NEW YORK — Most films have music doodling in the background, but occasionally a movie takes the unusual step of making music a full partner. Such is "The Red Violin," which organizes its sweeping plot around the 300-year history of a musical instrument with a mysterious past.
The film's score was created by John Corigliano, an acclaimed American composer who rarely accepts motion-picture assignments. His credits include an extraordinary number of highly respected works, from grand opera to chamber music, and among his many prizes is an Academy Award nomination for "Altered States," his first movie score. Yet he has worked on only one other picture in the 29 years since that Oscar nod, making the "The Red Violin" a rarity in his career.
"I did it because it's such a music-driven film," he said in a recent interview. "I usually don't want to do film scores because the composer isn't in control of what happens. But here the violin is a central character. The movie has five sections, each with a completely different cast, and the only thing that goes all through it is the violin...."
Mr. Corigliano says another factor was his feeling that director Franois Girard could be trusted to give the music its own life along with the images and performances - despite the pressures that often damage a score's integrity through last-minute compromises.
"Music is usually done at the end of a production," the composer notes. "At that point the director is in a tough position, because he's spent $40-to-$50 million of the studio's money, and tensions are running high.... Leonard Bernstein did only one movie - 'On the Waterfront' - because in the middle of his beautiful love theme, Marlon Brando belched, and the director [Elia Kazan] took the volume of the love theme down, and then brought it back up after the belch. Bernstein never did another movie."
The moral of this story is that "you need a special personality to be a film composer. You have to realize it's basically a job," Corigliano continues, "and you have to satisfy the director even if you don't agree with him. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's very different from the way I'm used to working. I don't need to be a millionaire in my life - I'm quite contented the way things are - so I don't need to take on films. But if there's a special one ... and the director is someone I think I can work with ... then I will."
Whether he's composing a film score or a symphony, Corigliano always starts by developing basic structures that will serve as the core of the piece. "In everything I compose," he explains, "I have thematic, sonoric, and formal threads that run all through it, which everything is derived from. I build architectures without words that make sense out of the material."
All of which is easier said than done. "I hate composing when I start something," Corigliano readily admits. "I only like it when I'm half through with the piece. I like having composed, but composing is horrible. It's facing all your inadequacies."
First digging in to a composition is one area where movie scores, and other works based on words or stories, are more manageable than "absolute" pieces like symphonies or sonatas.
"I always architect a piece before I compose it," Corigliano explains. "Abstract music is the most difficult kind, because you have an infinite number of choices, and limits are what make it possible to compose. Why this theme and not that theme? But if a piece has words, they give me a jumping-off point. If the piece is for a film, this gives me a rhythm, a pace, high points and low points. These are realities against which I compose, and that makes it a lot easier to start."
Corigliano's understanding of film composition includes a healthy awareness of when not to inject a musical element.
"I really love a spare use of music," he says, "just in the right places ... rather than having lots and lots of notes. Music is a wonderful tool for building tension and carrying things forward, but today we have it everywhere - in stores, in elevators, all over the place. We use it as a drug that makes us feel we're not alone. So we forget how fabulous silence can be. Silence is a wonderful sound, too!"
*John Corigliano's score for 'The Red Violin,' along with his "Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra" based on the same themes, is available on CD from Sony Classical; the Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with Joshua Bell as violin soloist.