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I, Corigliano

The BSO performs one composer's commentary/celebration of the decline and fall of the American Empire

Henry Fair
John Corigliano has come to bury the iPhone and to praise it.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 3/17/2010

Circus Maximus

Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, March 18-21.

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John Corigliano's frame of reference for his grandly immersive orchestral composition-qua-commentary on American society begins around 100 A.D. with three Latin words: panem et circenses. Translation: "bread and circuses." It describes a mindset that came to be around the peak of the Roman Empire. In large part, its people had given up on politics. They had chucked being involved in the empire's crude democracy in favor of bread and circuses, cheap and base amusement. Politicians handed it out in exchange for complacency. Economic collapse ensued and, as the cowed population watched the circuses and ate the bread, the empire fell. Enter the Middle Ages.

Rome's Circus Maximus held 250,000 people at its peak--one-quarter of the city's population watching Roman civilization's reality TV, which, in large part, consisted of people dying brutally in chariot races. To Corigliano, the Circus Maximus isn't over. In fact, it's just getting started again. The last episode of Jersey Shore got almost 5 million viewers; American Idol nearly 20 million viewers. Reality TV--and with it, the quick-hit ADD nature of the internet--are, to Corigliano, the panem et circenses of the modern American Empire.

Does that mean America is heading toward the end of its empire? "Yeah, I [think so]," Corigliano says by phone from his New York home. "When Rome was suffering, the politicians kept the entertainment going to divert the populace. [There's] no question that our entertainment is diverting us from thinking that something can come into a city with a briefcase and blow us all up."

Corigliano's 40-minute piece, Circus Maximus, is both his commentary on and celebration of that channel-clicking, web-surfing, American-idolizing culture that the country has embraced with open arms. Twenty million people is almost seven percent of the U.S. population watching one channel of hundreds. Rome's Circus only drew 25 percent of the eternal city's population, but it was the only game in town. America could already be much farther down the spiral.

And such a bittersweet spiral that is: Circus Maximus is both commentary and celebration. It's quite fitting that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is performing the piece: Conductor Marin Alsop is one of the more forward-thinking leaders in classical music, encouraging both bold and diverse programming--and the shattering of the historically well-reinforced wall between audience and performer that exists in the symphony. ("Marin is the future of classical music," Corigliano confides.) Circus Maximus doesn't just break down that wall, it out and out tramples it.

For the piece's performance the orchestra is broken up into three different broad sections: one is onstage, the second surrounds the audience, and a third performs within the audience as a sort of marching band. There are eight suitably quick movements, ranging from long periods of tranquility to a section of jarring starts and stops, simply called "Channel Surfing."

"You hear a click and there's one kind of music," Corigliano says. "And then another click in the middle of the phrase." The section continues on that like that, bouncing between ideas and modes in a whiplash fashion that television viewers are very used to now.

"We have little remotes in our hands and one or two things are happening," he continues. "We're used to having short things, sound bites, and changing from one to another rapidly. It has changed young people. Their brains are wired differently. Channel surfing is just an example. It's really amazing to see entertainment change to people's courts, American Idol, putting seven people against seven people."

There is no way not to take it as a condemnation, at least in part. Corigliano is rubbing the audience's face in it: The composition is baldly representational. The second movement is titled "Screen/Siren"; the titular sixth movement is a chaos brewed from all of the other movements, and the forth and fifth movements are titled "Night Music." In other words, Circus Maximus captures what we are--and what we've lost.

At the same time, the composition buys wholesale into the quick-hit/tabbed browsing/iPhone world. Corigliano is, after all, adapting a style of music that stands at the opposite pole of what he's protesting into that chaotic breathless world. "It's exactly what it is," the composer replies abruptly when asked if this is a celebration of ADD culture. "It's commenting and celebrating. I love the technology. I have my iPhone and my computer. On the other hand, I'm also overwhelmed by it and see the road it's taking me down. Times have changed. People don't pick up the telephone anymore. They type to each other. I think that is very strange."

And what is the biggest thing we, as a culture, have lost? "Tranquility," the composer replies. "The pace of our life has made it impossible for us to think about only one thing. You mind is constantly worrying. [Our] age is much more prone to this kind of thought."

It is a kind of thought that Circus Maximus would seem to concede to, but it is a trade that Corigliano is willing to make. "I think that is a big part of it," he says. "You don't want to play Beethoven. The new pieces composed should try to change the relationship [between audience and orchestra], find ways to break that."

Circus Maximus ends with a shotgun report. It is a signifier for hope. Hope that we can once again find our calm? Hope that the empire dies painlessly? It's uncertain. Perhaps it is just meant to be an introduction to the end of panem et circenses, a final blast as the old empire dies. "With the shotgun," Corigliano notes, "everything changes."

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