About this Recording
8.559289 - COATES, G.: Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14
English  German 

Gloria Coates (b. 1938)
Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14

 

Gloria Coates: Cataclysmic Classicist

Gloria Coates has cornered the market on a certain kind of liminal perception in the realm of acoustic music. There is always something slowly going on in her music, and it often turns out to be not what you think. Her paradigms are few, but they are varied in ingenious ways. One of them, which can be heard on this disc, is the homespun tune, or chorale, emerging from a wavery, indistinct texture, like a castle emerging from mists blown away by the wind. Another is a broad sonority slowly going out of tune, or else coming into tune. Coates's reliance on simple processes involving motion makes her music somehow turbulent and stable at once. Put any thirty seconds of this disc into a motion picture soundtrack, and it would be associated with something cataclysmic - the overthrow of an empire, massive destruction by alien hordes, a town destroyed by an erupting volcano. And yet there's little personal emotion in Coates's music, it's just huge, grand, beyond human scale, and immanently transformative.

For despite her brave new sound-world, Coates is something of a classicist among modern composers. She loves symmetry, palindromes, mirrors, and above all, canons. Looking at her scores, it is often possible to quickly tell where a piece is going; given the first three pages of one of her symphonies, one could often plausibly write the next seven. But the music never sounds that predictable, because her sonic devices have a mysterious muddying effect. Chief of these is the glissando. It has been a lifelong preoccupation. As early as 1962, still a student, she baffled her teachers by writing a string quartet entirely in glissandos. Since then she has written thousands more: slow, long glissandos, that make you feel as if the earth is starting to fall away from under you; little, wavy glissandos that make you think there's something wrong with your ears, or your audio equipment; fast sweeping glissandos that create a tumult of energy - but all of them worked out within some clear structure and often gradual process.

And often that process is symphonic. Having now written fourteen symphonies, Coates is the most prolific woman symphonist who ever lived. (Second, if you are keeping track, was the obscure Julia Perry of Kentucky, 1924-1979, who wrote twelve.) Fourteen puts her way ahead of Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvoř├ík, and others, on a par with Roy Harris, and only one step away from Shostakovich. By virtue of both quantity and immediately-recognizable personality, Coates should be one of the best-known figures in contemporary music. As a very American figure, however, living since 1969 as an expatriate in Germany (where composing women are particularly unencouraged), she is always the archetypal outsider.

This new Symphony No. 14 (2002) is an especial homage to Gloria Coates's native land, based as it is on early American hymns by two of New England's first composers, Supply Belcher (1752-1836, known in his lifetime as "the Handel of Maine") and William Billings (1746-1800). Scored for string orchestra and timpani, the work is typically outlandish, not only its glissandos, but for its use of quartertones (Coates provides a subtitle: "Symphony in Microtones"). Throughout, the strings are divided into two sections, half tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other half. This is less evident in the first movement, which begins with a bang but immediately turns soft, gliding endlessly through a hilly landscape of carefully calibrated glissandos. From these emerge Belcher's Lamentation in quite audible half-notes against Coates's default metre of 5/4. The lamentation fades back into the glissandos, and the movement ends with ethereal yearning on a low C and a very high B.

The second movement, Jargon: Homage to William Billings, brings the quarter-tones to life. The fierce dissonance, punctuated by pizzicatos, is appropriate to Coates's source material, which is itself the earliest American instance of unrelieved dissonance: Billings's song Jargon. Early Boston critics had complained that Billings's music was too consonant, and so the old tanner-turned-composer wrote a response in complete (though diatonic) dissonances:

Let horrid jargon split the air,
And rive the nerves asunder;
Let hateful discord greet the ear
As terrible as thunder!

Coates quotes the hymn once through in its original form, then illustrates the lyrics more vividly than Billings by playing it in quarter-tone dissonances. Movement three, The Lonesome Ones, reprises a melody from Coates's Symphony No. 5, a tritone line heard over and over in parallel quarter-tones, giving way to a texture of increasingly wide glissandos moving at different rates of speed in each string section.

For many years, Coates's Symphony No. 1 (1972-3) remained her best-known and most widely-played work. It was originally called "Music on Open Strings" (as she had not decided to call her large works symphonies until the first few were completed), and the instruments all play in scordatura, that is with each section tuned to an unconventional set of pitches. In the first movement, all strings are tuned to a Chinese scale (once given to her by her teacher Alexander Tcherepnin) containing only B flat, C, D flat, F, and G, which allows the orchestra to play (and gradually transform) an original tune based on the scale. The melody can then be played on open strings, but lest you fear that the string orchestra will have nothing to do with their left hands, there are glissandos, wide vibratos, and taps on the body of the instrument called for.

The second movement begins with these same pitches and moves from rhythmic pizzicato motives toward upwards glissandos. During the course of the third movement, however, the strings begin with their original pitches and gradually retune them, while playing, to the conventional tuning. The finale, titled Refracted Mirror Canon for Fourteen Lines, starts with the conventional tuning and begins a canonic process of upward and downward glissandos at different tempos, leading at last to stasis and ending, like so many of Coates's movements, at the point of maximum intensity.

Coates's Seventh Symphony, from 1990-91, is one of her most ambitious works, bringing her concepts to bear on a full orchestra with brass and percussion. The first movement goes through a canonic process of increasingly wide glissandos, punctuated by a simple bass drum motive which, toward the end, recurs every five beats. The second, a little more conventional by Coates's standards, derives most of its material from a chromatic melody heard first in canon, building up textures that erupt in repetitive flurries of 32 notes (demi-semiquavers) in the various instruments, a grand noise indeed. The final movement is an experience in converging glissandos, with the low strings coming from their bottom note, the high strings gliding down from a high register, and the percussion marking off time as the orchestra writhes and thickens.

If the score is easily described, the sound is indescribable. That's the paradox of Coates's music; she is so economic with her materials that although her notation appears quite simple, the effect of the glissandos and other devices in tempo canons creates sound masses in perpetual motion like we've never heard before. It is far from being "horrid jargon", because the processes are so transparent. But it is music that, in its intensity, could "rive the nerves asunder". Old Billings would be astonished at what he started.

Kyle Gann

 


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