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Exclusive Interview with composer John Corigliano: Dec. 22, 2009

John Corigliano: Mr. Tambourine Man; Seven Poems of Bob Dylan
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta

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Rel. 30 Sep 2008

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On Tuesday, December 22, 2009, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award–winning (for the film Red Violin) American composer John Corigliano, whose orchestral song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan won the 2009 Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Composition." In this fascinating and in–depth conversation, Mr. Corigliano reveals his impressively creative intellect, as he discusses a wide range of topics – including accounts of several specific works, his approach to composition and musical architecture, his attitudes on the role and perspective of the modern composer, and much more. This is a brilliant way to begin our new year (and new decade), and we invite all Classical Archives visitors to enjoy the music and the provocative words of a modern musical giant, John Corigliano.

“I asked myself, 'Why am I using an 18th century form? What about these forms make them really work?' And what makes them work is the understanding that composers of those days had – of the yin and the yang, of the familiar and the new. All these forms are combinations of something you know that is played again, and something new for variety. And the simplicity of that idea is really amazing, because it's not a musical thing – it's a human thing.”

  • Nolan Gasser: Let's start with some of your recent activity: among your newer concert scores, from 2007–08, is a concerto for percussion and orchestra, now titled Conjurer [originally called TriplePlay]. In your program notes, you start by expressing your initial hesitation about writing a percussion concerto – "my only reaction was horror", you write. So, now that you have completed the work, and have heard a number of performances, do you feel that you managed to avoid and overcome some of the innate challenges you first saw in the genre?

  • John Corigliano John Corigliano: Yes, I really do. I'm not going to toot my horn and say "it's a great piece", or whatever, but what I set out to solve ¬– those things that were the stumbling block of my writing a percussion concerto – I believe I solved. I love percussion in the orchestra, but as a solo concerto vehicle, I found three things really bothering me [as discussed in his program notes: 1) a percussionist plays dozens of instruments, thereby obscuring his/her identity as a soloist; 2) most percussion instruments have no pitch; and 3) most percussion instruments don't sustain a sound]. So, it was solving those things that made it possible for me to write the piece.

  • NG: It's not unusual of course, for a composer to consult with a soloist when preparing a concerto, at least to some degree; I'm assuming that given your concerns with the medium, not to mention the brilliant skill of your soloist, Evelyn Glennie, that you had some conversations during the composition process. Was this the case?

  • JC: In fact, no, we didn't – mainly because Evelyn is such a world traveler and is very busy. It's a bit like Joshua Bell [for whom Corigliano wrote the feature part in his film score for The Red Violin, and the subsequent Violin Concerto]. People think I had conferences with Joshua, but you couldn't find him [laughter]. He spends about two weeks in New York, and then he's all over the world. The same is true with Evelyn. Actually, the time I spent with Evelyn was about a month before the premiere, when the piece was finished: I flew out to her place in England to spend a day with her, to choose the mallets and to go over the piece with her. That was really the first talk, or in fact, the first in–person meeting we'd had.

  • NG: Recently I spoke with Renée Fleming about the piece [Le temps l'horloge] written for her by [French composer] Henri Dutilleux; she mentioned how Dutillieux was quite familiar with her work through recordings, and would occasionally ask her things as he was writing. Since you didn't have personal contact with Evelyn, was her manner of playing or her unique skills part of your strategy in composing the concerto, or did purely musical issues drive you in the process?

  • John Corigliano JC: In fact, it was the opposite: Evelyn's playing is so visually theatrical, that in effect I tried to write a piece in which you didn't see the soloist – like a recording, or if you were blind – you simply heard the music, and the soloist is always present playing melodically and rhythmically. Evelyn can take any percussion piece and turn it into a full–scale concerto, whether she's playing 250 instruments in five minutes or three instruments – simply because of her personal charisma; I mean she's amazing! In addition to being a great player, she looks amazing, and she dresses and moves in a poetic way. You know she wears no shoes – to listen to the lower sounds of the instruments. So, in effect, that makes it easier for a concerto to work live when you're looking at it.

    My problem with that was: what happens if you're not looking at it – if you're listening to a recording? And many percussion concertos, when I listen to them in recordings they sound like orchestra pieces with a lot of percussion in them. So, that was one of my problems. How do you make the soloist a soloist without an Evelyn to look at?

    The solution to that led me to isolate the soloist from the orchestra by taking away everything but strings. That was the first decision I made –that it was not a healthy thing to have trumpets and trombones and clarinets and flutes and bassoons, all with their colors, let alone other percussion instruments and harp, etc., competing with the coloristic display of the many colors of the [solo] percussion. So, I tried to pick a homogenous section with the orchestra – and the most homogenous section is the strings, because they're really all the same instruments just bigger. Although they can sound very differently played in different ways, they can also sound like one big sound in and of themselves. So, I counted on that to illuminate the soloist.

