John Corigliano’s Transcendent ‘Altered States’ Score [Terror on the Turntable]

Altered States

Welcome to Terror on the Turntable! In this monthly column, join Rachel Reeves as she explores the powerful and unholy alliance that exists between horror films and their scores. Covering only scores that have been released on vinyl, it’s a conversation about the intersection of music theory, composer style, film history, and the art of deep listening. So, light the candles, put on your headphones, and get ready to drop that needle. The sacred ritual of listening to music on wax is about to begin. For this installment, Rachel takes a trip through John Corigliano’s Altered States score. 

For as long as musicians have been putting notes on paper, queer people have been composing. Regardless of whether they were publicly out in their time or not, the impact and long-lasting effects of queer musical contributions are incontrovertible. While composers like Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland, Ethel Smyth, and Leonard Bernstein typically dominate the queer composing conversation every time Pride Month rolls around, there are also many talented queer composers who have spent time working in the film music sphere (and deserve to be celebrated year-round). One such composer is John Corigliano. 

Though predominantly known as a contemporary classical composer, Corigliano made quite a splash in the film world when he dove in head first with Ken Russell’s sci-fi horror thriller, Altered States. Based on the novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, the film follows the wild psychological adventures of Eddie Jessup (William Hurt). A renowned psychopathologist, Jessup becomes obsessed with sensory deprivation tanks and perceived states of consciousness. After extreme experimentation with an ancient Mexican psychotropic potion, Jessup begins to experience physical, biological devolution. Supported and coupled with Russell’s intense, signature visual style, Altered States proved to be a wild cinematic trip indeed. 

Sonic Serendipity

Well known for his passionate and rather particular taste in music, Russell was struggling to find a clear musical direction for his latest film. At least, he was until a chance musical excursion provided him with the answer in a most dramatic fashion.

“After a tiring day at the Burbank Studios working on Altered States I was out for an evening of relaxation with a much loved and familiar masterpiece the memory of which was blown into oblivion by the music of a name totally unfamiliar to me — John Corigliano. 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.

Not since Bartok’s ‘Miraculous Mandarin’ have I been so excited in the concert hall. Here were sounds of magic and grandeur I had long since despaired of hearing from a modern musician. . . . if only he would compose the music for Altered States instead of some commercial hack we directors are usually saddled with, I thought wistfully. But that’s just a dream.

I should have known better — Hollywood is the place where dreams come true.”

Ken Russell

The piece that Russell heard that fateful night was Corigliano’s “Clarinet Concerto.” An incredibly vivacious, dramatic, occasionally dark, and beautiful piece of music, the appeal it held for Russell is easy to understand. As evidenced in previous works like The Devils, Tommy, and Savage Messiah, Russell’s penchant for the theatrical was strong. Keen to explore the creative potential this new musical avenue could offer, Corigliano quickly accepted Russell’s eager invitation. 

No Noise Pollution Allowed

For Altered States, Corigliano had a narrow window of time to produce a score. Unlike classical composition commissions that allow for a year or more to provide a final product, the film world moves much quicker. Luckily, Russell had full faith in Corigliano’s ability and style. He was also willing to limit the scenes where music would be required. While perhaps not an initially intentional decision, this restrained and deliberate use of music adds great emotional weight to both film and score alike. 

For example, early in the film, the idea of the sensory deprivation tank and its effects are clearly laid out. Allowing for no light, sound, environmental triggers, or even physical requirements from the participant, the experience is as close to pure as one can get and opens the mind to new possibilities. Then, as Jessup and those around him move about the real world, the scenes are saturated with diegetic music, traffic sounds, voices speaking over each other, and normal noise pollution. Notably devoid of score in these many moments and scenes, the dichotomy between the two experiences strengthens the draw for Jessup, understanding for the audience, and the score’s potency and power.

When the score does kick in, its appearance becomes noted and intentional. This first happens with the track “Main Title and First Hallucination”. In this first hallucinatory experience, Jessup confronts his past familial trauma, fear of death, and his tortured loss of faith. As Christian imagery mingles with visual bursts of imagination, Corigliano casually flexes his composing muscles. Implementing some particularly unique extended techniques, familiar instruments such as oboe, flute, and violin become unrecognizable and difficult for the ear to decipher. Juxtaposed with an ethereal harp, sensuous strings, soothing woodwind passages, and bits of religious melody, the scene becomes as jarring and terrifying as it is exquisite. 

