About this Recording
8.559371 - COATES, G.: Symphony No. 15 / Cantata da Requiem / Transitions
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Gloria Coates: Symphony No. 15 'Homage to Mozart'
Cantata da Requiem 'WW II Poems for Peace' • Transitions

 

Gloria Coates and the Fusion of Irreconcilables

Steadily becoming a well-known name, Gloria Coates is one of the most startlingly individual figures on the contemporary music scene. Most superficially, she is the most prolific female symphonist in history. The major work on this current disc, her Symphony No. 15, ties her with Shostakovich in that regard. More significantly, she has made a career out of the slow glissando in orchestral and ensemble music.

To avoid caricature, this latter point requires amplification. The elements of Coates's music are generally few in number, easily described, often odd, and oddly combined, giving her music an instantly recognizable profile. One recurring element is slow string glissandos. Another is wavery textures of faster glissandos, at varying rates. Another is conventionally tonal chorale writing, often quoting previous music. Another is simple, even marchlike rhythmic patterns, sometimes offset within her favorite 5/4 meter. The essence of Coates's music is not any one of these elements, but their juxtaposition and combination - sometimes even their indistinguishable fusion into some of the strangest textures in recent music. She brings together the straight and the curved, the familiar and the weird, the hard-edged and the vague, the tonal and the beyond-atonal, and sets us down in musical landscapes which disallow our usual figure-ground experiences of focusing within a musical texture.

Symphony No. 15, the newest and most ambitious work here, bears a subtitle, Homage to Mozart, which might lead one to expect a neoclassic work. Nothing could be further from the case. The first movement, Iridescences, is one of Coates's darkest and most abstract essays, though its evolution is quite transparent. Here are swooping, upward glissandos in the strings, wavery string tones using wide vibrato, timpani tremolos rising in pitch with the foot pedal, and a continuum of intermittent dissonant pitches across the orchestra's entire register. The piece breathes with a slow, irregular pulse, the energy reeling from one part of the orchestra to another and back, and the harmonies, though dissonant, are quite stable and change only slowly.

After this dark beginning, the second movement, Puzzle Canon, enters in completely unexpected tonal chords. The strangeness returns, though, when the strings enter in dissonant slow glissandos, fanning out in opposite directions as the wind band plays on - a characteristic, 'smeared-tonality' texture that Coates has used elsewhere, beginning in her Fourth Symphony. The 'puzzle' of the title is the identity of the quasi-quotation in the winds: it is taken from Mozart's last motet, the Ave Verum Corpus in D major, K. 618- and played backwards. The contrapuntal lines are silken smooth, but the harmony isn't marked by the forward-leading progression one expects from tonal music. The glissandos grow in range and volume until they engulf the motet, though the latter eventually returns - this time played forwards - and finally merges into the strings as a canon.

The final movement takes its title - What Are Stars? - from an Emily Dickinson poem:

Go thy Great Way!
The Stars thou meetst
Are even (seen) as Thyself
For what are Stars but Asterisks
To point a human Life?

Here is a dialogue between two elements: an original chromatically wandering chorale in the brass and later winds, and a texture of multilayered glissandos in the strings. Punctuated by the ever-present timpani, these textures alternate and overlap with the usual clarity of gesture that makes Coates's music so easy to absorb despite the complexity and weirdness of its sound world. Symphony No. 15 was commissioned by the European Festival Passau for Mozart's 250th anniversary year, 2006; composed in 2004-5, it was premièred by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Michael Boder.

Coates's vocal music, with its careful attention to the primacy of the text, tends to be somewhat different, more lyrical and less concerned with masses of texture. Her Cantata da Requiem is a fairly early work (1971-2), and originally titled Voices of Women in Wartime. Though American, Coates has resided in Munich since 1969, and, touring the concentration camp at Dachau at the time of the Vietnam War and the Olympic terrorist attack, felt compelled to turn her outrage toward an antiwar work centered around World War II. Cantata da Requiem, for voice with strings, piano, and percussion, assembles a series of German and English texts as an alternation of arias and recitative: 'Junge Witwe'(Young Widow), by Charlotte Hagedorn, written in Berlin in 1941; a wartime BBC weather report; 'The Flying Bombers'written by Phyllis McGinley in 1942; a note by schoolteacher Elfriede Birndorfer; a poem 'Rinne, Regen, Rinne'(Run, Rain, Run) from a 1943 Bavarian newspaper; and some thoughts from Marianne Moore's In Distrust of Merits, 1942.

'JungeWitwe'chillingly sets the disbelief and denial of a new widow, surrounding her lament with half-step waverings. Tension is created by crescendoes of repeated figures; there is no more need to invoke minimalism here than there would be with Ravel's Bolero or Holst's Mars, but it is striking that Coates would use a technique so unfashionable at the time, and now quite acceptable. The bells of Big Ben initiate the BBC broadcast, and menacing half-step trills provide background for McGinley's dramatic description of bombers overhead. The schoolteacher introduces what sounds like, and what Coates sets with the melodic simplicity of a children's poem, though it crescendoes to a painful climax. The cycle's emotional center is the final text; chromatic trills give way to an optimistic tonality for heartbreakingly hopeful words: If all these great dyings,… can Teach us how to live in peace / Then all these dyings, / All these sorrows were / Not in vain.

Transitions (1984) makes an interesting comparison with the Symphony No. 15, for it is something of a chamber symphony, and Coates later expanded it for orchestra as her Symphony No. 4, subtitled Chiaroscuro. One can hear here the same overlay of glissandos and tonal chorales, but in a more stripped-down chamber context. In the first movement, Illumination, the strings and winds glissando mightily to obscure a chorale in the trombone and piano, which is an increasingly audible quotation from Purcell's aria 'When I Am Laid in Earth'from Dido and Aeneas. Movement 2, intriguingly named Mystical Plosives, is a noise fest of tremolos and glissandos punctuated by percussion, and ending in a march in quarter-notes on the Tcherepnin scale, a nine-note scale in a half-step, half-step, whole-step pattern - a reminder that Coates studied with the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who invented it.

The final movement, Dream Sequence, is like three pieces played at once: an atonal piece for woodwinds and trombone with melodies of Varèse-like angularity, though with a chorale of triads in the middle; a sad, intermittent march for percussion; and a weeping continuum of string glissandos that both obscures the rest and weaves everything together. The eeriness has personal motivations: Transitions, Coates writes, "is the translation of metaphysical experiences I had after the death of my father which I turned into musical tones and forms." Such a profound explanation for so seminal a work has resonances that extend as far as Symphony No. 15. They suggest that this sound world, one of the most unusual of this new century, has its origin not in a mere search for novel effects, but in an attempt to capture in music experiences beyond ordinary consciousness.

Kyle Gann
Kyle Gann is a composer and music professor at Bard College. He was new-music critic for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005, and has written three books on American music so far: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, American Music in the 20th Century, and Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice.


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