  • NG: Ah, so the work is then for string orchestra and percussion soloist?

  • JC: Yes, exactly. Then, the second thing I did was to divide the choirs of the percussion. That is to say, what can I do to make groups of percussion instruments so that the percussionist isn't playing a pitched instrument, a drum, various mallets, various gongs all one right after the other? In which case, our mind boggles with the sounds, and we don't really follow it.

    One of the ways of doing that was to isolate it into families. The first family I tried was pitched and un–pitched percussion. But that really didn't work, because there are many in the un–pitched percussion category that are really pitched, like temple blocks – I mean, they really have pitches. At the same time they are categorized as un–pitched. So, I thought, "Well, no, I'm just going to muddy the waters that way." And then I finally decided on the three basic elements – even though there are many others – the three basic elements of what percussion instruments are made of: wood, metal, and drums – that is, skin. That became another focal point to narrow the vocabulary so that you could really hear the soloist.

  • NG: That's a creative solution, for sure. Now, you mentioned that Evelyn plays without shoes: part of that is because she has a hearing condition [Glennie has been "profoundly deaf" since age 12, meaning she can hear sounds at around 90dB or greater], whereby in performance she relies much on "hearing" with her feet. Did the fact that you limited the orchestra to strings alone pose any problem for her?

  • John Corigliano JC: Yes, it was, it actually was a problem. In fact, she said this concerto was the hardest piece for her – because although the sound of brass or other percussion instruments go right through the floor to her feet, with string instruments, only the lower strings create sounds that she could feel: the contrabasses and some of the low celli notes. So, she really did find this quite difficult.

    There was another thing about this concerto, and that is, writing melodically; I didn't take the commission until I figured out a way to make the percussion soloist play melodically. Usually in percussion concertos, if there's a melody it's played by the cellos or by the violins, and the percussionist is playing some sort of rhythmic ostinato around it, or doubling it with a percussion instrument that doesn't sustain. So, I searched and searched, and found that I could use the technique of using a mallet to hit a vibraphone – which would make a sound like a piano – and then at the very second it was hit, bow [with a string bow] the end of that very same metal plate so that the sound is sustained. And if you did that, you could provide sustained sound with an attack that could go from one note to another. And that was the very first thing I did in writing the piece, was to decide how I could write melodically, and then to actually write the melody for the vibraphone, struck and bowed.

    But that was very hard for Evelyn. The reason is that the bowing is something that – first of all – isn't called on a lot for percussionists. They do it, but they don't do it a lot. This was a long three–minute melody, which was played by being struck and bowed. And the second thing is that if you bow a certain way, you can get the octave harmonic above it; but it's very soft, and Evelyn's hearing was such that she didn't hear when she was getting the upper octave or the lower octave. So, she had to do a lot of practicing, and in the first performances we got a lot of upper octave playing. And then later on, when she learned exactly where she had to put the bow to get the lower octave, it worked out perfectly – I mean, she did it artistically and in a magnificent way. It was just a technical problem, that she couldn't really hear whether it was the upper or lower octave.

  • NG: I also read how you built a sort of new "instrument" out of various non–pitched percussion instruments, creating a kind of keyboard that would sit behind the marimba in the wood movement...

  • John Corigliano JC: Right, yes. The marimba is made of wood and of course it has actual pitches. We took two pieces of wood, and constructed on the other side of the marimba a kind of keyboard; on that keyboard we started out with very high non-pitched percussion, things like claves, etc., working our way down through temple blocks and various other instruments and finally getting to the log drums and the low percussion instruments. So, they paralleled the downward scale of the marimba as you move down, so that you could actually play a run that started in the un-pitched percussion, and then go over to the marimba by just angling your body; and then back up to the un-pitched, down to the marimba, up to the un-pitched, down to the marimba – and playing a scale in which part of the notes were from one, and part were from the other. So, it gave me a nice way of dealing with un-pitched and pitched, and showing how nice it is to blend them.

  • NG: It certainly sounds fascinating, and it's great that with the multiple performances she's given, Evelyn has overcome her initial challenges. Do you know when a recording of the concerto is going to be available?

  • JC: It's going to be recorded soon in Albany, New York, by the Albany Symphony, with David Alan Miller conducting, and with Evelyn as soloist. I don't know exactly when it's going to be released, but it will be on Naxos.

  • NG: We'll look forward to that, and will feature it when it comes out. Now, I'm anxious to talk about some highlights and perspectives on your amazing career, but one more current project question, if you don't mind: I was going to ask if you had any future film scoring projects, and lo and behold I see that you do – namely, the score for the forthcoming Mel Gibson film, Edge of Darkness, to be released next month...

  • JC: Ah, I have to stop you there... they threw out my score (laughter).

  • NG: They did?

  • JC: Yes, they did, they did.

  • NG: Oh my goodness – quel scandale!

