INTERVIEW WITH JOHN CORIGLIANO

This interview with John Corigliano was originally conducted shortly before the 1999 Oscars, for which The Red Violin won Best Original Score. I donít know why it never ran in FSM. Itís great!


John Corigliano once stated, "The pose of the misunderstood artist has been fashionable for quite a while, and it is tiresome and old-fashioned. I wish to be understood, and I think it is the job of every composer to reach out to his audience with all the means at his disposal." Yet to say that Corigliano has merely been "understood" as a composer is a bit of an understatement. Widely regarded as the new dean of American symphonicism, Corigliano has been embraced by both the fickle concert going public and stone-hard music critics. His large-scale concertos have become staples of both the concert hall and recordings. His Symphony No. 1, as recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was a successful best seller and nabbed two Grammy awards for its composer. [More recently, Corigliano's Symphony No. 2, based on his String Quartet, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music. - DA] In his quest to reach his audiences, Corigliano has spearheaded a new kind of cutting edge -- one which places avant-garde experimentalism in a thoroughly Neo-Romantic emotional framework without skimping on either.

Then there have been Corigliano's film scores. Not since Aaron Copland has such a high-profile concert composer openly embraced cinematic music. Although to date Corigliano has only written three film scores, each has treated the medium with the highest degree of detail and intelligence. The Red Violin, the composer's latest film effort, comes from the director of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and tells five individual tales, each revolving around a mysterious red violin.

Doug Adams: First thing's first, could you tell us a bit about how you became involved in this project?

John Corigliano: It's actually unusual because, as you know, I'm really not a film composer. I've written two films before this, but basically I'm a concert composer. I was having lunch with Peter Gelb, the head of Sony Classics, about a project with Yo-Yo Ma and Manny Ax [Emanuel Ax] (a record that's coming out this spring [this CD, "Phantasmagoria," has now been released - DA]), and he brought up The Red Violin. This is a couple of years ago. He mentioned it to me and I said I really didn't want to do any films. I'd done two and that was enough. He sent the script around to me and I read it and thought, you know this is really a wonderful script, and one that needs music that I think I can write.

Then the other condition I really needed to know about was, could I work with the director? Because [it's] not just my experience, but I think any film composer's experience that the director is the total authority. You have to be able to either reason with the director or just do the job and get out. Since I wouldn't have done that, I had to know that we could get along and argue points with the possibility for either one of us to come out right. So I met with Francois [Girard, director]. I found that in several meetings -- which were kind of nervous at first -- that we really did get along, that we did respect each other, that he did listen to me and make changes when we both thought that they were the right things to do and vice versa. He was also very musical. He's a jazz pianist and he immersed himself in the violin literature to do this film. I felt that his taste was very good. So, that's why I did it, really.

DA: What exactly was your hesitance at first to do another film score?

JC: Well, a film score, basically, is not yours. It's the director's. What you are doing is realizing someone else's vision, which is not a bad thing to do. It's not that I'm against that. But, in my field, when I write things -- if I write a symphony or something -- the performers try to realize what I'm imagining. I find that it's this sliding scale in that relationship. In concert music, the composer's view is usually what the performer tries to [convey], at least while he's alive and there to present it. Then when you get to the world of opera, it's sort of a hybrid between film and concert music in the sense that, yes they listen to you, but not quite as much. The director of an opera does have a lot to say, and very often intrudes upon the music and changes it. I don't mean he rewrites it himself, but he makes sure that it is changed. Then there's the diva and all the other theatrical elements of the opera that tend to do that. When you get to film, in a sense it's a director's art form -- the actor's and the director's. The composer is called at the very end to add the sounds to help envision the image of the director. So you do that. And if you don't do that the director simply cuts it or changes it.

All these directors, [the composer] gets to see at the end of the movie. There they are, they've spent 40, 50 to 100 million dollars, the studio is waiting to see if they're idiots or geniuses, and they're, at this point, very paranoid and crazy. That's the craziest time for them. It's right after they've done all this work, spent all this money, and the last thing is the music. So, [after] all of the tension, that's the last thing. It gets very tense.

I've done two films before this: Altered States with Ken Russell, who is quite musical, and a film which nobody ever saw [laughs] called Revolution with Al Pacino, Nastassja Kinski and Donald Sutherland. It was Hugh Hudson's film. That was done in England and I really didn't have a very good experience with the soundtrack of that. Not because of Hugh, who is a lovely man, but the people there who were in charge of mixing and dubbing. I thought they really didn't do that great a job. Then there was no [album] recording because the film was so unsuccessful. I had [flutist] James Galway playing very beautifully, but you couldn't hear him during most of the film. I said, well, maybe I'll just go back to my world which is what I know and I'm comfortable with. And I told that to Peter [Gelb]. But in this film [The Red Violin] I felt I could do something structurally that would be good for the film, which was to unite it thematically. The Red Violin takes place over 300 years with five different stories in five different countries and languages. That's a lot to pull together, and there's nothing in common with these five [stories] excepting one thing, and that is the piece of wood: the violin. So I made the point to Francois that what he was originally intending to do -- which was [to use] source music for various live sequences, use Bach and Vivaldi and Paginini, and have me underscore it -- would not be the way I would do it. If he had not agreed to that I wouldn't have done [the film] because I felt that it would have been bad, not only for me but for the film.

I thought it was important that, thematically, even when the violin is playing the in 17th, 18th, or 19th century it utilize the same material and carry the music through so that there was the common thread that the picture needed to hold it together. That was essential for me doing it, and he agreed to that, although he said, "Make sure you don't do a kind of Neoclassical music. I really want the thing to sound like it was written in the time." I said, "Well, I can do that, but at the same time it should contain the material of Anna's theme and the chaconne, which are the basis of the whole score." So we agreed to that. We also agreed that it should all be strings. Basically that's what it is -- a large string orchestra.

So that was the basis: first I wrote the chaconne, then I wrote Anna's theme and the other themes, then I wrote the caprices. Josh [Bell, violinist] went to the studio before they filmed and recorded all these things so they could sync them. Then they went away and filmed the work. While they were away filming, I wrote the violin and orchestra piece. ["Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra," a concert work based on The Red Violin material.] It was performed by the San Francisco Orchestra in November and Francois arrived with a videocassette to hand me of the first edit of the film. And he heard the "Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra." But in the Chaconne, which is a seventeen-minute piece, I was able to develop these other materials. And now, the cross pollination went the other way. I looked at the Chaconne and brought it back into the underscoring for string orchestra.

Not all of it is there: Morritz's theme, for example, came later because it was never anything that had do be done in the beginning of the project. So while it sits against Anna's theme in a kind of counterpoint, it basically is a totally different theme. There are other things, but basically I used the material them from the Chaconne plus whatever new material I needed to write to do the score for the string orchestra and solo violin that we recorded for the underscoring of the film.



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