, usually.  By the time a composer gets involved in a film, they’ve spent most of the money, so the budget’s down.  The company is sitting on them for product.  They are being judged by the company executives as to whether they’re going to put promotional money in back of this film.  There’s a tremendous amount of tension in that!  We’re talking about so many millions of dollars that it’s colossal!  That amount of high emotional content is staggering, so they can’t afford to do anything else.

BD:    As composer-in-residence, is the board of directors of this orchestra not coming down on you, and investing all of this in you?

JC:    No!  First of all, we’re talking about ten cents compared to what you do with a film.  You really aren’t talking about the same world of finance and economics.  [Both laugh]  They’re just not the same!  In addition to the fact that we are talking here about art, and therefore they are trusting their artists.  They trust me as a composer; they trust Sir Georg as a conductor, and they put their faith in their artists.  The end product is art, and that’s the difference there.  In film making, they try to do something artistic, but the end product is box office.

BD:    What advice do you have for the next man
or womanto hold the Composer-in-Residence Chair?  [Note:  As it happened, two of the next people to hold this position with the Chicago Symphony were womenAugusta Read Thomas and Shulamit Ran!]

JC:    Be prolific!  Because if you’re not, you won’t write much music.  It’s very hard because you have a lot of things you’ll be doing.  I find the combination of this and my teaching at Lehman College in New York
which I keep up for many reasons, financial and otherwise — doesn’t leave a lot of time for composing.  The summer will be good, of course, but I haven’t gotten a lot of work done this year.  And this is the beginning of the first year, so it’s especially time-consuming.  But William Schuman does prove that a man can do it, because he ran Lincoln Center and just came home after work and tossed off these symphonies.  But I don’t know if I’m the right person to do it because I’m not writing very much and I’m getting a little nervous!  I have to write when there’s no excuse open to me.  If there’s the slightest excuse for me to do anything else, my cowardly insecurity takes over and I do it!  I have to be backed into a corner where there is nothing ahead of me for a week for me to just start thinking about a piece.  If I know there’s something later that afternoon, my mind will grab at it as a way to avoid.

BD:    Should we call you
the reluctant composer?

JC:    Yes, I guess so.  When it’s all over, I feel very good.  When I’m in the middle of a piece and part of it’s on the page, I feel very good from then on, once I see it’s really something, you know, it is a thing.

BD:    So you just have to get started?

JC:    Yeah, but that’s eighty percent.  It really is!  For me, I don’t start until I have written the piece in many ways besides the notes.  Then when I start, there’s that battle to get the notes.  Then you can say you started, but then you’re eighty percent finished.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

JC:    Oh, thank you very much.

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We now move ahead sixteen and a half years, to the summer of 2004 when Corigliano returned to Chicago
for a work to be played at the Grant Park Festival on the Lakefront, conducted by Carlos Kalmar.

BD:    So, do you like being back in Chicago?

JC:    Sure I do!  It’s been a long time.

BD:    Too long?

JC:    Well, it’s what is.  I certainly enjoy coming back and seeing friends I haven’t seen in a long time.  And musically it’s great to be back with Grant Park, because it’s such a wonderful ensemble.  I’m really thrilled with them.

BD:    How did the rehearsal to today?

JC:    Terrific!

BD:    Are they playing the piece the way you want it to be played?

corigliano JC:    Absolutely!  The thing that’s interesting about Carlos — I think he’s really an amazing conductor.  He’s one of the great ones.  He understands everything about my music; he studied it and knows every note of it, so when a rehearsal happens I barely have to say anything.  I really don’t have to say anything because he catches everything.  And his instincts are so good!  I’m just totally in awe of him.  I think he’s a major, world-class conductor, and I think the orchestra’s amazing, too!  They only saw the music yesterday, and it’s a terribly difficult piece!  They’re playing it like they own it.

BD:    Did you write it to be difficult, or is that just the way it had to come out?

JC:    I didn’t necessarily write it to be difficult, but it’s a string symphony.  As a string quartet, it was certainly pulling the quartet out as much as one can.  I even extended that in the symphony because of the richness of the strings and the ability to divide.  I would say it’s a mouthful for the strings, but it wasn’t intentional.  The difference between four players and fifty is a lot.

BD:    Right, but you now use five basic lines instead of just four?

JC:    There are five basic lines, but very often I was able to divide more in fleshing it out as a symphony, because the divisis make that possible.  You can really get rich sonorities built that you could never do any other way.

BD:    You didn’t want to write something with fifty individual parts, did you?

JC:    No, it never gets quite to that, although it gets quite a bit.  I would say maybe it does, in the sense that there are some places where the players all play after each other.  One can’t say it’s fifty parts, but if they’re playing the part out of sync, it sounds like that in a way.

BD:    [Laughs]  Right.  Is this usual now, that orchestras see your work and can get into it very quickly?

JC:    Orchestras today have to learn something in a day; economics have made that a necessity.  Some orchestras do it better than others.  I think the big problem with that is that you can write anything you want to as long as you use traditional notation and rhythm, and make it as difficult as you want and they will be able to do it, but you can’t try out other things much because there is no time.  I can remember in my younger years, let alone earlier than that, that orchestras had much more rehearsal time.  They’re getting less and less, and that makes it possible only to do standard rep!  With standard repertoire, they’re basically polishing from the first rehearsal, whereas with a new piece they’re first deciphering what it means.  If it’s standardly written, where it always uses the traditional rhythmic and pitch notations that everyone is familiar with, they can learn it right away because they’re so good!

BD:    Because your music is out there and it’s being performed quite a bit
especially for an American composer, to say nothing of just being a contemporary composerare orchestras and ears getting used to your sound?

