Dauntless Virtuoso



With his works performed by prominent musicians and orchestras throughout the world, John Corigliano is one of America's most acclaimed composers. He has written three symphonies, an opera, movie scores and refashioned Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a score with his own newly composed music for orchestra and soprano. He has won three Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Grawemeyer Award and an Academy Award. Corigliano is also a Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, where he has taught for 36 years.

At his Upper West Side apartment recently, he talked about the process of composing, why he loves teaching at Lehman, and why he never paid attention to Bob Dylan in the 1960s.
You grew up in Brooklyn in a classical music family.

Corigliano You could have settled for a quiet life as an orchestra musician but you were drawn to composing. Why is that?

My father was the concertmaster at the New York Philharmonic and I would see him rehearse them and get nervous before the concert and then the next day get the seven New York newspapers and see what they said about them ...so the idea of being a performer ... I could not imagine standing on a stage and playing an instrument. But I loved music and got fascinated with composing.

You got started composing as a teenager, listening to long-playing records in your bedroom?

LP records opened me up to contemporary music because the Philharmonic didn't play a lot of it. I was fascinated by how Copland got those wonderful harmonies by simple chords and spacing them differently. And I'd go to the piano and try to figure out how he got it so fresh even though it was just C major. And then I'd go to the library, get the score and see how he did it. That's how it started.

You do so many different types of composing...symphonies, movie scores...

I never like to do the same thing twice. I have three symphonies and the first is for full orchestra, the second for strings alone and the third for concert band. I try to discover in the writing of a piece, something new.

How hard is the process?

Composing is the most awful thing to do and the greatest thing to have done. But every time I start a new piece, I go through the fires of hell because I have no ideas. I don't write a melody. I have to picture the entire piece ...see its shape so that I can find out what kind of music it needs. Then you have to get the pitches and rhythms. ... It's very hard.

You rescored Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," but you never heard him in the 1960s. How could that be?

I am sure I was in a coffee shop and may have heard his music but my ear didn't go to it because the music is based on three chords ... maybe four ... and my ear didn't find that inviting. It's not an insult to him. That's the tradition of folk music. Very simple for everyone. Now the Beatles' works were so unusual musically that I immediately gravitated toward that, so I can say I knew the Beatles but didn't really know Bob Dylan.

Is it true you got your job at Lehman because your mother met someone in a beauty parlor?

She was sitting next to a woman whose son was Ed Kravitt, who was chairman of the music department at Lehman. And my mother was convinced that if I became a composer, I was going to become poverty stricken and never earn a cent. While Mrs. Kravitt's hair was drying, my mother made a persuasive argument about why her son should hire me.

You've been at Lehman since 1974. Why do you still teach?

I love the students and I love teaching there. Some of the students have composed but some never have. And to see what you can pull out of them -- a student who has never written music before -- to actually compose music and hear it back and watch the expression on his or her face. ... It is worth a lot.

What advice do you give young composers?

I tell them two things: How will you earn a living and compose? Are you willing to take little jobs, side jobs and earn pennies and live rather poorly for a good part of your life until you get enough fame that you don't have to? And two, don't get married at 20-something years old. Wait. I've seen young composers get married and have a kid and be so overwhelmed by the financial and home duties that they can't possibly write music anymore and that's a real shame.This is the default layout for a page with a Menu.