Movie composer John Williams turned 81 in February, and no orchestra stepped up to celebrate the passing of his perfect nine square birthday. Perhaps they were all exhausted by the Tanglewood celebration of his 80th last year. Williams may be America’s most successful movie composer; his music revels in the film’s narrative, loudly commenting on it, and telling the audience how to feel. But he hardly gives any deference to the thinking mind. At the other end of the genre, where artists come from outside of Hollywood and work within stifling budgets, a more challenging creative process occurs. The artistry such a process can yield was in full display on April 23, 2013, when Fulcrum Point New Music Project accompanied a screening of Ken Russell’s Altered States with a live performance of John Corigliano‘s stunning score at Chicago’s Harris Theater.
Hearing Corigliano’s masterpiece played by a 100-piece orchestra, one realized what John Williams lacks, despite all his financial success. Whereas Williams strives to give us a boisterous, catchy tune we can leave the theater humming, Corigliano writes music that is generated by, and reveals, his characters’ inner lives. The film begins, in fact, with a character’s thoughts. We see William Hurt in an isolation chamber as the camera slowly backs into the observation room, where Bob Balaban (Hurt’s lab assistant) drinks coffee and takes notes from arcane machines. It is also Balaban’s voice we hear narrating the scene, along with some unsettling lab sound effects and, subtlest of all, Corigliano’s music. In classic Sci-Fi fashion, Hurt’s character is a doctor performing his own experiment on himself, inducing hallucination through drugs and isolation. Both the original novel and screenplay were written by Paddy Chayevsky, author of Network, as a deadpan satire on the 60s drug movement. The music here is light, just a few slow notes on piano, some strings, dissonance from the woodwind section, and some pitch-bending brass. It’s as if little sonic glimpses of Hurt’s hallucination are breaking through.
Watching a movie with a live orchestra offers more insight into the collaboration that goes on between director and composer. As the story goes, Russell approached Corigliano after hearing a performance of the composer’s Clarinet Concerto. Russell had come to the concert specifically to hear Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, but was so impressed with Corigliano’s piece that he offered him Altered States, which would be his first film score. The composer, who was present at the Chicago concert, was happy to accept. “I learned a lot about writing orchestral music from film music,” Corigliano told the Fulcrum Point audience, during an interview before the performance. But the real trouble with writing for film, he learned, is the time crunch. “I knew they wanted it in two in a half months. Writing this would take me two and a half years.”
To expedite the writing process, he created a series of sonority symbols that could be reused. He also borrowed material from his previous work and worked quickly to capture new ideas as they revealed themselves. The idea for the love theme came to him by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. As a love theme, it may sound like pretty standard film orchestra fare, perhaps with a few touches of French expressionism. On the other hand, close listening proves that it tells the story of the complicated private relationship between the characters, one that is destined for doom. This is the power of Corigliano’s style of film composition: it tells us so much more than we can see.
Considering the demands on his creativity, and the weight of Corigliano’s talent, it should surprise no one that his latest film score, for The Red Violin in 1998, was only his third. In Hollywood, as Joseph Heller once observed, art is the same thing as money. Someone like John Williams, master of the feel-good orchestral composition, will get steady work until he decides to retire. An artist like Corigliano simply can’t waste time appealing to emotion. He’s only got so much time left to figure out exactly who he is and what he sounds like. “Your personal style is what you’re not aware of,” Corigliano said. “The decisions you don’t think of are your personality.”