JC:    I think so.  It depends on the conductor very much more than anything else.  If the conductor is used to my sound, or able to teach as well as conduct, then we’re fine.  If the conductor can conduct but is not much of a teacher, he can do Brahms by simply saying, “Do this a little slower (or faster),” or, “This chord isn’t balanced,” but when it comes to new music, then we’re in trouble.  Certainly the American conductors that I know are fully equipped to handle my music.  Carlos Kalmar is not American, but he certainly conducts what he wants to, like that kind of American style.  He’s got the ability to communicate, which I think is a super trait.  In new repertoire he just whizzes and bounces, and you wouldn’t believe that he was Austrian.  But then I realized he grew up in South America, so he’s got the best of both possible worlds there.  He’s got all of our Americas’ world of rhythm and drama, and he’s also got the elegance of the Viennese tradition.

BD:    Being an American composer, you’re going to get quite a number of performances by U.S. orchestras.  Does it especially please you when you get performances by European orchestras?

JC:    Yes, it certainly pleases me!  Europe is a very strange place for American composers.

BD:    Why?

JC:    Well, for one reason, there’s a lot of anti-Americanism.  One has to understand that and realize that.

BD:    Is this just recently, or in the last decades?

JC:    In the arts it’s always been a problem, and I think it really has to do with the American kind of domination of the popular arts.  Pop music and films are things that basically go around the world, but America has dominated.  With the
high arts— and let’s put them that way, even though I don’t consider that necessarily to be true — the Europeans have seemed to have said, “They can have the others, but they’re not going to get this.  We started all of this and Europe is where it belongs.”  I think it’s a tougher battle for an American, yes.

BD:    Are they trying to maintain their own tradition, and feel we have split off from that tradition?

JC:    We are thought of as brash.  England, for example, is very supportive to its composers.  They nurture them; they love them; they review them and talk about them in the warmest possible tones, whereas our critics are not necessarily loving of the American composers.  But they do love the English composers!  [Both laugh]

BD:    What can we do to get American critics to like us more?

JC:    We can’t do anything about anything.  All we have to do is be.  I don’t think we can influence, or be influenced by, critics.  We have to understand that they do what they do for whatever reasons.  Not all critics are like that.  I don’t think John von Rhein is like that, for example, here in Chicago.

BD:    He’s more balanced.

JC:    He’s a very balanced man.  But in films, if you ever want to look at someone who is upper class or especially good, they have British accents, right?  [Both laugh]  This is just the way it is.  They automatically are cast that way because that is what the higher goals are, in a sense.

BD:    The James Bond syndrome?

JC:    A little of that.  We take that all for granted, and not just with English films — with American films and with commercials.  You will see a person talking about buying gold certainly with a very English accent, because gold is a good investment.  They will pick someone with an accent to imply, “We are talking from up there.”  I think that has gotten through to the American mentality over years and years.  Whether it’s critics or the audience, everyone, I think, has that same reaction.  However, and all you have to do is go to England to be dispirited of that!  [Both laugh]  If you want to see Jerry Springer, turn on daytime English television and you will see something that descends into the depths like you have never dreamt.  It’s not all PBS, you know!  It’s not all what we see here as English television!  Most of it is absolute garbage, and we don’t realize that.  We elevate.  I just think it’s a bad thing because the basic, real creativity, in terms of music composition, is coming from the United States.

BD:    Really???

JC:    Oh yes, absolutely.  I don’t think England, or Europe itself, is free enough to do this.

BD:    Why?

JC:    There’s a lot of reasons.  I think that in America we have a cosmopolitan population.  We have that northern attitude, too, but we also have South American and Puerto Rican and Spanish and Italian, and Russian Jews and English and Irish and everything else.  I think the mixing pot produces a music that is more adventurous.

BD:    And on the west coast especially we’re getting a lot of Asians, also.

JC:    Yes, we are.  In fact, in terms of the classical music, Asia is one of the great areas of growth.  All of our great violinists and string players now are coming from the Orient and Asia.  But not just that; they’re interested.  I was in Beijing at the conservatory this year, and two hundred students came to this lecture by an American composer
which amazed me to begin with — and followed every word.  Then this girl raised her hand and said, “I’m doing a doctoral thesis on your Second Symphony,” which floored me because the piece has not been published yet!  And there was no commercial recording until a month ago, and this lecture was last year!  Through the internet and through other ways, she had gotten the score and a recording and was doing a doctoral dissertation on a piece I didn’t expect that she would even know existed!  I thought to myself, “How fascinating that this is happening in Beijing.  How wonderful, really, that that kind of spirit is here.”

BD:    Is it good that your music can be played someplace today and be all over the globe overnight?

JC:    Of course it’s good.  Music is communication.  Widening communication is always positive.  I don’t say that everybody wants to hear it, and certainly what classical music does is a narrow scope.  But the idea that someone would be interested in it ten thousand miles away and be able to get it is wonderful!  It’s extraordinary, and of course, only in our time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Since we talked last time
many years agoyou’ve won the Pulitzer and you’ve won a Grammy and you’ve won an Oscar.  Has this changed your outlook on concert music in general, or your music in specific?

oscar JC:    No.  What’s changed my view of concert music a little bit has nothing to do with me, but the idea that the world of recordings
and so much of the world of concert musichas sloughed off from the rest of the world so completely, and become almost a non-field.  Sony barely releases any classical music; BMG cut its label completely.  They may be trying to resurrect it, but I don’t really think it will happen.  There are no labels for classical anymore, except maybe for the small labels that only produce records out of devotion.  But all the economic ones have ceased.  I think that we have to look at this and not totally dismiss it.  There are reasons on all sides why this happened.

BD:    Are there any good reasons?

