Future Pulitzer Prize-winner John Corigliano burst onto the film music scene in 1980 with Ken Russell’s trippy film, ALTERED STATES. Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, William Hurt stars as a college professor researching different states of consciousness through mind-altering drugs, which cause disturbing physical changes that indicate evolutionary regression. As whacked out as any of Russell’s other films, the film plays like one big acid trip, featuring some unsettling images and impressive special effects.
Russell kicked Chayefsky off the set, so the writer took his name off the project. He credited the screenplay to “Sidney Aaron,” Chayefsky’s actual name and the pseudonym he used to dissociate himself from the film. Though there is some truly awful dialogue (one can assume it didn’t come from Chayefsky’s pen), Hurt is fine in his film debut. Corigliano’s wild score is as mind-bending and unsettling as the film itself.
Corigliano got the job after Russell heard the composer’s Clarinet Concerto at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As Corigliano remembered in an interview, “[Russell] wanted these sounds I had which were very unusual. Ken and Daniel Melnick (the producer) wanted me to use all of my advanced techniques in the writing….They said, ‘We want you to go even further and wilder, and do the wildest score you’ve ever done. Go for it, and we’ll give you any resource you need to do it.'”
With the challenge of writing out a “bubbling cluster of music,” Corigliano came up with the idea of “Motion Sonority,” a single symbol that had a lot of motion attached to it. “I thought if I’m going to write this piece, and it’s going to have to have the motion the film does, and the rushings, and all of this, I have to develop some other symbols like a trill or a tremolo, that can tell [the players] to do something, so that a lot of notes will be played because of this single instruction.
“So I put a ‘C’ and a ‘G’ with a box around it, and I say: ‘Play between and including those notes as fast as possible, constantly changing the patterns.’ Then they all play that—all 20 people. You get exactly the same thing as if I wrote 20 different parts for people playing terribly complex patterns that are changing in those notes.”
Corigliano employed other unorthodox techniques as well. For instance, to duplicate the sound of an ancient horn, the flute players blew directly into their instruments (as opposed to straight across the mouthpiece) and buzzed their lips. To imitate the sound of a Moroccan folk oboe (like a snake charmer), players were asked to take the reed deeper into their mouths and touch the strings wrapped around the bottom so that there was no vibration of the double reed.
But it’s in the hallucination sequences that Corigliano really gets to cut loose. For the first hallucination (labeled “Sacrifice” in Corigliano’s 1981 orchestral work, Three Hallucinations for Orchestra), the pagan slaying of a seven-eyed goat is superimposed against other images of death and sensuality. Bassoons and bleating oboes (whose motif is based on the tritone) clash with percussion and simian sounds, foreshadowing the later transformation. Quasi-religious (and blasphemous) images are accompanied by organ and orchestral fragments of the hymn “Rock of Ages.” It’s like Charles Ives on crack.
The second hallucination (labeled “Ritual” in Three Hallucinations) caused by the Hinchi mushrooms is much more rhythmic and grunting with oboes, trumpets, and anvils galloping alongside an expanded percussion section, augmented by two sets of four timpani each. In the middle of all the wild sounds and rough music, Corigliano finds room for a tender love theme for Jessup and his wife (Blair Brown).
Corigliano was a brave choice, especially given that he had never scored a film before. While ALTERED STATES may be a tough listen, the score is fully deserving of its Oscar nomination and the music complements the film immensely. “I pulled out all the stops of my experimental side,” said Corigliano, “because it was a wild film.”