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See latest reviews of other albums..., April 2012

SYMPHONY No.14 “Symphony in Microtones” is like wading through a lake of honey while dressed in a wizard’s robe and a crooked wizard’s hat. As you slowly progress, insects of all types buzz and swirl about your increasingly bemused head. Questions arise without the desire for answers…Eventually the sun sets behind the distant flat horizon and—*puff-of-smoke*—you’re gone.

SYMPHONY No.1 “Music on Open Strings” is like descending a darkly-hued left-curving corridor while attempting to mentally solve some mathematical conundrum. Down you go, on and on into rainbowed mist—anticlockwise, sinistral, withershins, widdershins—spiralling inward to the mysterious core.

SYMPHONY No.7 *is* the mysterious core: you circle it like a predator, deliriously famished. You circle it, you circle it, your fearsome and intense eyes focussed on its isolated heart until—aha!—with a flawless transfer of energy it gobbles you up, yum-yum, leaving your ghostly shadow to roam fantastically alone in an ever-transforming land of dreams… © 2012 Chimerical/

Ghost K
The Headphone Club (China), March 2012

This time a package came with another disc which was rather stimulating. It comes from the contemporary American female composer Gloria Coates, “Seventh Symphony” and several other musical works. Modern and contemporary music contains a rich variety, but mostly uses human curiosity and sensory impact to attract the audience as if you are tasting unpalatable sour or insipid Kiwi fruit. This CD by Coates made me truly love her music, Since buying it, I have come back to it many times to listen.

Coates has been given the title “Glissando Queen”. Portamento technical terms I do not understand, but with her musical language I was impressed. It is unique but not a mere formality. Her music at first perhaps sounds like a horror movie soundtrack, a dark and oppressive atmosphere, but if listened to carefully you will soon hear the variety of her musical language, a variety of rapidly changing light in the rotation against the backdrop of the gray background. One feels hope, amidst loss, struggle, and despair. It is music of very delicate emotions.

In her musical world, the real terror comes from nothingness but not a manufactured silent noise. A parallel line, stretches continuously, like endless time. There is no start and no end in this infinite openness of space. You feel small and a stranger in the land of infinity, and you realize it has been this way throughout existence. This long infinity one is made to think about might make him shudder in fear. © 2012 The Headphone Club (China)

American Record Guide, October 2006

This collection of Gloria Coates's symphonies might be considered a sampling of her career (she was born in 1938). I'll consider them in chronological order, though the program rotates them into the order 14, 1, 7- not unreasonable musically .

The earliest work, Symphony 1 (1973), is subtitled 'Music on Open Strings', and is the piece that first put Ms Coates's name on the musical map. The string orchestra is tuned to a pentatonic Chinese scale given to Coates by her teacher Alexander Tcherepnin, to whom the piece is dedicated. In the opening movement, the bloated Asiatic melody is treated as an ostinato over which strange glissandos and mysterious tappings radiate like a cosmic infection. After an amusing scherzo, III gradually returns the orchestra to "normal" tuning ("while playing"). The finale becomes a dense 14-voice glissando canon but ends with a flow­ering of radiant open strings.

Symphony 7 (1991), for full orchestra, is "Dedicated to those who brought down The Wall in PEACE". It opens as a study on gradually expanding glissandos that eventually unwind and climax in ecstasy. The "slow movement" is a sort of chaconne on a chromatic theme that seems as if it were merely frozen points in another glissando. The final movement deals with slowly converging glissandos that lead to a harrowing culmination.

The Ivesian Symphony 14 (2002), for strings and timpani, is Coates's most recent essay in the genre. Its subtitle is 'Symphony in Microtones', but like the previous work there are underlying politics involved. Ms. Coates divides her ever-sliding string orchestra into two groups tuned a quarter tone apart, to which a mostly glissandoing timpani is added. Each of the three movements is based on borrowed material. I uses a hymn by Belcher ('Lamentation'), which makes its mistuned appearance about five minutes in; II is a fantasy on the song 'Jargon' by William Billings ("Let horrid jargon split the air And rive the nerves asunder. Let hateful discord greet the ear As terrible as thunder!"-which pretty much describes the effect). Coates borrows a melody of her own from her Fifth Symphony to drive III to a monster climax. Coates, a Wisconsin native now living in Germany, seems to be making a statement about her native land; but I hardly think it's an "especial homage", as annotator Kyle Gann asserts in his notes. (Mistuned "Lamentable Jargon" in America in 2002? I think I get it.) The piece would make a good elegy for 9-11.

All of these recordings derive from concert performances in Germany: Symphony 1 from 1980, Symphony 7 from 1997, Symphony 14 from 2003. 1 and 7 have been previously released by CPO (999392), but I didn't have that release available for comparison. (It contains Symphony 4 in place of the new 14.) Ms. Coates's painting on the cover offers a valuable complement. Keep in mind, though, that this is quite a listening ordeal.

Robert Carl

First, this is Gloria Coates (b. 1938) not Eric. Second, we have a welcome addition to a still­too-small discography of one of the most original living American composers. I will confess this is my first encounter (far too late) with her music, but I have been primed by word of mouth, above all by fonner Fanfare critic Kyle Gann, who praises her lavishly in his American Music in the Twentieth Century. And the advance word has been confirmed by the music I've finally heard.

