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Fulcrum Point plays score live to enhance ‘Altered States’

William Hurt (right) stars “Altered States” (1980) which will be screened with live performance score.

William Hurt (right) stars in “Altered States” (1980), which will be screened with a live performance of the score.

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When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Harris Theater
for Music and Dance,
205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $25-$50

Info: (312) 334-7777;

The screening is one of several events marking composer John Corigliano’s 75th birthday. Others:

Gaudete Brass, performing works by Corigliano and four of his students. 7:30 p.m. April 22, Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan. Admission, free. 312-341-2238;

Chicago Chamber Musicians perform a selection of Coriglano’s chamber works. 7:30 p.m. April 24. Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan. Tickets, $25. 312-819-5806;

Ursula Oppens and Winston Choi explore Corigliano’s keyboard works in the PianoForte Salon Series. 7:30 p.m. April 25. Curtiss Hall, 10th floor, 410 S. Michigan. Tickets, $20. 312-291-0291;

Updated: May 22, 2013 6:24AM

While working on the 1980 sci-fi cult classic “Altered States,” maverick film director Ken Russell went to a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert to hear the tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra” and found himself wowed by another work on the program: John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto.

He immediately decided that Corigliano’s adventurous music would be perfect for his hallucinatory tale of sensory deprivation, and the director wasted no time in hiring the New York composer, even though he had never previously written for Hollywood.

The otherworldly, hyper-kinetic soundtrack went on not only to be a milestone in the famed contemporary composer’s career and earn an Academy Award nomination, but also to influence composers since both in and out of Hollywood.

“It works with the film,” said Corigliano, 75, “but I’m also very happy with the music per se and especially the fact that I went out much further than I’d gone before with it. It forced me to go out on many limbs.”

As part of a long-running series in which it performs film music by famed and not-so-famed classical composers, Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project will present a live performance of the score during a Tuesday evening screening of “Altered States.”

Orchestras semi-regularly perform “Three Hallucinations” (1981), a three-section suite that Corigliano assembled from music that he wrote for the film, but this will be the first time that anyone has attempted to perform the entire soundtrack, because there is no available score for it.

Warner Brothers provided a fresh digital print of “Altered States” without the recorded soundtrack for this concert, and it also passed along from its archives the original scores that the studio orchestra used to perform the music.

But there was one problem: As is typical with film scores, some of the music that got recorded was either abbreviated or not used at all. So, Stephen Burns, Fulcrum Point’s founder and artistic director, had to go through and painstakingly edit the instrumental parts to fit what actually happens on screen.

“This is toughest thing I can imagine, and I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work that Stephen Burns has had to do,” said Corigliano, who will be in attendance. “He’s really the hero of this.”

As he conducts the 75- to 80-piece orchestra put together for this project, Burns will minutely follow the film on the screen and synchronize the music to it. “I’ve been memorizing certain motions, that when a hand gesture does this, there’s the next cue, or with this word, that’s where we should be,” Burns said.

During his discussions with Russell more than 30 years ago, Corigliano told the director that he wanted to avoid the cliché kinds of sounds often associated with sci-fi and horror movies and venture into an uncharted sonic realm.

“I said, ‘I’m going to do a different kind of music in which the instruments don’t even sound like the instruments they are,’ ” Corigliano recalled. “[Russell] agreed to it, but he couldn’t hear it until the recording sessions. He just had to trust me.”

The composer said he expanded his musical vocabulary “200 percent” for this film, exploring in part what he calls “motion sonorities” — not just the familiar trills and tremolos but ones that he invented, with the musicians given a certain freedom with the music’s structure.

In some places, for example, the strings play a rapid staccato chromatic figure within an augmented fourth chord, and each player can choose to include two, three or five notes within it. “You’ve got 40 strings doing that, and it becomes this crunchy, clustery agitation of sound within a certain pitch range,” Burns said.

Just as it is impossible to imagine “Jaws” without John Williams’ now-legendary, shark-attack theme, he said, Corigliano’s eerie, evocative score plays an inseparable role in “Altered States.”

“In so many of the great films throughout history,” Burns said, “the soundtrack is that ineffable X factor that grabs you by your heart and pulls your head in. It keeps you from seeing that it’s a big plastic fish.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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