  • John Corigliano JC: Yes, it was quite a trauma, because although this is done all the time in Hollywood, I'm not used to it, and it was a shock for me. What happened was that the original producer was independent, and the director and the producer asked me to do the film with the film editor. I wrote the music and Leonard Slatkin recorded it in Abbey Road Studios [London]; it was a gorgeous recording and they were so happy they couldn't believe it; they just loved it so much, and everything was fine. But then the producer sold the entire movie to Warner Brothers – who came in and looked at it, and saw a movie in which Mel Gibson was treated in a very sensitive way.

    In fact, the reason I was asked to do this film is because it wasn't a "shoot–em–up" film – it wasn't an action film. It was a film about a man who in the first four minutes watched his daughter being shot – there was all this mourning, and horror, and sorrow, and loneliness – because he was divorced from his wife. Eventually, he finds out that his daughter was shot not by people who were trying to shoot him – which is what he thought at first – but in fact by people who wanted her dead because she was working in this illegal government–sponsored facility, and she was going to blow the whistle. So, he investigates, and as a result he too is killed. Throughout the film, his daughter kept coming back to him as a vision, and in the end the two of them walk off together. So, they wanted a film that pointed out the poignancy of the relationship, rather than a high action film, and I wrote the score for that.

    But Warner Bros. wanted another film. So, they shot more sequences of guns and car chases and battles, and [film composer] Howard Shore raced into the vacuum and wrote the score. So, it's going to be Howard Shore's version of Edge of Darkness that you'll see. And mine is destroyed because I don't own the copyright, so therefore it is at this point a non–existent score.

  • NG: So, it's beyond the "edge" of darkness, it's now gone completely into it...

  • JC: I'm afraid so. It was very traumatic at first, but you know the one thing I did do in this case, which I didn't do with the other films I've scored, is to insist on a really good fee. I said look, I'm not really interested in doing a Mel Gibson film. Politically, and in every other way, I don't like the man. It's an interesting idea, but I'm going to ask for the fee that other Hollywood composers in the top rank get. I got that kind of fee, and so that's my solace in this. The film music is gone, but at least I have a better checkbook than I did.

  • NG: Well, there's something to be said about that. But what about the actual recording made by Slatkin and the London Symphony – isn't that something you have access to?

  • JC: I don't think I do. It's owned by Warner Bros. at this point. If they wanted to release it, I know a company that would do it, because – and this is really ironic – the film score for Revolution, a film I wrote in 1985 that won the Anthony Asquith Award [from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts], is just coming out now. It's a gorgeous recording; I produced it in London in the first all–digital studio, so it has this really beautiful sound. And Sir James Galway is playing the flute and tin whistle in the piece. The recording of Revolution is coming out just when the Edge of Darkness film would be coming out, so instead of one score I got another one to come out [laughter].

  • NG: You've previously turned your film scores into concert works – with The Red Violin being the largest example [spawning 6 distinct works], but also the Altered States soundtrack, which spawned the work 3 Hallucinations. So, you certainly can do that with your original music for Edge of Darkness.

  • JC: I assume I can... though at this point, I don't want to think about it...[laughter]

  • NG: Yes, give it some time. Maybe if you buy yourself something nice with that money, it'll take the sting away...

  • JC: Yes, in about a year or so, maybe I'll think about doing something like that. But, since it doesn't appear in the film, I really don't know whether I can do that. It's not the same situation as those other scores: when my music appeared in the film, I don't think they minded at all. But, here they might mind, since they own it. I'd really have to get permission from them to do that...

  • NG: Well, this is quite a saga, and one that future historians will surely get a kick out of as they work through this episode.

    So, now I'd love to take a glance back at your esteemed career. There is no doubt, I think, that you are widely recognized as among the premiere composers of our day; is this success, critically and professionally [a Pulitzer, 3 Grammys, an Academy Award, etc.] something you sensed possible within yourself, back when you were laboring, for example, on your Violin Sonata, in 1962–63?

  • JC: Well, I want you first to realize that – and I mean this honestly – I don't feel that way about my career and myself. I feel I'm one of many composers who are recognized, but I don't put myself in the premiere position. I mean, certainly John Adams occupies the premier position of composer to most people's eyes, and I think of myself as someone who is recognized and accepted and liked, and I just try to do my job. I just try to write the next piece that I really want to write. In a sense, it would be very hard for me to have that kind of grandiose view of myself; it's not in my nature to do so – I didn't have it then, and I still don't have it.

    Certainly, when I started composing, I just really wanted to compose because I wanted to be involved in music so much. My father was a performer and I used to sit backstage in the green room at Carnegie Hall when he would play concertos with the New York Philharmonic – I'd be biting my nails, and waiting for every difficult passage to come up. It sort of inhibited me about being a performer, so that I never felt that I could stand on stage and either play an instrument or conduct. On the other hand, I was in love with music and wanted to express myself, and I found that I could improvise and start to compose things by myself. And so when I got into college, I majored in music, and from then on, I kept composing.

