Sunday, September 18, 2011
Interview with John Corigliano
Photo by J. Henry Fair
Houston's Musiqa opens its season with the Houston premiere of composer John Corigliano's Mr. Tambourine Man for amplified soprano and chamber ensemble and texts by one of the most influential lyricists of all time, Bob Dylan. Karol Bennett is the soprano, and Robert Franz conducts. The concert also includes a performance of John Harbison's Songs America Loves To Sing and a reading by Justin Cronin, the award-winning author of The Passage. Musiqa's five member Artistic Board will also premiere a series of Musiqa Minatures in celebration of its 10th anniversary season.
The lyrics Corigliano chose for his song cycle, including Mr. Tambourine Man, Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower and Forever Young, are as timely today as they were when Dylan originally wrote them in the 60's. "I felt the most important thing Bob Dylan did in the 60’s was raise political awareness of the situations around his time," says Corigliano. "His time is not that dissimilar to our time."
In this exclusive interview, Corigliano discusses the poetry of Bob Dylan, the challenges of composing for the voice, and the current state of music education.
Musiqa: Have you had listeners come up to you, say people in their 20’s or students, and ask you about Bob Dylan? Do younger audiences know who Bob Dylan is?
John Corigliano: I think everybody knows who Bob Dylan is, 20 year olds too. Last season he was playing on the Grammys and he’s got new stuff coming out all the time. He’s an active artist as well as one who existed in the 60’s.
Musiqa: Have you heard anything from Dylan himself about the piece?
John Corigliano: No, not a word. I sent him the CD when it came out, the orchestral vocal performance on Naxos. But I didn’t expect to hear anything for several reasons. He’s such a superstar this would probably be insignificant to him. I think he thinks that classical music is elitist music so he might not respond well and certainly he would probably have a response (like): “He’s setting it all wrong! That’s not the way it goes!”
Musiqa: I wonder about that. I think it would be very intriguing to get a reaction from him at some point. I asked the first question I guess in part because I’d read that when you grew up when Dylan was first making the rounds…you weren’t really listening to his music? You were listening to other kinds of music.
John Corigliano: That’s correct. I wasn’t interested in folk music that basically dealt three or four chords and a melody that stayed the same verse after verse no matter what the words said. I was much more interested in more innovative things like what the Beatles were doing. If was at a coffee house and I heard Bob Dylan, I’d keep talking to my friend in the coffee house and I wouldn’t say: “What’s that?” It wouldn’t have drawn me. I think his words are magnificent, but when I finally did hear the music, I didn’t think it fit the words sometimes because that’s not how folk music goes. It has a single verse even if the mood and the whole tenor of the words change. When I heard the Beatles on the other hand, the orchestrations they do, the harmonies they do, the phrasing – it’s all very unusual stuff. I was much more drawn to that.
Musiqa: Let’s talk about the Bob Dylan lyrics you use in Mr. Tambourine Man. How did they shape the composition? Your composition is a very unified song cycle. It really is meant to be performed one song following the next. Could you talk a little bit about that?
John Corigliano: Well, first thing I did was I got a book of all of his lyrics and went through all of them. I went through hundreds of lyrics and chose lyrics and then I eliminated lyrics that I didn’t think would be right for me. Very good lyrics. But not right for me. And I wanted to do one thing: I felt the most important thing Bob Dylan did in the 60’s was raise political awareness of the situations around his time…his time is not that dissimilar to our time.
Musiqa: Right. That’s what hit me about “Masters of War” in particular. I think that’s an incredibly powerful setting that you’ve done, and very timely as well.
John Corigliano: Very timely. I wanted to place the piece in the 60’s, and I wanted to have something at the end that was a kind of benediction, that we should all strive for the best. And so I put a prelude and a postlude. The prelude is (the song) “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is the story of someone who is seduced by Mr. Tambourine Man’s wild, extravagant, psychedelic colored world of the 60’s. And at the end “Forever Young” is never grow old, no matter how old you are. In other words, always stay young. Someone like (composer) Aaron Copland would be an example of a man staying forever young. He could be 80 years old, but he had the same youthful inquisitiveness and lust for life that he had when he was young.
In between I have five songs. And the five songs start with no spiritual awareness and build to the awareness to the message (Dylan) had for the country. So I started with a poem that nobody knows very much. It’s a song about nothing happening…
Musiqa: You’re talking about “Clothes Line,” right?