Coates is definitely a composer in the mold of the American "ultramodernists" of the early 20th century. The listener will immediately sense an adventurous, uncompromising, cantankerous spirit in her work that is a descendant of such as Ives, Ruggles, Cowell, and Crawford. Her most distinguishing technique is that of the string glissando, which in lesser hands can be a cheap symbol of modernist instability, and a passport to aural seasickness. Not here. Coates is careful to place her sliding tones at the service of larger processes: canons in particular, or "additive/subtractive" lines that expand and contract the range of the glissando over time and in perceptible patterns. She's a wonderfully paradoxical composer because, on the one hand, the music is highly experimental in its surface technique, but on the other hand, classical in its attention to form and development within the symphonic argument. She's a very conceptual composer, as both the titles of movements (Symphony No. 7's movements are "The Whirligig of Time," "The Glass of Time," and "Corridors of Time") and her attachment to strict processes, nowadays called algorithms, may suggest. But no matter how idealistic the music, it always carries a visceral impact, or in good old American terms, a real wallop.

The three works on this program nicely cover the composer's entire symphonic cycle (up to this point), dipping into the start, the middle, and end. Symphony No. I (1972-73) is her best-known work, also referred to as "Music on Open Strings." The work begins with an alternate pentatonic tuning of the instruments, and in the third movement incorporates the scordatura (retuning) of the strings back to the conventional tuning into the real-time performance fabric. Not all the sounds are just the five pitches, though, as Coates inserts all sorts of glissandos that enrich the texture, even if they don't establish other finn pitch centers. It's a highly original work, and a bracing combination of both minimalist and modernist practices.

The Symphony No.7 (1990; a tribute to "Those who brought down the Wall in PEACE," though there is little I hear that's programmatic in the actual music) is the most European sounding of the three works: not a surprise, as the composer has lived her mature artistic life in Germany, another marker of her "outsider" status. It's highly abstract in its materials, and verges on being the work whose glissandos wear out their welcome. But just when I started feeling the music was becoming predictable (in the first and third movements), it marshals its forces to create overwhelming climaxes that simultaneously sound surprising yet natural. I don't know exactly what the technique is, but I suspect Coates has deep processes at work that lead to a culmination one desires but can't easily predict. The relentless growth and impact of the piece, a storm in sound, is similar to Xenakis's Jonchaies for orchestra, though I don't claim it's quite as great a work.

The final work, Symphony No. 14 (2001-02, "Symphony in Microtones"), is by far the most American-sounding piece, for at least two obvious reasons. First, the piece (for strings and timpani­only the Seventh uses full orchestra on this collection) divides the string orchestra into two halves, tuned a quarter tone apart. Some of the music is so dense one doesn't really perceive the differences, but in cases of the hymn quotation discussed below, it can be striking. The effect is the most Ivesian of this set and, in particular, I think of the composer of the Robert Browning Overture as an antecedent here.

Second, the first two movements quote pieces by Supply Belcher (a late 18th-century Maine hymnodist) and William Billings, the Boston Revolutionary-period composer who was himself an aes­thetic revolutionary of the first order. The Billings choice is particularly apt, as it is "Jargon," his completely atonal (though better stated, it could be called "non-functional," as all the intervals are consonant, but they don't make up traditional tonal chords) choral work, a message from another universe to the 18th century. In both movements, the antique sources emerge from Coates's swirling textures like apparitions, an effect that is magical and unnerving. In the Billings movement, after appearing, the source is then stated with the quarter-tone difference, which feels like a true enrichment rather than a mere distortion.

In short, this is remarkable music. At times it can seem too crude and obvious, spurning standards of polish and taste, and then at the next moment it blindsides you with the power of its vision, a balanced match of manner and substance, form and content, style and idea. And on top of it all, if the booklet's cover is any guide, Coates is a talented visual artist as well, in the tradition of Ruggles.

The sonic standards of the disc are variable: Symphony No. 1 is a recording from 1980, with more surface noise than we're now accustomed to, and No.7 comes from a concert recording of the world premiere. Only No. 14 has the clarity and crispness listeners have come to expect. At the same time, this doesn't bother me, as none of the earlier sonic flaws are too distracting, and the music overcomes any such obstacle on its innate strengths. There is one serious competitor to this disc, cpo 999392, which includes Nos. I and 7, substituting No.4 for No. 14. I have not heard it, but I note from its online data that No.1 is also a live recording from the same year as the Naxos (1980), and No.7 was recorded in 1991, so I suspect at the very least there are similar sonic issues involved. I have a hunch that, based on repertoire, the Naxos disc will be preferable as an introduction, providing a broad sweep of the composer's career. But based on what I've heard, I also suspect if you are hooked on Coates, you'll probably need to get the cpo eventually.

This may well reappear on my 2006 Want List.

ReR Megacorp

Three stunningly great pieces. Gloria is a great original in the maverick mould, far less celebrated than she deserves. Here are massive, complex, works that live out of great simplicity - clouds of sound, predominantly formed from moving skeins of glissandi, all proceeding at strictly calculated and different speeds and in different directions, not wilfully but organised in canons and fugues (not that you can hear them as such in the roiling mists). © ReR Megacorp Read complete review

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