  • NG: May I then re–phrase it to say that this is my sentiment, and one I know that is shared by many – but I certainly understand your perspective. However, you obviously are aware that you have been able to achieve a level of prominence – not only with the awards and accolades you've received, but also with the many performances and recordings of your music – that is not very common. And certainly, when you were starting in the early 1960s, contemporary music was not necessarily so well embraced by the public at large.

  • JC: Well absolutely – those were very tough times, and I think we're getting out of that. I'll tell you what I think: I think that the 20th century was a reaction to the 19th, and the 21st century is a healthy reaction to the 20th. In the 19th century, for example, the idea of the composer as the "god composer", certainly Wagner promulgated that notion, and I think it was something that grew and grew: the idea of the composer as this mystical, religious figure of incomprehensible greatness, to whom audiences looked up to as the master...

    If you take this idea to the extreme, which in fact did happen in the 20th century, then it becomes very important for the composer to be unattainable by the public –unattainable in terms of a personal down–to–earth quality, and certainly unattainable in terms of the comprehensibility of the music. Because, if you can understand the composer's music, then he's not a god – he's a man. If you don't understand it, well, that puts him in a very special place...

    I think psychologically, the 20th century was very hurt by the excesses of the 19th. And I think the young composers who now have become the composers of the 21st century are sick and tired of that; they just have no patience with it. They want to make music and they want to reach people. They're interested in audiences appreciating their music. They don't think that's pandering and selling out. They don't think that being incomprehensible is a virtue. I'm not talking about everybody, but I'm talking about a large majority of young composers. So, I think that century by century, we have changed, and we're now into a much, much better place than we were in the 1960s, as you say.

  • NG: I agree completely with that assessment on the flow of history, as a common chain of reactions from one era to another...

    When you wrote your Violin Sonata, which was an initial turning point for you, you were 26 and you won the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds Prize. As I understand it, the sonata was originally written for your father, who however was less than encouraging of your aspirations to be a composer. Is that accurate, and if so how did that affect your attitude and your perspective toward composing – especially in that time in which composers and audiences weren't, as you mentioned, really getting along that well?

  • JC: Well, I think that my father had that in mind when I came to him with my Violin Sonata. When I told him I was going to be a composer, he said, "Why do you want to do that? Everyone will hate you." He said, "The musicians don't want to perform contemporary music; the audiences don't want to hear it and the critics don't like it. So why would you go into such a field?" And so when I gave him the Violin Sonata, he said, "I look at too much music, and I'll get to it some time." And he put it away and he didn't look at it. And then it won the Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Competition – the judges were Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Walter Piston; I mean really extraordinary...

  • NG: Yes, that's quite a triumvirate...

  • JC: So, I was very honored, and this was the first thing that ever happened to me, really. And I went over to Italy, and my mother came to hear it – but my father didn't say a word. And then it was played in London by the concertmaster of the London Symphony, and the same thing happened – he didn't say a word. Then Roman Totenberg played it at Boston University. And evidently at that point, my father took the music out of the closet he had put it in, and started practicing it; he then scheduled the New York premiere of it and played it in Carnegie Recital Hall. And he played it for the rest of his life. Then he was a different person about me. He said, "Okay, you're a composer and, uh... wonderful. And I love the piece, and I'm going to play it." He recorded it, and played it many times.

  • NG: That's a great story. And, indeed, it has been among your more successful works, having been recorded and performed so many times; it's become a real staple of the violin literature.

    Already in this sonata, and especially from your "mature" works in the 1970s – such as the breakout Clarinet Concerto in 1977, your music often moves freely between various styles and aesthetic orientations (traditional to progressive; melodic to timbral, etc.) – often in the same piece. Now, this pluralism has almost become a cliché about you; you're probably even a little tired of the description...

  • JC: Well, I would just like to redefine it. When you say the word "style", it's a very loaded one. Because style implies the way a composer writes, and if you say he writes in many different styles, it suggests he doesn't have a style of his own. And actually, I thought that too, but I was corrected by Leonardo Balada, a composer from Pittsburgh, who came over to my house. When I said that to him, "I don't care that I don't have a style; I use what's around to make music, because I think my vocabulary can expand and can include all things..." He said, "Oh, but you do have a style – those are just techniques." He said, "If you want to use a 12–tone technique, or a minimalist technique, or any other technique, it's just: a technique." He had me take out a copy of my Etude Fantasy [1976] and my Fantasia on an Ostinato [1985] – both solo piano pieces – and noted how they were both based on previous material: the Etude Fantasy is based on my first etude [Etude No.1, 1976], which is written for the left hand alone; so all the material came out of how the left hand works – how it turns on itself, how it can play melodies, and accompany itself, and cross over itself...