John Corigliano: Yes. It’s a piece that’s basically about a family that isn’t doing very much and doesn’t want to know very much. And when something important happens, “The Vice President’s going mad!” the mother says, “That’s too bad…” but in a sense it’s none of our business and we don’t want to know. And the father says, “Just come on in after you’ve taken the clothes in…” And the very telling last line is, “I took in the clothes, and we shut all the doors.” And it was the idea of shutting the doors and not being aware of the rest of the world that’s just…so important. I felt that that was just the quintessential poem of a kind of innocence that is before you realize that there are bigger matters in the world that you should consider.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” seemed to me to be the next logical song, because it asks the question. It’s constantly (asking) can you ignore this? How can you ignore that? The answer is I don’t know how to solve these things, but how can you ignore this and how can you ignore this. It’s a litany of things around the world that you have to pay attention to.
“Masters of War” is the total awareness of the war machine. The people who make money out of bullets and guns. The kind of world in which governments all over the world are harming to fight other governments. I think it’s the most hard-hitting poem I’ve ever read. And I tried to give it as hard hitting a setting as that. Because I think it is a masterful piece of writing.
I mean, these are all poems as far as I’m concerned. I’m setting them as poems, not as lyrics.
After that, “All Along the Watchtower” is…when you establish the state, the rebels that are gonna come up and turn it over and change it into something new. So you have the joker and the thief. Two different individuals. The thief is kind of cunning and speaks with a different kind of voice in my songs. The joker is neurotic and crazy. He has a kind of insane quality about him. And these two are buddies and they want to take over. And then you’ve got the people on the tower above who are the people who don’t notice this thing. The people who look out on the horizon but don’t notice this fermenting of revolution and revolutions under them. I was very surprised to hear the (original version of the) song was just verses!
Musiqa: The way you set the last line of that song is very intriguing. The line: “And the wind began the howl…”
John Corigliano: Well, then I have this very sharp interruption. And that’s the joker and the thief popping their heads up on the side of the building of the people who are looking over to say, “We are here. You can’t ignore us.” It’s three different settings for each verse. One is the joker’s craziness the other is the thief’s kind of oozing quality of personality. And the third one is this very peaceful kind of thing under which, if you listen to the orchestration, under which the joker and the thief are playing games and getting ready. And then, when just when you think they’re gone, they pop up again!
And that leads to the final song, which is the “Chimes of Freedom.” Yes, and all the injustices will be finally…made right. It’s a song about the trials of the good. The chimes of freedom are ringing for this triumph and really wonderful time when the wrongs are righted. And everything becomes as it should be. It’s a kind of anthem.
And after that reaches a big climax, everything dies away and we have the postlude, “Forever Young.” To stay forever young, to remember these things,
The thing is although you can perform these songs separately, they really do tell that story. But it’s a long story! It’s a 34-minute story. It’s a big cycle!
Musiqa: You’ve written so much for singers. And I think composers can learn a lot from singers and should listen to singers when they’re setting text. What are some things that you have learned working with singers? Something you didn’t know until you started working with a singer on a particular piece of music?
John Corigliano: Well, one of the things about composing for singers…I think composers should sing that melody in whatever range he or she can do it so they can get an idea of how long a breath can hold a line. And when (the voice) has to grab a new breath, when something reaches something uncomfortable high or low, and when the angles of the music provide an unwieldiness for the voice, which is not a clarinet. You can’t just press a button and jump up a 9th and back down again without having some great difficulty. So one of the things about writing for the voice…I think singing at home where no one can hear you. Sing everything you write. The errors you make, you will find out when you do it yourself.
As far as singers themselves, they usually have advice on their particular voices. Where the break occurs. Where they want to take something in the chest voice or not. Where they need a bar of rest, because they’ve been going on for a long time and they just gotta get a little bit of breath before they attack something else. I don’t get too many comments like that because I write for specific singers. If I write for a specific singer, I know the range and what they do well, and I try to write that way.
But with Hila Plitmann you can write anything. I could have written it an octave higher and she would have sung it!
Musiqa: Musiqa is also known for its educational programming. We serve about 6,000 public school kids annually, completely free. We go out to the schools, teach the kids about music, talk to them about how music is put together, and then presenting two different multimedia shows that combine music, visuals and acting, and the students get to participate, singing, doing a lot of call and response with our musicians.
What is your impression of the state of music education? Especially thinking about grade school, middle school, you’re early years as a student. What do you see out there that either bothers you or is encouraging?
John Corigliano: Well, the only thing I see that bothers me is the cutting of funds. I can understand it intellectually that we’re all in a tight spot, and everybody’s gotta give. But usually, the arts give first, and other things don’t. And I think that’s wrong. I think that the arts are as essential to kids growth as civilized human beings as math and physics.
Musiqa: As our artistic director Anthony Brandt says: "The arts are not a luxury."
John Corigliano: They’re not a luxury!
Special thanks to Jeremy Howard Beck for his help with coordinating this interview
Musiqa Presents: Play a Song For Me, September 24, 2011, 7:30 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby, Houston TX 77002. Individual tickets: $40, $30 and $20. 50% off for students and seniors with ID. Individual tickets and subscriptions are available at the Hobby Center website.