Composer John Corigliano has a commanding view of music today. Recognized since the mid-1960s as a composer to reckon with, he occupies the role of a landscape architect looking over a vast terrain, sensitive to what is growing and to what needs to be planted.
Corigliano has contributed to the music of the last generation in various genres. His works surface for devotees of song, sonatas, string quartets, film, opera, symphony, and wind ensemble. His compositions lure choreographers. He won an Oscar in 2000 for his score for the film "The Red Violin." He won a Pulitzer in 2001 for his Symphony Number 2. In addition, he is the first composer to have won two Grammy Awards; they were for his Symphony No. 1 (1991) and his String Quartet (1996).
Corigliano’s work is marked by enormous curiosity and inventiveness. His compositions acknowledge the traditions of western music, yet they use novel sounds and non-traditional notational methods. The scoring of his opera, "Ghosts of Versailles," for example, prescribes a synthesizer and 50 kazoos. His two-piano composition, "Chiaroscuro," calls for instruments tuned a quarter tone apart.
Just now Corigliano believes that he is at a compositional turning point. He is undecided about what to write next. Uncertain about the outlines of his next compositions, he is stalwartly fending off attempts at persuading him to accept commissions.
The Institute for Advanced Study Music Series focuses on Corigliano’s chamber music in programs on Friday and Saturday, December 2 and 3, in Wolfensohn Auditorium. Performers from Copland House, the center for American music based at Aaron Copland’s former home, play music by Corigliano and by both Igor Stravinsky and Copland, composers who influenced him.
A pre-concert talk with the Copland House performers takes place Saturday, December 3. Institute for Advanced Study artist-in-residence Jon Magnussen, who organizes the Institute concerts, guides the discussion.
A conversation with Corigliano, Magnussen, and Michael Boriskin, head of Copland House, takes place Friday, December 2, at 4 p.m., in the West Building Lecture Hall. Boriskin, a concert pianist to perhaps a greater extent than he is an administrator, plays in the Copland House ensemble. Earlier this month, in performance with the Princeton Symphony, he revived the George Perle concerto commissioned for him. (U.S. 1, November 9.)
The musical and non-musical aspects of Boriskin’s and Corigliano’s careers are, in some ways, parallel. Boriskin’s performances and his habit of thinking about new music led to his selection as the administrative and artistic head of Copland House. Corigliano’s productivity as a composer and his penchant for thinking about musical issues won him a faculty position at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he is distinguished professor of music at Lehman College. They have both considered seriously the nature and role of new music in today’s concert halls. And they are both down-to-earth.
Composer Corigliano has settled into a quiet acceptance of his fame. When CUNY decided to run subway ads showing a distinguished professor and a student, they turned to Corigliano. "I was the first one," he says in a telephone interview from New York City. "Maybe it was because of the Oscar and the Pulitzer," he adds in an offhand manner.
Born in New York in 1938, Corigliano comes from a musical family. His father, also named John, was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for more than 20 years; his mother, Rose Buzen, performed and taught piano.
What is Corigliano’s instrument? "Nothing," he announces decisively. "My mother tried to teach me piano," he says, "but we fought all the time. Piano is the nearest thing to an instrument that I play, but I wouldn’t play it in front of people. I learned it the same way I learned how to fake typing."
Corigliano has a working knowledge of what particular instruments are capable of. "I talk to somebody who plays the instrument that I’m writing for," he says. "Musicians like to be asked for advice."
A music major who graduated in 1959 from Columbia University, Corigliano told Frank Oteri of the web program "New Music Box" at www.newmusicbox.org: "I wasn’t a great student because basically they were teaching that tonality was dead, and you must learn row technique, which I did, but I was very rebellious. I wanted to get out of school – because the atmosphere seemed to be closing rather than opening – and get into the living idea of what classical music was in the world." The informative, extensive interview can be found at www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx.
Out in the world Corigliano worked for radio stations WQXR and WBAI in New York City. He was employed by Leonard Bernstein’s "Young Peoples’ Concerts" for 13 years. He worked with CBS television and produced records for Columbia Masterworks.
As a composer, he was first noticed after winning the chamber music prize at the 1964 Spoleto Festival for his Sonata for Violin and Piano. Among his high profile pieces are his Symphony No. 1 (the "AIDS" symphony), which he wrote when he was composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1987 to 1990. A Grammy winner, the symphony has been played by well over 100 orchestras worldwide.