    ... before this work, I actually didn't know how the left hand worked, in a sense. I was an amateur pianist; I never really studied. My mother was a piano teacher, so I never had any lessons [laughter]... We had a fight after the second lesson and that was it.... so I really had to discover for myself what makes the left hand was so remarkable. And I did in writing the Etude...

    And all the other etudes [of the Etude Fantasy] were based on first etude. And Balada pointed to the opening gesture of the Etude Fantasy: it was a repeated E–flat, and then below it a B and a D – just a minor third, and then it crossed hands from the thumb to the fifth finger playing the E–flat and then above it played a B and a D. And he said, "Look at that passage; now look at the climax of Fantasia on an Ostinato."

    Now, the Fantasia on an Ostinato, was a piece that was written for two hands, and it's based upon the very famous passage of Beethoven's, the slow movement of the 7th Symphony [2.Allegretto]. So, I looked at it, and Balada said, "Now look at the climax of the piece." And sure enough, there was my right hand playing the E–flat, and then up to the B and D; and my left hand was playing the B and D below it–and in exactly the same way, back and forth with the repeated E–flat in the middle. It was identical; it was the actual identical music! And one was derived from Beethoven and one was derived from the left hand. And he said, "That is your style!"

    Balada said, "Your style is the unconscious choices you've made, not the conscious ones. The conscious choices are the techniques you use." But, just like signing your name, you're style is the unconscious choices. If you sign your name, you don't spell every letter out, you sign. And if you show this to someone, they can say that's a forgery or that's a real signature. Well, the same thing is true about composition and music – that your signature is in all your pieces. For example, I don't know why, but it seems I have gravitated to the beginnings and ends of pieces to the note A – in many, many of my pieces. My opera, my first symphony, many pieces start and end on A. Why? I have no idea.

    And the certain spacings, the chords, and the certain ways I think of harmony or counterpoint or other things – those are the things that are the personal style, but those aren't the things I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about something else. I'm thinking about getting this phrase to go somewhere using a certain technique. And so, it was made very clear to me that style is different than technique. And that what we talk about when we talk about eclecticism, is a variety of techniques. And it also appears to me that in this day and age, in which you can go to your computer and access and listen to all music from every age, from every country in the world, anytime you want to, that the opening up of your techniques is a very valuable thing to have, rather than narrowing them down.

    All the "isms" are narrow things. Like minimalism tends to deal with repetition, and the first note is done and then the next note comes in as repeated, and then they build a texture and then one note of the texture changes and another note changes – I'm talking about classical minimalism. And classical serialism has a series of charts in which the pitches and the rhythms and the timbres are pre–arranged. That doesn't mean that there isn't intention put into all of these things, it just means that they don't go from one to the other.

    Whereas in my pieces, I have used 12–tone music, which is organized, not serial music, but organized into 12 tones, when I wanted something chromatic. And I also used repetition, such as in Fantasia on an Ostinato – repetition and texture that could be called quasi–minimalist, because I find they're both very useful foils of each other.

  • NG: That's a great explication of so much of your aesthetic. And I realize it's the potential carelessness of language: the word "style" is one of those, I think, that is thrown around with multiple meanings and indeed, "style" is one that is a personal thing, as opposed to the techniques, which are more objective.

  • JC: Right exactly.

  • NG: So, I appreciate that clarification. You mention that yours is a rather eclectic approach; is this aspect of eclecticism something that was in you from the beginning? Was it something that was encouraged by your teacher, Otto Luening – I know that he's also one that's sort of celebrated for a rather eclectic approach before it was in vogue?

  • JC: I actually only took class composition with Otto Luening, I never had private lessons; I had only one lesson with Vittorio Giannini, so actually I really never had, as you would in a conservatory, a private composition teacher and lessons. I kind of regret that an awful lot. And Otto is a wonderful man. We stayed in correspondence and saw each other for the rest of his life, because you know, he lived well into his 90s. And he was a wonderful man, but we never really had composition lessons. He always said to me, why do you want to write like that, when I wrote my first little two–piano piece, called Kaleidoscope [1959]. And I said, "Because I think it's beautiful." And that was because it was a very Americana work written, at the time, in Columbia in the 1950s when no one else was writing like that. But he was a wonderful man and as far as the eclecticism goes.

    I think that discovering new things is always very valuable and important. But it's how you use them that make the difference. It's like orchestration; it's wonderful to discover orchestral techniques, but if you put them all on at once, or you don't have a real plan for how they should be, the orchestration can be very vulgar or a big mess. On the other hand, discovering new techniques of how the instruments play can really add a lot to the music if you place them in the right position. So what I do, to be eclectic, is I architect the entire piece before I write it. Then I have areas that I know I'm going into that are very different from other areas. And all of that is pre–arranged, so that when I start composing the piece, I know that the inevitable reason for, say something harkening back to either a musical quote or a musical age, or a musical remembrance, would have a reason.

