Thursday, August 5, 2010

Altered States: This is What Scary Music Sounds Like

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the curious Academy Award nomination for James Horner's Aliens. (As it turns out, Herbie Hancock won for best score that year.) Well, that ain't nothin' compared to the travesty that happened in 1981. More on that later.

For now, let's consider the marvelous piece of orchestral and cinematic insanity that is Altered States, delving deeply into the mind and primordial ur-being of a man relentlessly seeking a different experience of reality. It's one of those relatively rare instances of a composer who mostly works in the "classical" world of orchestral music coming over and scoring a film -- and it was an inspired choice in this case. I specifically waited to order this CD before going on with the blog, because I didn't want to leave out this masterpiece of (post?)modern, nerve-jangling, completely transformative music by John Corigliano. It's out of print, too, so it wasn't the usual two-day Amazon turnaround, either. I know you've just been on pins and needles waiting for this entry, too, haven't you?

My friend Richard introduced me to this film and music eight or nine years ago, and I haven't been quite the same since. If you're not famililar with the film, the first thing you need to know is that it's directed by Ken Russell. That goes a long way toward telling you what you're in for. Russell is a filmmaker who's totally unafraid to venture into risky, bizarre, outlandish territory, and happens to know quite a bit about music to boot. He's directed operas, music documentaries, and several biopics about famous composers, most notably about Mahler. According to the liner notes for Altered States album, Russell discovered John Corigliano at an LA Philharmonic performance of one of his pieces in 1979. Russell says:

Reading from my program that he was a contemporary composer I braced myself for thirty minutes of plinks and plunks that pass for music these days. I was in for a shock, a surprise, a revelation.
. . . .
If only he could compose the music for Altered States instead of some commercial Hollywood hack we directors are usually saddled with, I thought wistfully.

He got his wish. Altered States is one of just three film scores Corigliano has written. I have one of the others, The Red Violin, which in many ways could hardly be more different from what this disturbing score delivers. Richard knew I was interested in Corigliano because of his Red Violin score, and he had run into the composer himself at some point during his professional development - can't remember exactly how. (Yes, Richard, unlike myself, is a trained musician and composer, among his many other talents.)

Since I am assuredly not a trained musician, I can't hope to express in any useful way the structural and tonal sophistication of Corigliano's work for Altered States, except in very vague impressions. This is a score that perpetually keeps the listener off-balance but never loses its grip by delving too far into the atonal chaos that swirls around its melodic - dare I say, sometimes lyrical - core.

Those chaotic sounds have a lot in common with the kinds that audiences are used to hearing in many of the better thriller and horror scores: A throbbing, undulating miasma of dissonant strings, occasionally jarring electronic effects, harsh percussion intruments like ratchets. Many film composers will dip into this more modern, complex style of writing from time to time for dramatic effect, but seldom as the core of a score. John Williams, for example, excels at peppering his scores with these kinds of off-putting effects when he wants to punch up something scary, before returning to more familiar Romantic territory.

Corigliano's score, on the other hand, turns that model on its head. It lives in the unsettling, bizarre territory and hooks us in with occasional appeals to familiar melodic places we might rather go. Pretty appropriate for a film about a man venturing deep into the grip of mind-and-body-altering substances.

For example, in the first track, in the midst of swirling, menacing strings and low brass and oddly squawking woodwinds, a piano emerges playing a tune that could be derived directly from a Chopin nocturne. An especially rich, lyrical theme recurs throughout, a dramatic and romantic love theme that's featured most prominently in the tracks "Love Theme (natch, Track 2)" and "The Final Transformation (Track 9)."

Even in the grip of the chaos, though, Corigliano maintains a sense of melodic forward motion, even in the absence of anything a layman's ear (like mine) could pick out as a clear melody. It's not just a bloody mess, or deliberately ear-shattering noise. Within the swath of disturbing sonic soundscapes, Corigliano finds grandeur in deep, crashing chords and clear, lonely-sounding horns. It reminds me very much of the absolute apotheosis of rage he achieves in a non-film composition, the first movement of his Symphony #1 from 1990. Oddly enough - or perhaps perfectly naturally - that movement also features the eventual intrusion of a sentimental melody on a piano, played against the primal scream of the orchestra. I say "naturally," because Altered States itself seems like it would suit a contemporary concert hall just as well as a film. The only film composer I can think of who can spend as much time comfortably and competently exploring this dark territory is Howard Shore.

Despite the concert hall cred, Altered States clearly benefits from having this score specifically written for the film. When other contemporary non-film composers have their music used in films, for some reason, it seems simply to be appropriated and stuck in at moments that the director feels appropriate. Kubrick did this quite a lot, and other instances of it can be heard in works like There Will Be Blood, in which Arvo Pärt's "Fratres for Cello and Piano" makes a brief dramatic appearance in the midst of Jonny Greenwood's unconventional score. If you're going to use music by a living contemporary composer, why not try to get him to do something new for the film? Clearly it can work.

So, at the top I mentioned a travesty that happened at the Academy Awards in 1981. Travesties at the Oscars are nothing new or uncommon, but here's one that just boggles the mind. For the film scores of 1980, the nominations field included both Corigliano's Altered States and John Williams' score to The Empire Strikes Back -- which is perhaps the polar opposite of Altered States but still an indisputable masterpiece, a contender in my mind for the slot of Greatest Film Score of All Time. So, with two amazing powerhouse scores in contention, what score took home the Oscar?


That's all I have to say about that.

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