COATES: Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14
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Gloria Coates (b. 1938)
Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14
Gloria Coates: Cataclysmic Classicist
Gloria Coates has cornered the market on a certain kind ofliminal perception in the realm of acoustic music. There is always something slowlygoing on in her music, and it often turns out to be not what you think. Her paradigmsare few, but they are varied in ingenious ways. One of them, which can be heardon this disc, is the homespun tune, or chorale, emerging from a wavery, indistincttexture, like a castle emerging from mists blown away by the wind. Another is abroad sonority slowly going out of tune, or else coming into tune. Coates'sreliance on simple processes involving motion makes her music somehow turbulentand 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 anempire, massive destruction by alien hordes, a town destroyed by an eruptingvolcano. And yet there's little personal emotion in Coates's music, it's justhuge, grand, beyond human scale, and immanently transformative.
For despite her brave new sound-world, Coates is somethingof a classicist among modern composers. She loves symmetry, palindromes,mirrors, and above all, canons. Looking at her scores, it is often possible to quicklytell where a piece is going; given the first three pages of one of hersymphonies, one could often plausibly write the next seven. But the music neversounds
that predictable, because her sonic devices have a mysteriousmuddying effect. Chief of these is the glissando. It has been a lifelongpreoccupation. As early as 1962, still a student, she baffled her teachers by writinga string quartet entirely in glissandos. Since then she has written thousandsmore: slow, long glissandos, that make you feel as if the earth is starting tofall away from under you; little, wavy glissandos that make you think there'ssomething wrong with your ears, or your audio equipment; fast sweepingglissandos that create a tumult of energy - but all of them worked out within someclear structure and often gradual process.
And often that process is symphonic. Having now writtenfourteen symphonies, Coates is the most prolific woman symphonist who everlived. (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,Dvořak, and others, on a par with Roy Harris, and only one step away from Shostakovich.
By virtue of both quantity and immediately-recognizable personality, Coatesshould be one of the best-known figures in contemporary music. As a veryAmerican figure, however, living since 1969 as an expatriate in Germany (where composing women are particularly unencouraged), she is always the archetypaloutsider.
This new Symphony No. 14
(2002) is an especial homageto Gloria Coates's native land, based as it is on early American hymns by twoof New England's first composers, Supply Belcher (1752-1836, known in his lifetimeas "the Handel of Maine") and William Billings (1746-1800). Scoredfor string orchestra and timpani, the work is typically outlandish, not onlyits glissandos, but for its use of quartertones (Coates provides a subtitle: "Symphonyin Microtones"). Throughout, the strings are divided into two sections,half tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other half. This is less evident inthe 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-notesagainst Coates's default metre of 5/4. The lamentation fades back into theglissandos, and the movement ends with ethereal yearning on a low C and a veryhigh B.
The second movement, Jargon: Homage to William Billings
, brings the quarter-tones to life. The fierce dissonance, punctuated bypizzicatos, is appropriate to Coates's source material, which is itself theearliest 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 (thoughdiatonic) 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 inquarter-tone dissonances. Movement three, The Lonesome Ones
, reprises a melodyfrom Coates's Symphony No. 5
, a tritone line heard over and over inparallel quarter-tones, giving way to a texture of increasingly wide glissandosmoving at different rates of speed in each string section.
For many years, Coates's Symphony No. 1
(1972-3) remainedher best-known and most widely-played work. It was originally called "Musicon Open Strings" (as she had not decided to call her large workssymphonies until the first few were completed), and the instruments all play inscordatura
, that is with each section tuned to an unconventional set ofpitches. In the first movement, all strings are tuned to a Chinese scale (oncegiven to her by her teacher Alexander Tcherepnin) containing only B flat, C, Dflat, F, and G, which allows the orchestra to play (and gradually transform) anoriginal 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 theirleft hands, there are glissandos, wide vibratos, and taps on the body of the instrumentcalled for.
The second movement begins with these same pitches and movesfrom rhythmic pizzicato motives toward upwards glissandos. During the course ofthe third movement, however, the strings begin with their original pitches andgradually retune them, while playing, to the conventional tuning. The finale,titled Refracted Mirror Canon for Fourteen Lines
, starts with the conventionaltuning and begins a canonic process of upward and downward glissandos atdifferent tempos, leading at last to stasis and ending, like so many of Coates'smovements, at the point of maximum intensity.
Coates's Seventh Symphony
, from 1990-91, is one ofher most ambitious works, bringing her concepts to bear on a full orchestrawith brass and percussion. The first movement goes through a canonic process ofincreasingly wide glissandos, punctuated by a simple bass drum motive which,toward the end, recurs every five beats. The second, a little more conventionalby Coates's standards, derives most of its material from a chromatic melodyheard first in canon, building up textures that erupt in repetitive flurries of32 notes (demi-semiquavers) in the various instruments, a grand noise indeed.
The final movement is an experience in converging glissandos, with the lowstrings coming from their bottom note, the high strings gliding down from ahigh register, and the percussion marking off time as the orchestra writhes andthickens.
If the score is easily described, the sound is indescribable.
That's the paradox of Coates's music; she is so economic with her materialsthat although her notation appears quite simple, the effect of the glissandosand other devices in tempo canons creates sound masses in perpetual motion likewe've never heard before. It is far from being "horrid jargon", becausethe processes are so transparent. But it is music that, in its intensity, could"rive the nerves asunder". Old Billings would be astonished at whathe started.