    I mean, the reason that the solo piano plays, in the first movement of my first Symphony [1988], the Albeniz "Tango" [from España, Op.165] in the Godowsky transcription, is because it was written for my friend Sheldon Shmelnik, who died a week after the premiere, of AIDS. And it was written as an AIDS memorial while he was still alive. And that was his favorite piece.

  • NG: It was his signature encore.

  • JC: Yes, it was like Träumerei [from Schumann's Kinderszenen, Op.15] for Horowitz, he played it always at the end of a concert. And so, you know, all of this was pre–figured. In fact, I started that symphony with the epilogue at the end, and I had to figure out how I could make waves of sound that described eternity. So, the whole makeup of the orchestra was made up to do the epilogue, which is why the brass players are placed encircling the orchestra instead of in their usual positions, and why there are extra brass. It's to make waves of sound that I thought of as the aural equivalent of ocean waves. The wonderful peace of mind we get when we realize the eternal quality whenever we go near them. And I wanted to bring back all the themes from the Symphony in this floating aura of waves. Now, that all had to be planned out beforehand, because otherwise if I got to the last movement, and I decided to do that – well, if the rest of the piece had been composed with a different set of instruments, and different positions, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

    So, pre–planning and building the whole piece is key for me; like an architect builds a building, or a sculptor plans a sculpture before he starts hacking away and molding a figure, it's very important for us to realize that these architectures are what hold the big piece together. And if you don't use the ones from the 18th century, which were also used in the 19th century: Sonata–Allegro form, and Variations, and Rondos and all of those things – and if you decide to make your own form up, then you really need to make it up first. You need to make that the primary governing force over the piece. And then, it can be eclectic. Then you can use disparate forces, because the building demands it, in a sense.

  • NG: You used the word "architecture"; I've read that this "architectural" approach to composition began for you with your breakout Clarinet Concerto, from 1977 – is that accurate?

  • JC: Actually, the Oboe Concerto was just before that in 1975. That was the first one to use it.

  • NG: Right. Now, building upon what you said with regard to your First Symphony, I was struck, in reading the liner notes, how much a non–musical narrative or storyline guides the work ¬– which makes sense, given the theme of the work [a tribute to friends afflicted by AIDS]. This too gets into your architectural approach, I would imagine. Can you talk a bit about how this approach created a departure from earlier works, and how it has evolved for you over the years?

  • JC: Well, of course, when I started composing and my first pieces like my Violin Sonata or my Piano Concerto [1968] or Tournaments [1965], I was composing using architectures that had been used for many years, because most composers who are composing in a somewhat tonal manner, tend to use the classical architectures that really started with Haydn and developed through the Classical period. And that's what the symphony and the concerto and the string quartet and all of these things are. They are basically, the first movement is always Sonata Form, the second movement is always a slow movement, which could be Theme and Variations or it could be tenary form or whatever. The third movement is often usually a Minuet or Scherzo and the last movement can be many things, a Rondo, or Sonata Form or other things.

    So, composers have been doing that for quite some time. And when I started composing I did variants of that, just like any other young composer would do. But, I started thinking about all of that and I asked myself, "Why am I using an 18th century form? What about these forms make them really work?" And what makes them really work is the understanding that the composers of those days had – of the yin and the yang of the familiar and the new. All these forms are combinations of something you know that is played again, and something new for variety. And the simplicity of that idea is really amazing, because it's not a musical thing – it's a human thing.

    If, in fact, we work seven–day weeks and we work week after week, by the second or third week we want something that is variety – there's too much repetition. If we go to Europe and every day we're in a different city and we're traveling around, by the third week you'll say what every weary traveler says, "I want to go back home and get back to my job, and have a little more repetition, because there's just too much new information being fed to me; I had just too much 'new'". So, this is not music, this is life! These are human beings. And music takes those and builds them into structures. And the way we do that, is we find that if you take something you know, something that you have, and you repeat it, it becomes familiar. But if you repeat it too much, then it becomes overly familiar and boring. Now minimalism is an example of an art form that took that to its extreme and said, "No, we will be boring because that's what we want to be."

  • NG: [laughter] And indeed, I've heard you express some criticism of minimalism for it's excessive repetition, lack of architecture, and so forth; and yet you've also avoided a rigid application of the purely intellectual approaches of serialism, and related techniques that came out of your formative years. Instead you've created your own distinct aesthetic based, as you say, on a "human" orientation...

  • JC: Right. You see, minimalism really started out as trance music; it was music in which you meditated, which you did not listen to the music the acute way you do when you sit in a hard back chair in a concert hall and listen to music. But instead, you meditate with your eyes closed, and your mind drifts off to something else while the music is playing. And that's perfectly good. That's a good function for minimalism.

    Then the 12–tone and serial composers never repeated anything; absolutely never! And their idea was: repetition is needless. We say something and we go on. Well, again, the mind encompasses the first few seconds of a musical piece like that, and after a few minutes of it, the mind turns off. And now we just listen to the sounds, whether they're nice, or not nice. But we don't have any idea of what's happening because intellectually we're left out of the process.

