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At 70, a Master Reflects on His Methods

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For more than four decades, John Corigliano has been one of the leading figures in American contemporary music, and one whose work defies categorization. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammy Awards, and an Oscar, Corigliano is no stranger to accolades—and 2008, the year of his 70th birthday, has been especially full of them. In a recent interview, the composer, a Juilliard faculty member since 1991, shared some thoughts about his career and his creative process, and reflected upon his First Symphony, one of the seminal works in his catalog, which the Juilliard Orchestra will perform on December 12 at Carnegie Hall.

John Corigliano in 2006. The composer's Symphony No. 1 will be performed by the Juilliard Orchestra on December 12 in Carnegie Hall.

(Photo by J. Henry Fair)

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In the late 1980s, while serving as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Corigliano was asked by the orchestra’s music director Sir Georg Solti to compose a concerto for orchestra. As he was preparing to begin work on the piece, news came that one of his closest friends had been diagnosed with AIDS. “At that time, it was untreatable, so that was a death sentence,” he explained. “You had about one and a half years to live, maybe two. I realized that writing a concerto for orchestra was really a very trivial thing to do, especially since I’d lost so many friends to that disease, so I felt that I needed to write about my friends who had died and one who was dying.”

The resulting Symphony No. 1, which netted him the 1991 Grawemeyer Award in composition, might be considered one of the masterpieces of the contemporary orchestral repertoire. It is formally divided into four movements, each of which recalls different friends lost to AIDS. In the first, violent music alternates with the offstage echoes of a 19th-century piano piece, a favorite of one lost friend. The second movement features a tarantella composed prior to the symphony for a friend who later suffered from AIDS-related dementia; the dance is twisted and disfigured almost beyond recognition. The third movement is an elegy based on transcriptions of improvisations recorded by Corigliano and a cellist friend from his student days. The Epilogue features wordless epitaphs played by solo instruments that fade into antiphonal brass choirs, a texture Corigliano designed to mimic ocean waves, which to him are “an aural image of foreverness.”

The work has received a variety of responses, which he has found alternately surprising and satisfying. “I was absolutely stunned at the premiere,” he said, “when someone asked me about the political implications, because I was writing it as a totally personal work.” He also stresses that the work functions independently of its programmatic elements. “When it was played in Kiev, there were no printed program notes. It just said ‘Symphony No. 1.’ The audience didn’t know what to expect, and some of them came out weeping, because they felt it was a tragic symphony, like the Pathétique,” he said, referring to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. “The wonderful thing about music,” he continued, “is that it doesn’t tell you specifics. It’s one of the few art forms that allow us to add our own personal, subjective feelings to something that is non-specific.”

Those who imagine a composer at work as an old, deaf man wandering through the streets of Vienna, pockets overflowing with manuscript paper, might be surprised by Corigliano’s approach to his craft. “I don’t start with music,” he explained. “I start with ideas. I write them down and draw maps of them, so that I really know what the piece is, just like an architect draws a blueprint, because I think it’s terribly important for me to know what the whole piece is, so that I can pick the things that are right for that piece. One of the things about me as a composer is I start from zero each time,” he continued. “I’m not a serialist, a minimalist, or any -ist. Anything can happen, which makes the starting process rather slow. If you just say to me, ‘Write a melody,’ I could not answer you what to do. What kind of melody? A pop song? The slow movement of a string quartet? It could be anything. I don’t design the cornice … and then say, ‘I wonder if it’s an office building or a private home?’ I try to find out first. It’s long and it’s time-consuming, but then, if I use disparate sources or techniques that usually don’t belong together, they’re there because the architecture demands it. So it seems pretty natural to me, but it means there’s a long period where I don’t write anything, where I just think, draw pictures, type myself messages.”

A 70th birthday might tempt a person to dwell on his laurels, but Corigliano declines to do so. “There have been an awful lot of … landmarks,” he says, gesturing to the “shiny people,” as he calls the awards adorning the shelves of his studio. His works have been performed by some of the most significant artists of our time, including Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Joshua Bell. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles, written in commemoration of the Metropolitan Opera’s 100th anniversary, was the first new work commissioned by the Met since Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra 25 years earlier.

He emphasizes the importance of maintaining perspective, especially at the beginning of a career. “I think it’s hard to realize, when you’re a young composer, that it’s all a step ladder,” he said. “There’s no single way. It’s just continually writing different pieces. I’m a rather slow composer, so I don’t have a huge list of pieces like some do. But every piece that I write, I put everything that I can into it, and it exhausts me; it frightens me. Finally, at the end, I have it—and then I feel wonderful, because I have managed to capture that out of nothing. And then that gets played, and I have to go and face something else.”

“What you really have to do,” he advises, “is write your piece, put everything you can into it, and go on to the next thing. Then, when it gets to the point where you’re no longer a young person, you’ve amassed a bunch of things. I’m putting together a Web site for the first time, and it’s quite astounding how much I didn’t know I did. Truly. When you look at it all together, you say, ‘I guess I really work hard.’”

Not that this should come as a surprise to a composer who sets such high standards for himself. Before setting out on a work, he says, “I have to come up with a reason to write—I have to ask questions. Not just ‘Why do I want to write this piece?’ but ‘What can I do in this piece that takes me places I’ve never been before?’”

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