An interview with John Corigliano by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 18/ No 70; 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven
With his first film score, Ken Russell’s ALTERED STATES (1980), New York concert composer John Corigliano made a tremendous impact on the world of film music. His modernistic composition for the film has a remarkable effect, as did his commitment to concert music that precluded him from devoting his full energy to film scoring. His second score, Hugh Hudson’s REVOLUTION (1985), was much buried beneath sound effects, and the film’s poor box office performance canceled plans for a soundtrack album. Other than a short film on Williamsburg, Corigliano has been conspicuously absent (though not un-busy) from film music until the recent release of THE RED VIOLIN.
What attracted you to doing THE RED VIOLIN?
Well, obviously, it’s about a violin, so it’s about music. But even more importantly, for me, since REVOLUTION I had decided not to do any more films because I felt I didn’t have enough control over what happened. But I read the script for THE RED VIOLIN, before it was shot, and the main character is a violin. The film follows the violin in five episodes taking place over three hundred years, therefore the music has to carry the characterization. The music, then, wasn’t playing a subsidiary role here, but actually had to play a major role.
The second thing that made me agree to do it was the fact that when I met with the director, François Girard, I felt that he was someone I could work with, which is essential to me. I wouldn’t do a film unless I felt that.
So even before they started shooting anything, you were very involved in the process.
You had to be with this film, because a lot of the music is actually played by the violinist on camera, and therefore has to be pre-composed so it would be synchronized. So it’s a different process than the other two films I’ve done. Originally, the director was going to use source music – Bach and Mozart and Paganini, etc. For me, personally, I didn’t think it was a good idea to just do underscoring and then have those pieces played, but in addition I felt that the episodic quality of the film needed a single unifying musical idea to go through the ages. It wasn’t a good idea to go through the ages with a piece that had no relation to each other whatsoever. They should have a thematic relation, even if it’s stylistically divergent, and so I talked with François and he agreed, finally, that that was a good method of unifying the work. Because of that, the composition had to take place much earlier, obviously, than in most films.
How did you decide upon violinist Joshua Bell, and when did he come into the process?
He came in before me – he was a friend of François, and he had sent François an enormous amount of recordings and information about various ages of the violin, so in addition to playing the solos, he was also a technical advisor about the various kinds of music that existed. When I came in I was delighted that he was involved, because he’s so terrific.
Because you came into the project so early were you around quite a bit during the filming?
I wasn’t around for the actual filming, but I was around for the recording of the material that would be used during the filming. The film has not only to do with five ages, but it goes back and forth between them – it’s not always in one progressing to the next – and it’s always going back to this fortune teller, telling the violin maker’s wife, Anna, who’s pregnant, about the future of what she thinks is the baby inside of her, but it’s actually the fate of the violin.
The idea of this “fate motive” made me compose what became a “chaconne”, against which all the themes were built, so that they would be heard at the beginning of the piece and they would be underlying all the other themes. The next thing I had to do was to compose a theme for the violin – which in fact was Anna’s theme, something that she could hum, because first she hums it and then it gets taken over after her death by the violin. That was the second thing, based upon the chaconne.
The third thing I had to do before filming was to use that thematic material and that chordal progression to compose a series of etudes that were actually to be played on the camera, so that they could be pre-recorded. After they got those recordings, they went and filmed and I stayed in New York and wrote a piece which Peter GeIb had scheduled for violin and orchestra to be played by Josh that following September. The film took a bit longer than we thought, so the concert chaconne premiered last September, while the film is just opening in the United States. But they intended them to be synchronous.
So I had taken the étude, Anna’s Theme, and the chaconne and built a 17-minute concert piece, which is the last cue of the CD. François came to San Francisco for the concert premiere and gave me the first rough cut of the film. I did a second cross-pollination utilizing the theme, the chaconne, the étude, and also now the 17-minute piece, and that was on its way back into the film score!
The film score is really only for string orchestra and violin. That also was a decision I made very early, because it was such a string-obsessive piece, that the idea of bringing in some brass didn’t make any sense at all. François and I came to an agreement that we would use a pure string orchestra with violin for the film score, but the chaconne is for full orchestra.
How did you decide on using the Philharmonia out of England?
That came through Sony; they produced the soundtrack for the film. Peter GeIb, the head of Sony in New York, arranged it, with my full approval, because Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is, as you know, very pro-film music, but this is his first film score that he actually conducted for the film. It was kind of exciting to have someone like him, the Philharmonia, and Joshua Bell! I certainly had no objections! But Peter GeIb was responsible for choosing that. He mentioned to me that if I hated it he would have done something else, but I loved it. Recording in Abbey Road Studios, which has a very, very good, natural reverb in it, was very good for strings – it makes them sound extremely beautiful.
It’s also appropriate for a film that takes place over three centuries, because the sound of strings hasn’t really changed all that much in the last three hundred years, so there’s a musical consistency you can hold onto…
That’s the point. Strings haven’t changed a single bit! It’s not like a piano, which changed enormously, in which keyboard action was first an invented mechanism with a very primitive way of rebounding, and also because of the construction of wooden pianos – fortepianos – couldn’t be that big and they didn’t have that big a range. With the industrial revolution, we got steel framed construction, and that made it possible to go octaves lower and higher and to tune them tighter, and then the mechanisms were developed and perfected over the ages up to the modern piano. Clarinets and bass clarinets are extending their ranges lower and lower.., all these instruments that are mechanical do get better, except for the violin.
The other thing about strings is that an oboe or a clarinet will sound like an oboe or a clarinet. They really don’t sound very different. But the remarkable quality of the strings is that they’re all the same, from the violin to the double bass – they’re the same basic design, so when they play together they can sound homogenous. On the other hand, each string instrument is capable of hundreds of different ways of producing the sound to make it sound completely different. There’s not just pizzicato and playing with the bow and mutes, but it’s also if you play near the bridge you get a very edgy sound, which is ponticello, if you play on the fingerboard you get a very mellow sound, if you play behind the bridge you get this, it you do this you get that…
There are a million ways of producing the sound, so a string orchestra can be as coloristic as a standard orchestra when it’s used that way. It’s the combination of the unity of sound and the variety of sound that the strings have that make it possible to have just a string orchestra – whereas just having a wind orchestra would be very limiting.
Has this whetted your appetite again to maybe go back and do another film?
Well…. Maybe with the right project and the right person! I’ve got a lot going on – I’m working right now on a piece for the New York Philharmonic and I’ve got commissions for Carnegie Hall and the Boston Symphony, I’ve got plenty to do. The thing about film is that, while it gets a tremendous amount of attention and it reaches an enormous population, the role of a composer in films is basically to satisfy the director’s dream.
It’s a very different kind of feeling when you write film music than when you write a symphonic work. Even in opera there’s always the director and the scenic designer and all these people advising, “this needs cutting, this needs changing” and the divas are changing notes all over the place, whereas when you get into the pure symphonic realm, the conductor asks, “how do you want this done?” and then they all try to do it. So we are running a very wide range there from the composer who creates something and then tried to satisfy that vision, to the composer as an accessory to a director who’s creating something. The film composer is trying to satisfy the director’s vision, not his own, although within that parameter you can be extremely creative. But – and every film composer will tell you this – when push comes to shove, the director decides what goes in and how it goes in. It’s a very different kind of world. I like it, but I would have to work with a director who would trust me enough and I would trust the director enough.