As a contemporary composer of opera, film music, and symphony, Corigliano’s name has risen to prominence even outside the music world. However, he told Oteri of New Music Box, composing in all three areas no longer satisfies him.
His "Ghosts of Versailles," commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company, made its debut at the Met and has played to sold-out houses. Set during the French revolution, it deals with the attempt to bring Queen Marie Antoinette to America. Corigliano was satisfied with the balance between past and present, both historically and musically, that he achieved in the opera.
He told Oteri: "The French Revolution is the ultimate modernist statement. That kind of violent revolution where you chop everyone’s head off and build something totally new is very much like a certain kind of philosophy of musical expression: you don’t look back, you only build new…You should embrace the past and understand it, deal with it, and go forward." He is disappointed that many people notice the opera’s historical musical references rather than registering the fact that it innovates by using a synthesizer and 50 kazoos.
Corigliano told Oteri that "Ghosts" will remain his only opera. "Why should I write another opera?" he asked. Every opera producer will say to me, ‘Write me an opera.’ And I’ll say, ‘What about ‘The Ghosts?’ and they’ll say, ‘That’s the Met’s opera. We don’t want it.’ What’s the point of writing an opera if you write something that’s successful and it doesn’t matter. It was 12 years of work." Corigliano may have to re-think his skepticism. He learned recently that Buenos Aires’ world-renowned Teatro Colon has scheduled "Ghosts" for 2008.
Despite the Oscar for "The Red Violin," his third film score, Corigliano is happy to leave writing for film to others. In the first place, there’s the fundamental nature of composing for film. "You’re writing for a director," he told Oteri. "It is not your vision at all. It can’t be. You are a service to a film." In addition, Corigliano chooses to avoid film because he thinks that others are so good at it. "Most film composers do what they do so well. I don’t think I’d do it better than people who are wonderful at it."
As for symphonic music, Corigliano has attempted to remedy a widespread impression of the nature of symphony orchestra. "The symphony orchestra froze in size in 1900," he says. "The new addition to the sound world is amplification. Concert music has tried to ignore this. But a composer would be foolish to try to ignore it. The composer should make acoustical and electronic sounds come together. Microphones, speakers, and sound systems are part of life now."
Still, despite his Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 2 Corigliano says simply, "I want to get away from the symphony orchestra." He is concerned, at this point in his career, about inadequate rehearsal time for intricate musical composition, about programming driven by box-office worries, and about insufficiently knowledgeable orchestra administrators.
Corigliano has decided to protect his time by refusing commissions at the moment. He wants to avoid obligations until he decides on his next move. "I don’t have a real direction," he says. "The only way to change direction is to stop. The first step is to stop committing yourself. I’ll never find a direction if I keep accepting commitments.
"I don’t want to occupy my time by taking one commission after another. If somebody plays a piece, he will practice for months. If you’re a composer, we’re talking about years. If you accept, you’ve got your next four or five years planned."
When he finds something that he says suits "my particular kind of intelligence and thought, I’ll go for another commission. I have to have a reason to write. Until then, I’ll think about what I want to do. I need to read some books, go to some plays, travel, take care of myself, meditate a little, become a more relaxed person, and then compose something."
Between compositions Corigliano says that it’s important to have new life experiences "because it helps the music." His list includes politics; art; and visual, dramatic, and sensual experiences, such as novel food. "They help you change," he says. "And unless you change, the music stays the same and you’re writing the same thing over and over again."
Firm in his resolve about the purposefulness of composing nothing at the moment, Corigliano says "I want to see what happens." Then, realist that he is, he adds, "Maybe nothing will happen."
Snapshots and Legacies: The Music of John Corigliano, Friday and Saturday, December 2 and 3, 8 p.m., Institute for Advanced Study, Wolfensohn Hall. Concert by the ensemble Music from Copland House features the music of John Corigliano, Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland.
Pre-concert talk, Saturday, December 3, 6:30 p.m., with Copland House members. A separate talk takes place on Friday, December 2, 4 p.m., at the Institute for Advanced Study’s West Building, features John Corigliano speaking with Michael Boriskin and Jon Magnussen. Concerts and lecture are free. Register. 609-734-8228.