COATES, G.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6
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String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6
Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, Gloria Coates began composing at an early age, winning a national composition contest at the age of twelve. After earning a Masters of Music degree in composition she continued postgraduate studies in composition at Columbia University. She has been the recipient of many awards, commissions and distinctions. The music of Gloria Coates has been performed by leading soloists and ensembles, winning her an unrivalled reputation. Music on Open Strings (Symphony No.1), written in 1973, was first performed at the Warsaw Autumn of 1978 and proved to be the most widely discussed work in the Festival; her music has subsequently been heard at the Dresden Festival, New Music America 1989, Musica Viva Munich, the Passau International Festival, the Dartington Festival in England, the Montepulciano Festival Italy, the New York Microtonal Festival and Aspeckte Salzburg.
While maintaining a residence in the United States, Gloria Coates has lived since 1969 in Europe, where she has been an active champion of American music. She has lectured, written musicological articles, produced and broadcast radio programmes , and from 1971 to 1984 was responsible for a concert series of German-American music in Munich subsidised by the Munich Ministry of Culture and the Alice Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Her work includes compositions for orchestra, with thirteen symphonies, chamber music which includes seven string quartets, solo, vocal and choral music and electronic works, as well as music for the theatre. Recent recordings have brought her music to the attention of an even wider audience.
Coates lives in a sound world all her own. In a certain way it is a vague, uncertain, out-of-focus sound world, and yet its elements are not indistinct. It is not a filmy impressionism; there is usually a counterpoint of clear lines, often a simple structure. It is the curvature of those lines that is so unusual, for Coates is the master of the specifically notated glissando, a gradual rise or fall from one pitch to another. Her fascination with glissandos found an early place in her work. In 1962, as a student at Louisiana State University, she wrote an early string quartet entirely in glissandos. As she recalls, "My teacher wrote on the score, Glissandos are for color once or twice in a piece, but all these are too, too... He couldnt even complete the sentence. I didnt go back to glissandos until 1972".
Glissandos are a feature of the works here recorded, a possible reason for writing so many string quartets, of which the present String Quartet No.6 is her most recent: no other instruments can play long, uninterrupted glissandos as easily as unfretted strings. It would be a mistake, however, to categorize Coates as "the glissando composer," because there is much more to her work; in fact, they seem more a symptom of her aesthetic than its root. More essentially, she uses distinct, contrapuntal means to create musical structures that will not stay still. All her glissandoing lines make textures that seem to melt away: fugues glimpsed, as it were, through a funnel of swirling water. From those watery, wavery textures come illusions, mirages, trompes doreille, suggestions, perhaps, of a hymn, a Baroque music quotation or a band playing behind those slowly melting lines. Her Fourth Symphony, for example, draws a web of eerie sliding tones over a background passacaglia that turns out to be the lament from Purcells Dido and Aeneas, heard through a watery film.
So far, Coates,not nearly as well known in America as she should be, has been known primarily for her symphonies. She has written thirteen to date, more than any other woman. But Coates has been equally prolific in chamber music, and her chamber works offer a chance to observe her illusions as if in close-up. In her symphonies, so much is going on, between the background tonal chorales, the outbursts of percussion, and the nets of ebbing and swelling string lines, that her technical achievement remains hidden. Here, in her string quartets, one can distinguish every note, every line; what is amazing is that the illusions are just as surprising.
In the Fifth Quartet, written in 1989, the first movement seems deceptively simple: a double canon entirely within the A minor scale, no flat or sharp anywhere. The strings of the first violin and viola, however, are tuned a quarter-tone higher than those of the second violin and cello, creating a canonic reflection a quarter-tone away from the octave, and giving the entire canon an eerie, generally unsettled atmosphere despite the simplicity of its slow melodies. The second movement is a texture of carefully notated, continuous glissandos, amid which fragments of a familiar tune appear - Coates cites the quotation as "Fling Out the Banner, Let It Wave," but the tune has also appeared as a Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day". This is a case in which the tune so inconspicuously weaves in and out of the glissandos, played by first one instrument and now another, that it will not always be perceived. The third movement is one of the most unusual offerings in an unusual output, reminiscent of that early student quartet from 1962 in that it is entirely in glissandos. Moving in different tempos, all four instruments slide upward and downward through intervals that at first increase in size through quarter-tones, then diminish. The texture has a feeling of constant uncertainty, with no firm, unchanging note to hold onto until the final, long-sustained chord of open strings. The string quartet literature affords few, if any other, such dizzying experiences.
Offering considerable contrast, the First Quartet, dating from 1966, gives an idea of the composers early aesthetic, her starting-point not long after her student years. Here already is her love of canons, and in fact many of the glissando pieces involve canons, although without discrete pitch content they are not really audible as such. Coates is interested in canons more as a structural device. In this early quartet we have an elaborately chromatic canon among the upper three strings, with the cello providing a contrasting rôle: first a soliloquy, then an eerie ostinato in harmonics against which the canon is measured, and last a closing soliloquy that renders the opening one in retrograde.
Contrasting the First and Sixth Quartets, the latter written in 1999, it is possible to hear how far Coates has purified her style, how much she has reduced her sonic images to the essence. The Sixth Quartet pursues its objectives with an almost post-minimalist focus, and achieves in doing so an atmosphere of spiritual transcendence. The first movement, marked Still and seemingly unchanging, is actually a slow metamorphosis, starting from a complex of dissonant tones and moving toward a sonority of poignant E minor. Pitches recur at different rates, like unsynchronized clocks in slow motion, and the pitch changes are obscured by wavery vibratos extending a quarter-tone to each side of a note. As in the Fifth Quartet, the central movement is one of her glissando works, each melodic curve exactly notated as to pitch, and with glissandos moving in a web of different rates and directions that would have fascinated Henry Cowell. Above that web, a frail violin melody sings out, the notes of which so blend at times with the glissandos that it seems to emerge like a distant bell, or a forgotten memory. The final "movement" is actually a recapitulation of the opening section, creating an ABA form unremitting in its stillness and devotion.
The ultimate sum is a curious combination: a