JC:    There are good reasons, but unfortunately I think the intransigence of the musical business plays a major part.  Orchestras have to get paid so much to make a record that record companies can’t afford to do it.  They should rather be coming in and doing it as a shared agreement.  The rigidity of all of that has led to the death of the orchestral recording industry in the United States.  The lack of vision that a community might be interested in music that speaks to it, and the idea that you will bring music from Europe, and a world that is more alien, certainly can be problematic.  Here in Chicago, the amount of American music the Chicago Symphony performed over the last few years is one-eighth of what it performed when Solti was conductor.  Daniel Barenboim basically likes European music, and likes only a certain kind of contemporary music.

BD:    So it’s the same amount of contemporary music, but it’s less American?

JC:    Yes.  In fact, from eighty percent American and twenty percent European, the percentage has reversed completely, and now it’s eighty percent European and twenty percent American.  And it’s also a certain kind of music, and I think that that’s very destructive.  The whole point of an institution like the Chicago Symphony is as a musical resource in the community to give the citizens of Chicago all sides, and certainly to look at the American side with a lot of love.  That’s what the English orchestras do and the German orchestras do.  That may be happening in the future, but it really wasn’t a priority for many years here.

BD:    So should we go banging on his door, or should we let the composer in residence bang on his door?

JC:    That’s not going to happen.  Evolution will happen, and we’ll see.  But I don’t think you’re going to change someone who has very strong views.  I just personally don’t agree with the views, and I also think there’s a custodian quality about music directorship.  When Leonard Bernstein was conductor of the New York Philharmonic for ten years, he would conduct the music of many composers that he didn’t feel an association with, and he certainly let other conductors do it.  He would conduct Boulez.  I cannot imagine Boulez conducting Bernstein on the other hand!  That would be an inconceivable idea.  It’s that kind of thought.

BD:    We have others here such as Slatkin and Robertson...

JC:    Slatkin does not appear much with the Chicago Symphony any more, and Robertson is much more European-minded.  Americans who embrace the idea of contemporary music are much less welcome, and I just think that’s a bad thing.  We all have to know that it has helped the decline.  It has helped empty, rather than fill, concert halls.

BD:    OK, I am putting you in charge of it.  I’m going to make you Emperor of Music for the world.  How do you divide things up?

JC:    I don’t.  I say, “You should do everybody,” just like we used to do.  We used to do Bolcom and Boulez in Solti’s day.  He didn’t conduct it all, but he made sure all of it was programmed.  Rather than exclude, we need to include everyone.  We also have to reach out and help people understand, which I think the Chicago Symphony certainly wants to do.  We also have to take away the almost ceremonially religious quality about a concert.  We need to show that a concert can be joyous; a concert can have high spirits, as well as being serious.  Angst is not the only way that one can think about art; art actually can be a delight, just as Mozart did in his buffas, for example.  We have to know that, and we have to reflect it in a contemporary way.  Our big institutions have to understand that joy is part of our lives, and look for that in the music as well as the very important serious statements that must be made
and should be madeby any great institution.  We have to be very balanced and very wide and include much more than we ever thought before.

BD:    I’m glad you used the word
include.”  I always tried to do that on the radio, to give everybody their shot.

JC:    Inclusion is what it’s all about.  Inclusion is how it all opens up.  Excluding has to do, very often, with philosophies.  Philosophies of exclusion basically are fundamentalist philosophies, and the whole problem with fundamentalism is that there is only one way!  And there is NOT only one way!

BD:    [Laughs]  There are lots of ways!

JC:    There are lots of ways, and anybody who thinks there is only one way has to really think about that, because that is a dead end.  And in art it’s the worst kind of dead end to say there is only one way.  We have to broaden and we have to widen, but not compromise and not lower standards.  This is a matter of embracing the best of everything
the best of all kinds of music, all kinds of artand pulling them in.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Looking specifically at your pieces, how much of an inclusionist are you, in terms of interpretation by other people?

JC:    I love good interpretation, and I hate bad interpretation.

BD:    What is it that makes it good or bad?

JC:    Usually the gifts of the interpreter.  I love distortion, because art is a matter of taking those dots on the page and transforming them into something that is slightly different.  Someone is making it come alive, and of course, things are going to be distorted.  If you play a Chopin mazurka absolutely squarely, you don’t really play the Chopin mazurka.  There’s a rhythmic distortion that has to take place, just like a Viennese waltz or just like jazz!  But you have to know the distortion.  If you start playing a Chopin mazurka the way you would play a jazz piece, I have the feeling it would be the wrong kind of distortion.  So what we’re looking for is someone who’s an interpreter, who understands that certain works need certain kinds of distortion, and then brings an opinion to that.  Sometimes the opinion is to go against what is on the page, but it’s with knowledge to go against that.  It’s understanding that this is the way this works, but going to try a little differently by doing this.

BD:    You say it’s with knowledge.  Is it also with love?

JC:    Oh, I would hope so!  The reason composers are locked with performers in this kind of embrace of love is to give to something to an audience.  If the performers don’t come out with the love that the composer meant, then the message doesn’t get through.  It’s not the kind of abstract idea where just the pitches and the rhythms are the end.  The pitches and the rhythms are a means to the end, and the end is what they can give to a listener when molded by an intelligence that understands what they are and what they want to tell people.

BD:    When you come to a new piece, do you start with the message or do you start with the musical ideas?

JC:    Ah!  There are no rules.  Sometimes it is one, sometimes another.  What I tend to do is architect the whole piece before I write the music.  I believe very firmly about the idea of architecture and music being wedded.

BD:    So you make sure all the ingredients are there?