    So, both of those extremes were unsatisfying to me, and I had to find a way to build pieces that had in them the kinds of repetitions and the kinds of new material that excited me. And each piece I wrote was built upon those premises. Some were built with things that were generated by emotional responses, like my Clarinet Concerto – which was the first piece written for the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra I grew up with. Some were intellectual ideas, like my Oboe Concerto, in which there are five movements of five different aspects of the oboe – things that only an oboe can do. And I did that because I felt that most oboe concertos basically were concertos with "singing" instruments; and that any flute or clarinet or violin could play an oboe concerto. But what is special about the oboe? To do that, I kept listing oboe things and ideas until I had found five things that could form a concerto – and built it that way. So you see, each piece has a different way of being generated.

    And it's kind of interesting – it's a little scary too – to start a piece, because you really don't have any master plan. You have to make the master plan. You don't have Sonata Form to fall back on, or you don't have a technique that says: "there is no form" to hang on to. You say, "No, I must create one." And that's what I'm doing right now. I'm in the process of thinking up something for a new piece and at the moment, it's all very cloudy. I don't have the answers.

  • NG: The "human" notion is certainly very striking ¬– to put the musical work into a human context, taking into consideration the human need for variety as well as things that are familiar. And this approach is likewise key to the process of communicating with an audience.

  • JC: Exactly, because none of these things apply if you don't care about communicating to the audience – which is why in the 1950s we had such a horrible experience. At that time, there were composers who had no interest whatsoever in communicating with their audiences – only with other composers. And therefore, it became a very closed situation. The composer's music was played, the audience sat there in mute silence, having to regard it with admiration because they didn't understand it, and being intimidated by it, and turning away from it, and finally rejecting it. And saying, "I think I'll just go to a show instead", or "I just want to hear another Brahms Symphony, which at least is speaking to me." I think it was a terrible tragedy in the 20th century that we had to go through all of that to get out the other side. But I think it's great that we did get out the other side.

  • NG: These trends are not without precedent in earlier parts of music history as well. I think of the Ars subtilior period in the late 14th century, where similarly things got terribly intellectual, and closed out the audience. It's almost as if society occasionally needs to go through that extreme process before it can come up with a more communicative praxis. And perhaps that's what we're going through in our own time.

  • JC: Yes, there are waves; history goes in waves and everything is a reaction to what was, so we are reacting to the 20th century now, and the next century will react to that. I don't really know how, but it will.

  • NG: That's the beauty of history, that mystery of what's to come! But I think this expresses what is so admirable, and so inspiring, about your music ¬– and now, with your words as well: to articulate the conflict that so many composers of a younger generation have had to face, and to consider how do solve the problem. And I think you've expressed it exactly: to be aware of the human dimension of our craft.

    Another work that has garnered a lot of attention, especially recently, is your setting of seven Bob Dylan poems, as a cycle, Mr. Tambourine Man [originally for piano and soprano in 2000, orchestrated in 2003] – the recording of which garnered you your third Grammy last year for Best Contemporary Composition". I admit that I was among those who was at first incredulous that you hadn't heard these songs sung by Dylan himself – "Blowin' in the Wind", for example; now, was pop/rock music something you generally avoided, or just ignored?

  • JC: Right; that's a very good question. Everybody asks me this question and I understand the confusion. I was interested in certain pop music: I was interested in the music of The Beatles because I found it stimulating – harmonically, rhythmically, timbrely, and intellectually – it caught my ear. I'm talking about the music now, not the words. "Yesterday," for example, is a seven–bar phrase that takes a three note motif that is actually the same motif as the G minor symphony of Mozart, and then proceeds to first transpose it in the first iteration, the second iterations it transposes and augments it. And in the third iteration, it transposes, augments and inverts it, and then comes back to the original. Now that's ear–catching to me, when someone does that. That doesn't mean that they thought that when they were writing it. It means that their sensibilities interested me. Bob Dylan was a folk composer and basically he wrote music that uses maybe three or four chords, is always in 8 bar phrases and repeats. If you hum the first 8 bars, I would be able to probably hum the next 8 bars. And I'm not being insulting, because that is the tradition he was working with.

  • NG: That's why it's called "folk" music.

  • JC: Yes, and against that he set some very great poetry, and he did not reflect the poetry in the music. The music rides under the poetry to sustain the singing of words that are extremely charged and extremely full of emotional intensity that very often is not there in the music. So, I may have heard "Blowin' In The Wind" in a coffee shop down in The Village in the 60s sometime, but it was playing and I was talking to someone else and my ear didn't stop and say, "What is that?" So, I count that as not "hearing" it because I never investigated it, it never turned my head musically. Now, if I had heard the words –it's very hard to hear the words in a coffee shop and especially with Bob Dylan singing, the words are not always that clear – I would feel very differently about it. But, just on the musical level alone, it did not fascinate me. I didn't find things in it that made me sit up; and, so I didn't listen to it.

