John Corigliano is one of the towering figures of American music, having been bestowed every honor and award a composer can receive, from the Pulitzer Prize to an Academy Award, and two Grammy Awards to the Grawemeyer Award. Now he can add one more honor to the list: Juilliard’s Literature and Materials of Music department has appointed him to the William Schuman Scholars Chair for 2009-10. Awarded each year since 1998, the prize was created with the help of a generous grant from Juilliard trustee Kenneth S. Davidson and Marya Martin in honor of the L&M department’s 50th anniversary, and highlights a faculty member who has contributed significantly to the intellectual and artistic life of the Juilliard community. As a recipient of this award, Corigliano will present one lecture/performance this month and one next fall.
As an artist, Corigliano has always been a seeker, never content to repeat himself or bow to the conventions of his art, and the trajectory of his symphonic output illustrates this. Early in his career, Corigliano claimed he would never write a symphony. Despite this youthful vow, he has thus far contributed some of the most significant additions to the symphonic literature in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His Symphony No. 1, which was performed this past December by the Juilliard Orchestra, is a deeply personal work that serves as a memorial to friends that he had lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In stunning contrast, his Symphony No. 2 is an explosion of his String Quartet into full string orchestra—utterly lacking in extra-musical subtexts, evoking the elegant, formally symmetrical architecture of Bartok. Finally, his Symphony No. 3, titled Circus Maximus, is scored for large wind ensemble, and draws unsettling comparisons between the violent decadence of arena culture in the waning days of the Roman Empire, and that of the ever-lowering common denominator of our own entertainment culture. “The next symphony I write will probably be for voices,” Corigliano said in a recent interview. “I wouldn’t write another symphony for a standard orchestra, because I don’t know what the point would be. I always need to teach myself something new with each new project.”
Given this approach to his art, it is thrilling that he has decided to give the public a peek into his creative process. Corigliano’s first lecture, on April 22 at 10 a.m. in Paul Hall, is titled “Conjurer: The Evolution of a Percussion Concerto From Drawings to Notes to Sound.” For the past three decades, he has started his compositions not with a musical staff, but with a marker and some unlined paper, on which he graphs the formal flow of the work. Regarding this unorthodox approach, he is careful to stress that he “doesn’t want this to come off as a dry, theoretical exercise.” As he elaborates on why this process is important to him, it quickly becomes evident that these visual graphs exist for the most practical of purposes: architecture, which comes first for him. “If you say ‘write a melody’—what for? A pop song? A string quartet? An art song? It could be anything; you need to narrow that down. The way I narrow is from the architecture; what is needed,” he explains. “If you are going to build a building, you don’t start with bricks; you start with a plan, and you figure out what sort of building it is going to be. The same applies in music. You get the information for the microcosm of a piece from the macrocosm. Otherwise, you just end up going up and down and up and down, which is a trap that this method of working helps me avoid.”
In his April lecture, Corigliano will walk the audience through this creative process by specifically examining the development of his recently completed percussion concerto, titled Conjurer; the talk will then culminate in listening to a recording of the work, which is not yet commercially available.
For his second lecture—to be delivered next fall on a date yet to be announced, and titled “A Composer’s Path”—Corigliano will open up a forum in which his multifaceted career will be on display for the audience to ask questions regarding the different aspects of his journey as a composer. The opportunity to pick the brain of one of the greatest living composers is certainly a rare one; many people, even within the classical music community, view the career trajectory of composers as incredibly opaque. Corigliano hopes that both of these lectures will illuminate for the audience all of the different aspects that went into his forging his own uniquely successful path.