JC:    Actually I discover the ingredients later.  I make sure that the building is there, and then I kind of know that there are certain kinds of musical solutions to various aspects of that.  I find them later on because I know that I need them.  It keeps the arbitrariness, a bit.  Composing is always arbitrary; choosing notes is an arbitrary gesture.  But in any particular case, what I’m interested in doing is knowing why I’m writing this idea for that passage; and in order to know that, I have to know why that passage relates to the whole piece.  If I use technique or prearranged forms, like sonata form, those problems are going to be solved.  If I used minimalist techniques or serial techniques, in a sense I’d be given information right away so that I could start writing.  But since I can use serial techniques, twelve-tone techniques, minimalist techniques, aleatoric techniques or whatever, and since my architecture is not necessarily sonata form
although it might turn out to be a kind of that later on, though it doesn’t have to be — I build the architecture balancing the idea of new material and repetition of material which is familiar, like all arts.  That is what the yin and yang of all art is, the balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar.  When I build a structure that balances that way, then I go on to search for the materials of that structure.  Then I find the music; the music doesn’t come first.  But a musical idea of sonority or harmony or rhythm can suggest itself very early in the game, and I wouldn’t throw it out, for that reason.

BD:    These musical ideas that eventually get suggested to you — do they come to you in a flash, or do they come to you eventually?

JC:    It’s like everything else, it’s unpredictable.  It’s searching, but it’s better if you know what you’re looking for.

BD:    Do you always know what you’re looking for?

JC:    No, but that’s the point. 
The only thing you can do to get your imagination to come up with an answer is to feed it information as to what you need, and then let your subconscious work and produce that idea into a melodic or rhythmic thing you want by understanding the problem and helping solve it.  You can’t do everything.  You can’t make it come out with a theme.  One of the ways of getting unstuck is to verbally describe why you’re stuck, and to say what you need but know you can’t find it yet.  Later on, when you’re at the supermarket or something, all of a sudden the answer will appear.  But it didn’t just appear; it was fermenting in the brain and the subconscious.  There is an action between the conscious and subconscious in creativity, but I don’t think that the conscious should leave the subconscious alone.  I think it should goad it into getting the right answer.

BD:    Once you get the right answer, is it so obvious that you won’t forget it while you’re paying for the groceries?

JC:    Mm-hm, yes.  When the right answer happens, it’s usually very clear.  If it’s something technically that I have to write down, I borrow a pencil and write it down!

BD:    I was going to ask if you make the notations right there in the soup aisle.

JC:    It depends on the complexity of the solution.  If it’s simple enough, I just say, “Okay, I know what to do now,” but if I’ve got to sketch this out, I will get my supermarket bag, draw five lines and a clef and do a little work first.

BD:    Should you always carry just a little bit of paper for that eventuality?

JC:    No, I don’t.  I should.  You’re absolutely right, I should do that.  I have some here in the hotel that I just leave out in case something happens.  But I should always carry some.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’m sure that you are asked for all kinds of things from concert music to film music and everything else.  How do you decide, yes I’ll do this, no I can’t do that?

JC:    I do what I want to do, like everyone else!  I usually say no, because to write a piece is a big commitment for me.  If I were very prolific and wrote like Ned Rorem, I could afford to be different about it.  But I know that if I say I’ll write a piece, I’m talking about a year or two, or more, of my life.  And I don’t do that easily.

BD:    So what does it take to get you accept?

JC:    Usually, if someone comes up and asks me to write a piece, I say, “Well, if I get a good idea for that piece, I’ll take you up on it.”  But if I don’t have an idea, I won’t do it.  I couldn’t think of a horn concerto for Chicago.  They had asked me to write it; they commissioned it and at a certain point I called them and said, “I just can’t do it because I can’t come up with anything.  I’ve tried.  I’ve made my subconscious plans and I’ve been at it enough, and now I realize I just don’t have it, and I’m not going to be able to do it.”

corigliano BD:    So you returned the money and dropped the idea?

JC:    It was before we signed the contract.  I just said, “I’m not going to do this until I can think of how to do it.”

BD:    So maybe four years from now, all of a sudden you’ll get the idea and you’ll call them up and say, “Now I can do it”?

JC:    I don’t know if they’ll want me to do it at that point, but certainly that would be the case.  It was, for example, with my Guitar Concerto.  Sharon Isbin had been waiting twelve years from the time she first asked me.  Then I didn’t have an answer, and later I still didn’t have an answer.  Luckily she was a very persuasive person and gave me lots more information about the guitar and its history and things about it.  When she came up with the idea of troubadours, I sat up and said, “You know, that really is interesting.”  There were women troubadours!  It was an age that predated the Spanish flavor, so I liked the idea of getting out of the Spanish problem with the guitar, where everything sounds Spanish.  Then I said I would write her a piece, and she got a commission.

BD:    It was worth waiting for!

JC:    Well, I don’t know if it was musically, but for me it was.  That’s up to other people, but I did write the piece.

BD:    Is it your responsibility to make sure that all of these pieces are worth waiting for?

JC:    I do my best; you can’t do better than that.  I have to feel while I’m writing it that this is the right thing.  Some people may hate it.  Obviously this is a matter of taste, but I have to be convinced myself
and I’m very critical.  I tend not to let ninety percent, or even ninety-eight percent of the things that I think about go out.  I think about it and say, “Well, that’s really terrible and that’s really terrible,” and then I say no.  Or I hit on a solution I get excited about and say, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

BD:    The way you talk about it, it’s surprising that anything comes out, that you write more than a few measures a year!

JC:    Well, [laughs] it’s all that’s happening right now.  I’m working on a piece and I’m stuck, and there I am with the measures not being written.  And I’ve got to get it done by September.  I’ve got to get back to my country place now and really work, because if you don’t have the answer, you don’t know if you’re going to get the answer.  When you spend days doing that, it’s very, very upsetting because it’s not like orchestrating where you get an hour’s work done in an hour.  You put an hour of orchestration down, you can stop and do something else; you’ve had an hour of orchestration.  With composition, you can do a week of composition and be right where you started — no place!  And all I can say to myself is, “Well, you’ve tried.”  But without an answer, I didn’t step forward one foot!