At this moment, Corigliano’s music keeps in step with Russell’s bold imagery and visual style. Which is no easy feat by any means. More than just an assemblage of sound, Corigliano digs deep into his composer toolbox and carefully pieces together seemingly disparate elements into one visceral auditory experience. Not only does this highly organized chaos support the cinematic vision for this hallucination, it effectively telegraphs the full sensory experience to the viewer.

Music As Ritual

As do most obsessed scientists in horror, Jessup continues to tempt fate and push boundaries regardless of the risks. This hyperfocused and recklessness reaches its ultimate climax as he taps into his genetic memories and devolves into a primitive version of man. Part ultimate validation, part supreme consciousness transcendence, and most definitely part dangerously irresponsible behavior, this pivotal moment in Jessup’s journey required a strong sonic backbone. Of course, Corigliano delivered with “Second Transformation: The Ape Man Sequence.”

With a carefully controlled frantic swirl of sound, low woodwinds hold the foundation as bursts of brass and insistent rhythmic patterns sound the metaphorical alarms. Often drifting in and out of tune, piano and strings embody the regressive state that Jessup has found himself in. Visceral and urgent, the music at this moment feels as physically present and powerful as the scene itself. Tapping into deeply ingrained cultural associations with particular tones, patterns, and expressions of sound, Corigliano cleverly recontextualizes traditional orchestral instruments to feel grittier, primal, and more universal. Seemingly shapeless on the surface, this highly perceptive, intelligently random presentation of sounds unsettles the scene and ultimately sells the narrative moment.

Acting as a counter to this emotional exercise, Corigliano also imbues the film with a lovely “Love Theme”. Offered as the only real score outside of Jessup’s hallucinatory excursions, the melody is beautifully sparse and tender. As oboes, flutes, strings, and horns pass the solo spotlight back and forth, the more traditional structure injects a much-needed dose of humanity into the film. Easily relatable and digestible, this theme and moments in “Second Hallucination” are perhaps the closest Corigliano gets to expected film scoring in the whole movie. However, even then, Corigliano sneaks in an occasional tritone to subconsciously keep listeners on their toes and subtly destabilize the relationship from within. 

End Credits

For his work on Altered States, Corigliano received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score — a fairly rare thing for a horror film. Though ultimately losing out to Fame, the well-received critical response to his first film score experience was encouraging to say the least. In fact, Corigliano later adapted his Altered States score for the performance stage with his concert work titled, “Three Hallucinations”. 

This fluid transition from concert hall to studio sound stage is one that makes John Corigliano particularly unique. Not only does his music for Altered States work on a cinematic level, the complexity and sonic vitality present throughout allow it to stand firmly on its own two feet. Defying many of the musical genre tropes popular at the time, there is an evolving energy and grandeur that becomes impossible to ignore. Thrilling from the first note until the last, Corigliano’s music is a prime example of a film score that not only succeeds in its mission, but elevates the film into something else entirely.  

While his main musical focus remains firmly rooted in the contemporary classical world, Corigliano has returned to the film world a handful of times when the creative stars align. 

In 1985 Corigliano scored Revolution starring Al Pacino. And in 1998, he wound up actually nabbing the Best Original Score Oscar for his stunningingly beautiful work on François Girard’s The Red Violin. However, after a pretty public score rejection on the 2010 Mel Gibson crime thriller Edge of Darkness (and replaced by Howard Shore) Corigliano has kept his professional distance from cinema. While the rejection had to sting, Corigliano has been very open about the fact that he would indeed return to score a film — if the right project comes around.

If the right film and director combination ever arises, we will all be lucky to experience that moment. 

Crate Digging

Immediately recognized as an important film score, RCA was quick to release Altered States on vinyl in 1981. As musical formats would continue to evolve, cassette and CD versions were released as well. However, it would be quite some time before the score would receive another proper vinyl release. Not surprisingly, it was Waxwork Records who brought Corigliano’s score back to the turntable in 2016. Released in two different but equally beautiful colorways, the release also features some incredible album art by Webuyyourkids. Despite all versions being out of print, both versions are readily available for a decent price. All in all, this is a classic score well worth your money, well worth your time, and well worth your shelf space. 



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