by Walter Simmons

CORIGLIANO: Altered States. Orchestra conducted by Christopher Keene. RCA RED SEAL ABL1-3983, produced by the composer.

Unlike many critics, I have the greatest regard for some of Ken Russell’s most controversial films, despite their occasional lapses in taste and judgment (minor matters when measured against the daring originality of their insights). Indeed, The Music Lovers, The Savage Messiah,Mahler, and many of the BBC documentaries reveal the deepest, most authentic comprehension of art, artists and the creative process one is likely to encounter, while The Devils is simply one of the greatest films of all time. On the other hand, Women in Love, the film that won the greatest critical acceptance, strikes me as precious and superficial. Therefore, the perspective from which I approached Altered States differed somewhat from that of Royal S. Brown and many other critics. I had eagerly anticipated that Russell’s treatment of a search for the ultimate essence of life through sensory deprivation experiments and hallucinogenic drugs might be a really potent experience sensually, emotionally, and intellectually. Alas, to watch this possibility disappear among time-worn sci-fi clichés—mad scientist, monster-on-the-loose, Jekyll-Hyde, etc., all the way to a love-conquers-all resolution—was a considerable disappointment. Moreover, in this context, Russell’s notoriously phantasmagorical, hysterically feverish hallucinatory sequences become no more than predictably spectacular production numbers—in a way, even cheap and self-exploitative. And, without knowing the details of the film’s production, I cannot agree to holding Chayevsky responsible for this failure, because 1) Chayevsky is capable of doing fine work—I happen to think Network is an excellent film; 2) Russell has demonstrated the ability to make something meaningful of the least promising material, e.g., TommyAltered States is simply a pot-boiler, in the context of Russell’s work as an artist. But approached as no more than a sci-fi flick, it certainly provides more than its share of excitement and sensational neurological stimulation; and—thanks to Russell’s unusually active interest in music—John Corigliano’s score is not only highly effective, but a prominent component of the overall effect.

Still, the sensory competition from the blinding visual bombardments somehow diminishes the memorability of the music’s impact. This becomes evident upon listening to the soundtrack album as a separate entity, when the magnitude of Corigliano’s accomplishment becomes clear. (“The film is what Ken Russell did, but the record is what I did,” he has said.) 

There is no question but that his involvement in Altered States , with the attendant publicity—not to mention the Academy Award nomination—represents a quantum leap in Corigliano’s career. But, in many ways, Altered States is also the composer’s most successful musical achievement, highlighting his greatest gifts while freeing him from strictures that have forced much of his recent work into an uncomfortable compromise—a compromise that hasn’t always been to his artistic advantage. But organic unity and an underlying aesthetic significance are not essential to a fi1mscore in the same way they are to an abstract work. Freed from these requirements, Corigliano achieves a degree of dramatic cohesion and musical interest that is extraordinary for a movie score. The sequences are all neatly shaped, without the choppiness so often found on soundtrack albums. In fact, I have no doubt that this music will have a life of its own on the concert stage, either in whole or in parts.

The recording is unquestionably one of the most exciting soundtrack albums around. Those involved seem to have taken great pains to make its impact as vivid as possible. The music is a veritable textbook of late 20th-century sonic effects—a psychedelic Le Sacre—performed stunningly under the direction of Christopher Keene. The sound quality is literally shattering—the “Laboratory Experiment” and “Final Transformation” episodes are real speaker-blowers at full volume, with sounds that are truly astonishing. Surfaces are pretty good, but my copy did suffer from some inner-groove distortion—perhaps inevitable at dynamic levels like this. One complaint, however, concerns the complete absence of any program notes whatsoever. This is a real omission for such unusual music—I’m sure Christopher Palmer could have done a great job.