BD:    You can’t just set that piece aside and move forward on some other piece?

JC:    No.  I could go to another section of the piece, but because solving that idea is the problem I’ve set myself, I’ve got to solve that!  I can’t leave it suddenly and just say good-bye, because then I won’t come back to it.

BD:    So you just have one piece going at a time?

JC:    Oh, yeah!  That’s enough.  I find it very difficult to compose.  As I said, that’s my particular situation.  Not everybody has that.  I’m a basic pessimistic, and don’t think I can get it done or come up with ideas until they happen.  So the idea of doing more than one at a time would be unbelievable to me!

BD:    Then why do you put yourself through all the agony?

JC:    Good question!  I love having composed.  I love the idea of having pieces made out of nothing.  Pieces are like buildings
they exist.  And there’s a point that I reach about three-quarters of the way through a piece where I start to enjoy the process, because I have enough of it down to know that it will be.  But until then — which is right now for me, early in a pieceit’s just a matter of total insecurity, and the inability to feel that I will ever finish this thing.  Even though I can argue myself into the ground, saying, “Well, you’ve done it before.  You will do it,” it doesn’t matter!

BD:    I was wondering if you try to get outside influences
friends or relatives or other musicians — to help with this?

JC:    I complain to everybody!  [Both laugh]  I talk to them on the phone, but it’s really a matter of defining it to myself and making it clear.  It’s just the big problem of clarity. 

BD:    So there are people who think, “Oh no, it’s John on the phone again!” and are thankful for Caller ID?

JC:    Yes, I’m afraid so.  My friends know me all too well!  I say, “I can’t do this.  Will you still love me?”  Then I say, “I don’t have to do this anymore.  I did enough.”  And they say, “Okay, stop.  That’s fine!  Can’t we get off the phone?”  [Both laugh]  But it really is a question for me of whether I can or not, and it’s honest, I can tell you that.  It is a question of can I come up with that answer?  I have seen composers and certainly know of composers that dry up, that could not compose anymore.  We even look at people like Copland who stopped for so many years and wrote so little, or Sam Barber who basically didn’t really write much after Antony and Cleopatra, and certainly nothing that entered the repertoire the way his other music has.  One wonders at a certain point, “Have I reached that point in my life where I have nothing more to say?”  Or for whatever reason, it isn’t coming out anymore.

BD:    It sounds like a recipe for paranoia.

JC:    Oh, yes!  It’s no fun!  As I say, if I get enough done in this piece, there is a point that I see, okay, this will be.  Then I will feel differently.  But you’ve caught me at the early stages of a piece, and that’s not a good time to interview me!  I can get very depressing!

BD:    Then we should talk about other pieces where you have gone over the top.

JC:    That’s okay.  I’ve done those.  They’re done.

BD:    Are you pleased that a lot of these pieces that you’ve written continue to get played and played again?

JC:    Yeah, of course.  I’m very happy to hear these and to understand that they’re done.  Now they’re so clear, they seem so obvious to me, and so clear those are the decisions that I made after all those questions, that I feel very comfortable about it.

BD:    You don’t want to go back to any of them and tinker just a little bit?

JC:    No.

BD:    Your publisher must be thankful for that!

JC:    I wanted to re-bar something, but they wouldn’t let me do it because they would have to do it all over again.  It had nothing to do with the music; it had to do with the barring, and making it easier to conduct and play.  I really wanted them to do it in the first and last movements of the Clarinet Concerto.  I learned ways to notate these ideas that are much easier, but they didn’t do it.  They said, “It gets plenty of performances, so we’re not going to spend that money.”  So they didn’t.  I would have liked that.

BD:    That would have helped communication between the composer and performer?

JC:    Yes, making clear how to perform it.

BD:    Are you more concerned with the communication between you and the performer, or between you and the audience?

JC:    Obviously both, but you have to go through the performer to get to the audience.  If what you write is in any way confusing or so difficult that they can’t learn it, then you suffer and the piece suffers and everything suffers!  One of the things you do try to do when you finish a piece is to look it over from the performers’ standpoint, and see that you’ve done everything possible to make it as easy to put together as possible
especially with orchestras because of their limited rehearsal time.  Often it’s a particular case where you know they’re going to read it, and read it once more, and then perform it.  How do you make that into something that they can actually turn into music, even in the first performance?  It’s very difficult.

BD:    Would you make the composition any different if you knew they had a lot of rehearsal time?

JC:    Certainly.  I’m doing something right now that way called Circus Maximus
.  It’s for concert band, and concert bands in universities are really terrific.  They play like symphony orchestras; they’re just amazing!  This is for the University of Texas in Austin.

BD:    Sure, it’s a wind orchestra.

JC:    It’s a wind orchestra, and you can also ask for additional players.  There’s not a problem the way there is in orchestras — you can’t ask for seventeen trumpets, like I have!  They said fine.  It’s a surround-sound piece, but a complete surround-sound piece.  They’re going to do it in Carnegie Hall in February.  That’s what I’m working on now, and I’m stuck at the moment.  But it is a piece in which you’re in the center of an arena, surrounded by eleven trumpets in the first boxes, a marching band down below, a saxophone quartet in the first balcony and trumpets.  It’s all over the place!

BD:    Sounds like fun.  I hope it works!

