Music for the mind: Famous composer answers questions

U-News Staff

Watching a movie in a theater with a tub of popcorn in your lap and your friend constantly whispering, “Why did he do that?” can make it hard to appreciate the finely-nuanced music accompanying the images on screen.  However, it helps when the composer is in the theater with you and shouts out, “That’s the same theme right there.  Do you hear it?”  The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and the Film Studies program hosted John Corigliano at Tivoli Cinemas to give students and community members a chance to view scenes from Corigliano’s scores and to ask him questions.

Dr. Andrew Granade, Associate Professor of Musicology and Dr. Paul Rudy, Curators’ Professor of Music Composition and Dr. Tom Poe, Associate Professor of Film Studies, invited the celebrated composer.

“[His music] is simply among the best in this nation,” Rudy said.

This opinion in not unfounded.  For the past 40 years, Corigliano has created more than 100 scores that have won him the Pulitzer Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, four Grammys and an Oscar.

While the audience had gathered to view clips of the movies he scored, he wanted it to be clear that films were not his primary medium.

“I am a concert composer who has written for films, not a film composer who also writes concerts,” Corigliano said early in the evening.

This distance from the movies gave him a refreshingly blithe attitude about his time spent with directors and filming.  “Altered States” (1980) was Corigliano’s first film–he shared that director Ken Russell hated actors and even mildly tortured star William Hurt during filming.

“He [Russell] told me, chuckling over cocktails, he kept filming for thirty minutes after they ran out of film,” Corigliano said.

This wouldn’t be so bad except that Hurt, who was terrified of snakes, had to have a thick python coiled around his neck for these extra minutes.   He also told the audience that he warned director Hugh Hudson that he needed to get Al Pacino a voice coach for the movie “Revolution” (1985) because the director needed to “establish that this was not the ‘Godfather’ Pacino and more the Revolutionary Pacino.”

“The Red Violin,” the film which won Corigliano an Oscar in 1999, was the first time his music was allowed to shine in the film.  The process of making a score for a film is mysterious to many.  One audience member asked if he gets to see the film before composing

“Oh God, yes,” he said.

He explained he sometimes composes around existing scenes in the movie, as in “Altered States” where the actors were dancing to a specific rhythm and he had to compose a theme that would match.

However, despite his accolades, his score is usually changed by the time it reaches the audience.  When the directors make the final sound changes, they are under a lot of pressure to get the film out. They are at their most exacting and are sequestered in the dubbing studio with only the sound effects department.  Corigliano said this is where directors change the order of songs around, add extra sounds, and—worst of all—turn the music down whenever someone is talking.

“The Red Violin” was the only film where there was a trusting relationship between Corigliano and the director.  He almost refused the movie because his previous experience, a Mel Gibson movie, threw out his score.  He wouldn’t work on another unless the director at least considered his input.

“We circled each other,” Corigliano said of himself and director François Girard, “like these great Japanese monsters, sizing each other up.”

He convinced Girard that a theme was necessary to tie the movie together — which follows the journey of the red violin over multiple countries — and composed a theme which was performed by celebrated violinist Joshua Bell.  He showed a clip of the theme as it transitioned from the creation of the violin to its first owners — young orphans — until it fell into the hands of a young virtuoso.  When the clip was over and the lights went up, Corigliano asked, “Could you hear the theme?  That’s what I was talking about: the glue.”

In addition to some of the more technical aspects of composing, he also showed the importance of what he called “crosspollination,” because he was able to experiment in his film scores and take the his favorite bits into his concert compositions.  Ken Russell told him to “go wild” and “take off” for the score in “Altered States.”

“So I did,” Corigliano said.

He played with horns and combinations that would be called noise in a concert but worked in the film because it matched the characters and the action.

This crosspollination is what Rudy hopes UMKC students will achieve by bringing in such accomplished professionals.

“We bring them to campus to get fresh perspectives from their faculty,” he said.  “Often guests say the same things we do, but it somehow means more coming from someone non-local.”

He also wants them to network and learn how people “got where they got” and be inspired to keep going.  Hearing a complex and majestic score can seem daunting when trying to create one as a student, but hearing someone who owns both Grammy’s and an Oscar say that composing is like “squeezing liquid from a stone” for him may give them heart.