John Corigliano, 74, is one of America’s most celebrated living composers. His Symphony No. 2 won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, which goes nicely with his Oscar for Best Original Score for the 1999 film The Red Violin and three Grammy Awards. As the Hartt School’s 2012 “Unclaimed Property” composer in residence, several of Corigliano’s works, including Mr. Tambourine Man, a chamber piece that sets Bob Dylan’s poetry to original music, his mammoth First Symphony, and Circus Maximus (which is just as grand as its name), will be performed by Hartt students and faculty between May 2-5. Corigliano spoke with the Advocate from his home in New York about his residency, why he reworked Dylan and the state of contemporary music.
You are taking up residency of sorts at the Hartt School of Music this weekend. What do you hope students walk away knowing or feeling when you conclude one of these types of mini-residencies?
First of all, a lot of them are not acquainted with contemporary music. Orchestras and choruses usually perform traditional works. So I think it’s important to get acquainted with a contemporary composer, a living composer. It’s terribly important because there are a lot of us, and we are all writing, and they don’t think about us. In my case, I think it’s wonderful that they are performing a lot of my works, because when you play a lot of works, they get to know a composer’s language, their way of speaking. It doesn’t happen that way when they only play one of your pieces. You don’t get a sense of what a composer sounds like.
I wanted to ask you about your chamber piece Mr. Tambourine Man, which consists of Bob Dylan’s poetry set to new music that you composed. Is it true that you had not heard Dylan’s original songs before you set his texts?
It’s true. I know that everybody says it’s impossible, but it is possible. I may have heard them while I was sitting in a coffeehouse in the Village when I was a young composer in the 1960s, but I wouldn’t have listened to them carefully. I would have been chatting. I wasn’t listening. I was sipping cappuccino, talking with a friend about Stravinsky or Copland. I had not heard them, and it would have been detrimental, because I would have either written the exact opposite or would have been influenced by them in some way. There’s a part of the audience that will not like what I’ve done because they are very conservative. They want to hear the Bob Dylan songs and not anything else. But people who are interested in those pieces, who will listen to my pieces -- it’s a schizophrenic kind of activity, kind of like listening to two pieces at once. They hear the music they are familiar with in their heads at the same time they hear my music. A lot of people get a buzz out of that. They really like it.
Was that process, that dual listening concept, something you had in mind when you set out on the project?
I was not thinking of that. The reason I chose poetry by Bob Dylan is that I wanted to have a poet that everybody knew. I wanted it to be American and contemporary and say something about our times. Somebody told me Bob Dylan’s poetry spoke to our times, so I set out and found I could read them as poetry. I ordered a book of his lyrics and xeroxed the ones I thought I could work with, could rearrange until I finally got the sentiment I wanted. I’ve had people tell me that they would never listen to what I’ve done. One was the head of a record company. He said the songs of Bob Dylan were too important to him. I could understand the great influence [of Dylan’s work] because of the poetic content, but then again, when I heard the music, I didn’t love it. It didn’t pull my ear, not the way the Beatles did when I heard them. They were unusual. They were doing something different. When they were playing, I stopped talking to someone and listened to what they were doing. It’s no insult to [Dylan]. He was writing folk music, and the idea is to repeat the music no matter what the words are saying.
How did your life and career change, if at all, when you won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for your Symphony No. 2?
It had an impact on me personally. It was the prize that all composers want. Professionally, I was doing well at that point and I continued to do well. The Oscar [for the soundtrack to the 1999 film The Red Violin, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Score and was also nominated for a Grammy Award] made a bigger splash among my colleagues because it was so unusual. In the classical world, only Copland had won that honor. Tan Dun won it the next year [for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon]. It was more newsworthy to my colleagues, and it’s so public, more than the Pulitzer Prize. You’re on television, and everybody is watching you.
What current trends in contemporary music get you the most excited?
What I’m fond of is the diversity now. When I was a young composer, there was much less diversity. Composers were expected to write in a certain way. In Europe, it’s still like that, still rigid, and the expectation was that you would write like the modernist composers. If you didn’t write that way, you were excluded. Nowadays, you can write any kind of music at all. There are compositions that include rock, early music, ones that sound like early music, all of it is fair game. The composer can do anything, and I love that the most. There are no barriers.
Do you find that young composers are not interested in learning about the traditions of classical music?
They really are not. They are not interested in the tradition, which is unfortunate. They are interested in their colleagues’ music and a few older people, but mostly people their own age. We looked to the masters. They don’t, and they don’t care about that. They care about making music. And it’s made a different way now because of synthesizers, and it’s listened to a different way and absorbed a different way. In some ways it’s for the worse and in some ways for the better that they are all over the place, writing music with great enthusiasm. There are things you can learn and use [from the masters], but kids, young composers are more interested in the techniques of the world around them, which have to do with more popular elements, which they have absorbed into their language.
Post Your Comment BelowCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times