JC:    I hope so, too.  But the wonderful thing about it is that the bands will rehearse it; they’ll actually learn it and do it.  When I’ve done spatial things with orchestras
like the Clarinet Concerto or the Pied Piper or To MusicI have to make it very limited, something that they can do in a very, very short amount of time and  which doesn’t require that much in terms of understanding.  I’ve taken each piece to where it can go with a standard symphony.  It’s not very far, but it was something.  But here I’m able to do the whole twenty-five or thirty minute piece where surround-sound is the point of the piece.  Instruments over space are discussing things with each other, and there is the idea of the force of the band on the stage versus all the others.  All of that can play as a creative device, which I would never be able to do if I were restricted in the rehearsal time the way you are with an orchestra.

BD:    What about chamber music?  Don’t they have a lot more rehearsal time?

JC:    Sure they do, but you don’t have those large forces.  You can’t do that kind of surround-sound thing.

BD:    But the subtlety of your ideas can come through.

JC:    Yes.  For example, the String Quartet that was the ancestor of the Second Symphony, actually is notated differently.  Three of the movements are spatial notation, which is not rhythmic.  It’s symbols with a line determining the approximate length.  The reason that was done was to give the quartet the flexibility of looking at each other and making decisions on when to move.  That’s something you cannot do with an orchestra.  So one of the things that had to happen for the orchestral version was the whole piece had to be re-notated in standard notation.

BD:    You had more restrictions but more opportunities?

JC:    The opportunities in a live string quartet performance are that the four players can influence the length of time of events much more than a conductor can with the Second Symphony, because they’re much freer.  But it’s a trade-off.  If the orchestra had the same kind of rehearsal schedule as a chamber music group, one could have asked for perhaps more adventurous things that were not traditional.  I think you need to be very traditional about your notation if you write for a symphony orchestra, that’s all.

BD:    Would it be possible, as part of the commission, to put your fee to the orchestra for more rehearsal?

JC:    For that one performance, but then it would have no life.  Gruppen by Stockhausen gets done every God knows number of years.  It’s known that they have to take another week of rehearsal time.  It’s a huge affair, made without any consideration for rehearsal time at all. 
[Note: This work is for 3 orchestras with 3 conductors.  At the premiere in 1958, the conductors were Bruno Maderna, Pierre Boulez, and the composer.]  Occasionally people get together and do it because Stockhausen is a famous man, but I would say that it’s not something that’s really an orchestra piece.  It’s a piece that can be played by an orchestra if they wish to make a special situation that week.

BD:    I’m just thinking that if they put the extended time in for your piece, once it gets done
and perhaps filmed or recordedthen that could be the teaching aid to reduce the amount of time needed by another orchestra and another orchestra.

JC:    It could, but many conductors refuse to prepare that way.  Most of them will not listen to a recording or deal with anybody else’s performance of a piece.  That can be very problematic because it would make things much easier.  But many of them say, “No, I don’t want to be influenced.”  I say, “Well, I was there.  I supervised this recording.  It’s just what I want.”  “I know, but this other guy’s conducting it.  I’m a conductor and I’m not going to do that.”  So I think, “Well, you just wasted two hours of rehearsal time with that decision, because I’m going to still be at the rehearsal doing the same thing I did in the last rehearsal to get the same result.  But if you insist on doing it that way, go ahead and do it.”  So basically it’s a great time saver if someone really wants to do that, but there are egos involved.

BD:    Is your ego involved in all of these pieces, or do you try and let that go?

JC:    Sure!  But I don’t want to dominate.  What I want is people to understand how the piece goes.  Then, if they take it somewhere else, it’s okay.  In a first performance I want to be very controlling; before a piece is born, at the birth and when it’s done and recorded.  Then I let go of it and say, “Okay, now you can do it another way.”  But at least, this is the way I meant for it to be, more or less.  Sometimes recordings aren’t exactly what you want.

BD:    Then a hundred years hence they’re going to say, “Well, this is the way he wanted it to be, so we really have to do it this way.”

JC:    No, no, I don’t think so, although you may be right in one respect.  Something very ridiculous happened in the Ghosts of Versailles.  In Marilyn Horne’s comic scene where she plays a belly dancer, we had an onstage violist to play in an Arabic manner.  It’s a cavatina and cabaletta in Arabic which takes place in the Turkish Embassy, and the player from the Met Orchestra was Arabic and loved to play!  So he ended up not just playing what I wrote, but improvising a good two minutes of music, and singing spontaneously at one point in the middle of the whole thing!

BD:    And that’s on the DVD?

JC:    That’s on the DVD.  Well, I don’t want it because it holds up the aria too long; it really does.  She’s supposed to sing verse after verse, and then he does these things in the middle and you lose the shape.  Your mind wanders a little.  I couldn’t get him to shorten it because he was so enamored of it.  So it’s on the DVD, and when it gets done, even though it’s not in the music they hire somebody to copy it off the DVD!  When I got to Hanover, Germany, there I am and I hear this violist practicing this huge passage I didn’t write!  I asked, “Why are you doing that?”  “Well, that’s your piece.”  I said, “No, it’s not my piece.  My piece doesn’t have that in it.”  “Well, I learned it, and I’m playing it!”  [Both laugh] 
And there it istradition!

BD:    Should you put a note in the rental score saying that this is not really what you want?

JC:    I would think just by not writing anything at that point it would have been, but I maybe will have to do that
if anybody performs Ghosts, that is.  I’m not exactly worrying about it at this point because I don’t have any productions lined up!  But if I do, I’ll mention it early in the game.

BD:    Should you, perhaps, have yourself do a testimony on videotape
“For this piece I like these things and I don’t like those things” and lay out not necessarily strictures, but guidelines?

