Oscar- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano was born and raised in New York City and received his B.A. from Columbia College, where he studied music. He has been on the Juilliard faculty since 1991 and also teaches at Manhattan School of Music and Lehman College (CUNY). In a three-concert series beginning September 30, the New York Philharmonic, under alumnus Alan Gilbert, will premiere Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, a Philharmonic commission that commemorates the10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. (Corigliano talks about the piece here).
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
My father was a violinist who served as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1969 and my mother was a concert pianist. Neither wanted me to be a musician, and—after two abortive attempts at piano lessons with my mother—I never learned an instrument. I didn’t think I could become a musician until high school in Brooklyn.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up?
In high school, I met Bella Tillis, who encouraged me to write down my improvisations. She invited me to write the school alma mater, which I did. (That’s one of my first written-down pieces.) I have continued to see her since then, and she has been an avid supporter (and critic) of my music.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying?
When I was in my early teens, the LP high-fidelity record was invented. I had a home system with a 12-inch woofer that produced monumental low sounds. Capitol Records released a “Full Dimensional Sound” sampler disc that featured the gunfight scene from Copland’s Billy the Kid. The bass drum made some extraordinary hits during the fight scene, and my room shook with the glorious sounds (I pity my neighbors now). This Copland excerpt introduced me to the world of contemporary music which I now inhabit.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had in your career?
Once I’d had too much wine at a dinner before a performance of my First Symphony and was asked to give a talk onstage just before my piece. I rambled on until I was gently removed from the proceedings. I won’t even mention what I rambled on about—it was unspeakable.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
Rome. Every period of its history is still alive in this astounding city. Modern Rome, with its fashionable stores and restaurants, coexists with Baroque Rome—one masterpiece of a church after another—and Renaissance and medieval Rome as well (just visit Castle St. Angelo). Many feet below the modern streets, the glorious remains of ancient Rome: palaces, baths, the wonder of the Forum. So much of the history of civilization can be seen in this one place. I spent three summers there (but I still can’t speak fluent Italian…).
What are your non-music related interests or hobbies?
I love cooking and food. Naturally, Italian dishes are my favorite, and most of my home-cooked meals are Italian. But I love other cuisines, and good wine. Can I say it again? I love good wine. I also love improving my upstate home—especially landscape gardening. I don’t mean planting flowers; I mean moving earth and stone around to create waterfalls, swimming holes, ponds, and the like. I am, of course, a supervisor. Others with real skills do all the work. But I like to watch.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
I would want my former students to remember to step back and get real perspective on a piece before composing it. I ask my students to outline (pictorially or with words) a piece from start to finish and then find the materials for it. Starting at the beginning with no idea where you are going seems strange to me. How can I lead a listener to something when I do not know what that something is and how I am going to get there? I have always felt this way about music.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The fact that everything you could ever want is here. New York comes as close as any North American city to resembling Rome: it’s such a blend of cultures that we can find anything we want to do, or hear, or eat, etc., right on this tiny island. It’s amazing.
What book are you reading right now, or what CD are you listening to?
Sam Harris is writing the most interesting books about faith and the way the mind works. The End of Faith is, in my opinion, one of the most important books of our time. As for music: almost every day I receive CDs from former students or prospective students. The listening is fascinating, and I must say that I am very proud of my former students who are making very big waves in the world today. They keep me occupied and informed, with lots to hear.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
My dream when I was a little kid was to be a cartoonist. Walt Disney was producing his masterpieces: Snow White, Bambi, Dumbo, etc., and, frankly, I thought he was the most creative man alive. (I must say that I still think so, except for the alive part.) I used to draw animations, and dreamed of animation. Someday I would love to score an animated film (hint…).