    And I know that some people will take this in a really bad way because they worship his music as well as his words. But that's what makes ball games, in a sense. I was more interested in Stravinsky and Copland and Bernstein and all of those composers; and among pop composers that interested me were mainly The Beatles, because they were doing such interesting things.

  • NG: And they had someone like George Martin [their perennial Producer at Abbey Roads studios], who also knew Stravinsky and Bernstein...

  • JC: Right, he had a tremendous knowledge. He brought sitars and all sorts of non–Western instruments into their band, as well as orchestrations. And it was not just the music, of course – it was the phenomenal orchestration and production! But, the real truth is the tunes and the harmonies, and the way they put together songs – that was unique to me. When I heard that, I said, "Who are they, and let me get a record of that, and let me listen to that." And that's what I did.

  • NG: Well, certainly the numbers of modern composers who are Beatles fans would likely outweigh those who are Bob Dylan fans. At the same time, it can be argued that Dylan's musical settings – although done in a colloquial, popular style ¬– can provide a great reflection of the lyrics; I think of something like "Masters of War", which you likewise set in your cycle.

  • JC: Yeah, I don't think I ever heard that song sung by Dylan, but maybe I did... You know, I really don't know; he's a very musical man, but he's working with a completely different idiom, and one that deals with a smaller box of ingredients. And he wasn't trying to get out of the box either. He was working brilliantly within the box. But that box didn't interest me, so I didn't go any further.

  • NG: Has Dylan responded to your settings? I would imagine he has heard them...

  • JC: I have no idea! I wrote him a letter and sent it to him, but he's an iconic figure. It's like writing a letter to Queen Elizabeth and expecting to get a response. You really don't. I never expected to get a response from him and I also strongly suspect that he would really hate them...

  • NG: I would doubt that. He actually has a radio show [on XM radio], and he's quite eclectic; he surprised me too. The things he pulls out are quite surprising in their diversity, as well as sophistication. I think it would be an interesting question to pose, if he's heard them and what he thinks...

  • JC: I never had his address personally, but I sent it to his manager, who is a very nice man in New York, and who promised to get the letter and the Naxos recording to Dylan. And I'm sure he did. And if Dylan heard it, whatever he did with it, I'm not sure – it might be a coaster for drinks [laughter]

  • NG: Well, we can pose the question that way [laughter]...

  • JC: Yeah, I mean they can always serve as coasters [laughter].

  • NG: Yes, so long as people sell CDs, they can serve that double function...

    I have two very quick last questions for you, John. First, you mentioned that you're now in a stage where you're having to devise that architectural scheme for a new work – can we ask what you're working on, and what we can look forward to?

  • JC: Well, not really yet, because if it comes through, they want to announce it. I say this because nothing ever comes through until it comes through. I'm thinking about it because I'm told that's going to happen, but since there's no contract and it isn't officially announced, I can't. But it's something for orchestra.

  • NG: All right, well you've certainly peaked our curiosity, and we'll look forward to that announcement.

    And finally, going back full circle, I understand that as a young man, you worked as a programmer at WQXR – which of course, has seen its share of change recently – still classical, but no longer at 96.3, no longer owned by the NY Times. Do you worry at all about the state of classical music in America, or are you bullish that we can continue to attract a younger audience, and keep the music – yours as well as earlier masters – alive and well into the 21st century.

  • JC: I think we will always have the same size audience. The thing is that the size that's needed to be commercially viable just grows and grows. I think we probably have the same size audience that we had 40 years ago, the only difference is that the networks and the various cable channels need more and more people to sell their works to.

    For example, I worked with Leonard Bernstein on the Young People's Concerts, they were on CBS which was, as you know, a big network. Then, later on, it got to be that only channel 13 [WNEP] would broadcast art works. And even then it got to the point where someone like Baryshnikov had to have Liza Minnelli come on in order to get the show he wanted, because it was getting to be less and less involved in classical dance or classical music. And now, Antiques Roadshow is the basic show of channel 13, and there's very little of opera or anything that extends the boundaries of classical music.

    And now you go down to the cable shows for it, and that's all because they need more and more viewers. And that's an economic problem. I think we'll always be the same, and we'll always have young people who are interested in us, older people who are interested in us, and it won't vary that much; but I do think that the enormous population is being directed, more and more, to certain kinds of commercial music ¬– that we just don't have any partaking of, it's so vast. So, I think the vastness of that may make us look smaller, but I don't think we are. I think we're about the same numbers probably as we have always been; it's just that the others have gotten so much bigger.

  • NG: Right, there are so many choices nowadays, that everyone is vying against one another for their piece of the market share.

    Well, I'm sure that whatever audience is listening to classical music, they will be hearing your music for many years to come. Thank you, John, for a wonderful discussion.

  • JC: Thank you, it was fun.

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