JC:    I just don’t think that that makes any sense, as long as people get an idea of what you want.  For example, here at Grant Park Carlos is playing my piece just the way I want, although he’s doing some things differently because he really understands how to do my music.  He gets it.  Now if a conductor doesn’t get it, they need a lot of instructions of what to do
how long to hold this, don’t push here, do this and do that.  But if they get it, basically they may do it a little bit differently because they understand what you’re trying to get at.  Carlos truly does; he’s so innately musical.  But I really don’t think that telling people how to do that is, for me, the answer.  I think you have to say that more gifted performers who understand what the real core of a piece is, will find that.

BD:    [Facetiously]  Maybe you should include a quiz in the conductor’s score...

JC:    [Laughs]

BD:    ...and if you correctly answer a certain amount...

JC: get to play it your way...

BD:    ..and if you miss more than a certain amount, you must follow the score exactly!

JC:    [More laughter]  In fact, in the score I have the program note describing how I wrote it and what it’s supposed to do.  I don’t expect them to read it, but if they want to read it to know my views, they certainly can.  It describes the piece very clearly.  It’s written for the audience, and if they want to print it up for the orchestra, they can read it, too!  So information is there.  I certainly don’t want to deny information.

BD:    I think it would be very confusing if the audience is reading your program note and then hearing something that’s completely at odds with what is written.

JC:    Well, yes!  But I’ve read program notes by other composers and then heard their music, and I didn’t understand the resemblance.

BD:    So who’s right?

JC:    Sometimes one wonders.  I think that if you read my program note and you hear the piece, there’s a correlation there because I do try for clarity.  That has to do with whether you’re after clarity or non-clarity as a goal.  Non-clarity has been very popular because it elevates art into a religion.  If you understand a piece, then it’s not written by a God.  God is incomprehensible, so new music that is incomprehensible is more innately God-like than music that is comprehensible and was written by a human being.  That kind of twisted romanticism has governed a lot of the twentieth century.

BD:    That takes a big leap of faith!

JC:    Wagner really started the idea of the God-composer, the idea that a composer was not writing to a God but as a God.  Implicit in this is that philosophy, but Wagner did not do that; his music is clear.  His philosophy reads to the idea that a God does not have to be understood by the public.  The lay public is there worshipping; they have to worship.  Their job is to worship, not understand, and his job is to speak and not be clear.  I’m afraid that that has done a lot of damage to our so-called contemporary music world in the twentieth century.  I think that the young composers in America certainly have outgrown that.  I just don’t know whether it hasn’t done irreparable damage, because people tend to have the automatic thought about new music that they won’t understand it and it’s not made for them.

BD:    So you’re fighting this all the time?

JC:    Oh, yeah.  Everybody does.  That’s the general thought.  The general thought is, “I won’t like this, and it wasn’t meant for me, and I won’t understand it.” 

BD:    Is there any hope?

JC:    There can be if you play music that tries to reach people, and you get spokespeople who like that idea!  [Both laugh]  It has to be something you want to promote!  I think it’s a very worthy goal because now we’re in another whole century.  We have to look at our art form to see where it’s going, and wonder if we are going in one direction and the rest of the world is going in another, and whether our esoteric ideas are really high art and a higher morality or muddled thinking.

BD:    Should music lead or follow?

JC:    I think that music should lead, but you don’t just walk with your back to the person being led and expect them to follow.  You reach out a hand and help them understand.  Unless art is compulsory, I don’t think that we’re going to deal with a situation where people have to appreciate and listen to new art.  They have to want to.  The idea of enticement is not new in art.  Beethoven had it; Mozart was obsessed by the need to reach his audience.  He’d write letters to his father while traveling saying, “I’m changing the movements here and putting this in this order because I know the audience will like it better.”  Does that make Mozart a cheap panderer, or does his music elevate him into a great genius?  You really have to look at this and say, “No, he was really after reaching people.”  Beethoven left the stage because he couldn’t hear the applause.  This was not because he’s such an egomaniac, but because he didn’t think he reached the audience, and he was frustrated!  In other words, instead of being a bad goal to reach people for clarity, in the past it was a real goal that got twisted around in romanticism into this idea that it’s pandering; that the real artist does not speak with clarity to his audience and doesn’t care about it because that is not what he does.  That twisted idea really fouled art in a great way.  Art’s worst enemy was art.  A friend of mine and I talk about the stench of art, the idea that art stifles itself this way and kills itself.  But in fact it should be blossoming and having people come towards it.

BD:    I’m glad that you’ve been able to reach the public all these years.

JC:    I try.  I don’t always do it.  My music can be very complex sometimes, and not all of it’s understood.  I don’t assume that when they hear a piece, they really understand any more than a small percentage of what I’ve got there, but I try.  And that is the goal, yes.

BD:    Good.  Thank you for all the music so far, and for the music to come.

JC:    Thank you.  I hope there is some music to come!  [Laughs]

The American composer John Corigliano continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual, and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last forty years. Corigliano's scores, now numbering over one hundred, have won him the Pulitzer Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award ("Oscar") and have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world. Attentive listening to this music reveals an unconfined imagination, one which has taken traditional notions like "symphony" or "concerto" and redefined them in a uniquely transparent idiom forged as much from the post-war European avant garde as from his American forebears.

Perhaps one of the most important symphonists of his era, Corigliano has to date written three symphonies, each a landscape unto itself. Scored simultaneously for wind orchestra and a multitude of wind ensembles, Corigliano's ambitious, extravagant, and grandly barbarous Symphony No. 3: Circus Maximus (2004) was commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin Wind Ensemble, who presented it on their 2008 tour in Europe and gave its New York première in 2005 at Carnegie Hall. Naxos released a stereo recording of Circus Maximus in 2009, and chose the work as the début recording in its Blu-Ray format. Symphony No. 2 (2001), a rethinking and expansion of the surreal and virtuosic String Quartet (1995), was introduced by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and earned him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Symphony No. 1 (1991), commissioned by Meet the Composer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was composer-in-residence, channeled Corigliano's personal grief over the loss of friends to the AIDS crisis into music of immense power, color, drama, and scope: performed worldwide by over 150 orchestras and twice recorded, this symphony earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

Corigliano’s theatricality, at once thoughtful and innate, has vivified his eight concerti; his most recent concerto is Conjurer (2008), for percussion and string orchestra. Commissioned by an international consortium of six orchestras for Evelyn Glennie, Conjurer was introduced by the Pittsburgh Symphony in the 2007-2008 season, when the orchestra designated him its Composer of the Year. For Joshua Bell, Corigliano composed Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: The Red Violin (2005). Developed from the themes of the score to François Girard’s film of the same name, which won Corigliano an Oscar in 1999, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was introduced by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop and recorded by them in 2007. Vocalise (2000), an unusual single-movement wordless concerto for voice, orchestra, and electronics, was commissioned for the millennium by the New York Philharmonic; Kurt Masur led Sylvia McNair in the work’s première. Guitarist Sharon Isbin and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff introduced Troubadours in 1994. Flutist James Galway and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Myung-Whun Chung gave the first Pied Piper Fantasy in 1982. Corigliano’s kinetic and elegant Piano Concerto (1967), in which Victor Alessandro led Hilde Somer and the San Antonio Symphony, was his first essay in the genre, but the composer credits his first two concerti for solo winds with changing both his art and his career. It was during the composition of the Oboe Concerto (1975: Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Kazuyoshi Akiyama, American Composers Orchestra) and, especially, the Clarinet Concerto (1977) that he first used the "architectural" method of composing which empowers him to forge a strikingly wide range of musical materials into arches of compelling aural logic. The première of the Clarinet Concerto, with Stanley Drucker and the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, was by contemporary accounts the musical event of the year.

While he has composed three large-scale works for voice and orchestra, Corigliano’s lone opera to date is The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), which counterposes the fiction of Mozart and Beaumarchais with the Reign of Terror to create a richly multilayered meditation on the need for, and costs of, personal and social change. The Metropolitan Opera's first commission in three decades, The Ghosts of Versailles succeeded brilliantly with both critics and audiences; the season it opened, Corigliano was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Musical America named him its first-ever "Composer of the Year." After triumphs in Chicago, Houston, and Hannover, Germany, The Ghosts of Versailles returned to the American stage in a newly orchestrated, smaller version in June 2009; premiered by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and directed by their James Robinson, production runs include Vancouver Opera and the Wexford Festival on a lengthening list of future engagements.

Corigliano's two other major vocal works show a comparably lavish and powerful sense of vocal theatre. Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000) boldly refashions texts by the iconic songwriter into a compelling monodrama, by turns savage, yearning, and hallucinatory; begun as a song cycle for piano and soprano in 2000, Corigliano rescored the piece for full orchestra and amplified soprano in 2004. Its Naxos recording, on which JoAnn Falletta leads the Buffalo Philharmonic, was released in September 2008 and garnered Grammy awards for both the work itself and for its leading interpreter, the soprano Hila Plitmann. A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1960, rev. 1999) revisits and combines three of Corigliano's earlier settings of this poet — Fern Hill (1960), Poem in October (1970), and Poem on His Birthday (1976) — with the late Author's Prologue into a "memory play in the form of an oratorio." Scored for boy soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy was recorded in spring 2008 with Leonard Slatkin conducting Sir Thomas Allen and the Nashville Symphony and Chorus; it was released by Naxos in November 2008.

Corigliano is one of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him: its young players banded together after an Indiana University performance of his String Quartet (1995), which Corigliano wrote as a valedictory commission for the Cleveland Quartet and which won him that year’s Grammy Award for best contemporary composition. His first chamber score, Sonata for Violin and Piano (1964), is now a standard of the American violinist’s repertory, having been performed hundreds of times and recorded dozens since the Spoleto Festival awarded the piece first prize in its inaugural Chamber Music Competition. His newest is Winging It: Improvisations for Solo Piano (2008), introduced by Ursula Oppens in May 2009. It joins in his keyboard catalogue the virtuoso showpieces Etude Fantasy (1976) and Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985) for solo piano, and the unique Chiaroscuro (1997), for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. Also recent is his new arrangement of Mr. Tambourine Man (2009) for voice and sextet, which was co-commissioned by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, who presented the first performance in September 2009, and the ensemble eighth blackbird (who tour the piece in 2010). Like the version of Poem on His Birthday for tenor and eight instruments (1970), Corigliano casts these orchestral pieces for chamber ensemble with no loss of force. Phantasmagoria (2000) revisits themes from The Ghosts of Versailles for cello and piano; Fancy on a Bach Air (1996) varies Bach for solo cello. His earliest songs form the cycle The Cloisters (1965), written with William M. Hoffman, who also wrote the libretto to The Ghosts of Versailles. His latest are a trio of cabaret songs to the lyrics of opera composer-librettist Mark Adamo — End of the Line, Marvelous Invention, and Dodecaphonia (or, They Call Her Twelve-Tone Rose) — introduced by William Bolcom and Joan Morris.

Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name. Born in 1938 to John Corigliano Sr., a former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, and Rose Buzen, an accomplished pianist and educator, Corigliano has lived in New York City all his life: for the past fourteen years he and his partner, Mark Adamo, have divided their time between Manhattan and Kent Cliffs, New York.

His music is published exclusively by G. Schirmer.

— October 2009

© 1987 & 2004 Bruce Duffie

These interviews were recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1987 and July 9, 2004.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1988, 1990, 1993, 1998, and on WNUR in 2004.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.  It has also been included in the internet channel Classical Connect.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.