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ClassicsOnline Home » COATES, G.: String Quartet No. 9 / Solo Violin Sonata / Lyric Suite (Kreutzer Quartet, Chadwick)
The Munich-based American composer Gloria Coates is best known as a symphonist, though she has also composed nine string quartets as well as vocal and chamber music. Her String Quartet No. 9 opens with unworldly sonorities, glissandos, micro-tonalities and other unusual colours which develop by means of a mirror canon. In contrast, the Sonata for Violin Solo sets immense technical demands, particularly in its use of multiple stops beneath the lyrical fragments. Taking its subtitles from phrases within Emily Dickinson poems, her Lyric Suite for Piano Trio is a captivating mix of melodic gestures and spectral harmonies.
By Dirk Wieschollek
By Massimo Ricci
By Joshua Meggitt
String Quartet No. 9 • Sonata for Violin Solo • Lyric Suite for Piano Trio
Anyone can write simple music that sounds like things we have heard a million times before. Likewise, anyone can write weird, unfamiliar-sounding music that makes little sense, and is unmemorable and difficult to recognize on second listening. But there are a few rare composers who can write music that is simple, instantly memorable—and bizarre. Gloria Coates is one of that elect group. She glories in simple sonic phenomena—but musical effects that are simple are not always therefore common. She loves the plain major and minor triads of conventional music, but also tone clusters played on the keyboard with the flat of the hand or forearm. She loves lyrical, chantlike melody, but also continuous glissandos, falling and rising like sirens. She likes obvious canons and prickly, heterogeneous textures. And she is unafraid to confound all new-music stereotypes by mixing all these disparate elements in the same piece. She seems at times like a strange cross between the anti-academic French satirist Erik Satie and the Greek computer-noise composer Iannis Xenakis, two composers at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Born in Wisconsin, a student of Alexander Tcherepnin, and an American living mostly in Munich since 1969, Coates is best known as a symphonist. She has written fifteen symphonies so far, tying her with Shostakovich and exceeding the number written by any other woman composer. Her orchestral works use mass effects almost unknown elsewhere in music: for instance, string glissandos sweeping up and down across backgrounded tonal chorales in the winds and brass, or entire sections of the orchestra playing a quarter-tone flat. In her chamber works the range of such techniques is greatly constricted, and they are more starkly exposed when they appear. Thus Coates’s chamber works tend to be more traditionally musical on one hand, but also show her textural unconventionality in clearest profile. The contrasts are sharpened.
Someone who so loves the effect of glissandos was bound to be drawn to the string quartet as medium, and Coates has now written nine. The present one is her latest, written in 2007. In a characteristic Coates gambit, the first violin and viola are each tuned down a quartertone; the strings are similarly detuned in the Fifth Quartet of 1989 and the Eighth Quartet of 2002, as are different halves of the string orchestra in the Fourteenth Symphony of 2002. The device creates an uneasy effect of never quite being in tune, even when the music is quite tonal, and the sound of the strings trying to play in unison acquires an interesting thickness. (Art-rocker Glenn Branca gets a similar effect the same way in some of his symphonies for electric guitars.)
The Ninth Quartet’s broad first movement is both a canon and an almost-palindrome. It is not merely a canon of melodies, but of textures, a structure she had created in 1971 for her early Color Canon Quartet, but here expanded. The entrances are separated by seven-measure intervals of 5/4, Coates’s most frequent meter and one that gives her music a certain off-balance, floating quality. The cello opens with an atonal line composed of half-steps, moving into tremolos. Once the viola takes up that line, the cello moves to pairs of pizzicato notes. As the viola takes up the pizzicato and the second violin the atonal melody, the cellist begins a light buzz of skimming across string harmonics. The next phase introduces knocking on the body of the instrument. With each new phase, the previous texture moves one instrument upward, and finally a simple melody in quarter-notes comes in on the pitches F, G, A, C, and D. At some point all four instruments, continuing the canon, begin glissandoing across a range of several octaves, the violins downward from the stratosphere, the cello and viola upwards from their low Cs. At the opposite extremes of their registers they all reverse direction, and the first half of the movement repeats itself backwards, the canon starting in the first violin and working its way down to the cello. It is unusual to have so many diverse instrumental effects combine at once, and also to have them make such audible sense in a canonic form. Perhaps the oddest effect, though, is that the simple tonal melody is echoed with itself a quartertone off.
The second movement is couched largely in wavery glissandos between pitches only a half-step apart, like tremendously slow vibratos. Note the faster ostinato in the first violin, which spells out the 5/4 meter. Into this texture intrude rhythmic motives in repeated notes of near-octaves: sevenths and ninths that are a quarter-tone off. As the rhythmic motives gel into a kind of somber chant, the glissandos in the lower strings start to greatly increase in range, in eerie contrary motion. The atmosphere is unworldly, creepily dissonant and yet serene, a kind of music of the spheres.
A glance at the score to Coates’s Sonata for Violin Solo (2000) reveals the self-contradictions of her style. On the one hand, it is mostly composed of simple rhythms of quarter- and half-notes, with none of the rhythmic fluidity one would expect in a virtuoso work for a solo stringed instrument. On the other, difficult triple-stops and quadruple stops are ubiquitous and the texture largely dissonant: simple, clear music, yet strange. The movements are titled via forms that mean something to each of us: Prelude, Fantasia, Berceuse, Hornpipe. In Coates’s hands, though, each title gets abstracted into her own unearthly style. A simple yet atonal melody runs along the top of the Prelude, with lower harmonic notes (sometimes plucked by the left hand) offering a disorienting harmonic context. The slow Fantasia draws its gravitas from its slow tempo, marked by the kind of slow vibrato also heard in the Ninth Quartet. The Berceuse (meaning cradle song or lullaby) is predictably the most tonal movement, with a high melody that wanders among several keys over the chords below. And while Hornpipe would seem to denote a quick dance, like a jig, Coates’s is slow and meandering, though grounded by a recurring pizzicato on the open D string.
The title of the Lyric Suite for Piano Trio (1996) seems to refer somehow to the simple triads that run through the piano part in almost every movement. The subtitle, “Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music” is the title of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The titles of the various movements are taken from phrases within her poems. Once again, the violin is to be tuned down a quarter-tone, and both stringed instruments play quartertones melodically, often against the most conventional repeated chords in the piano. An Amethyst Remembrance includes some strumming on the piano strings and Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music has a notation I have never seen before, marked Wiggle fingers quickly, palms flat on white keys. The Heart Within is marked by a recurring dissonant ostinato in the key of B, over which the strings play a chant in not-quite-octaves. There are places where the piano’s spare triads bring the American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965, another figure who could use clusters in a tonal context) to mind, including Noon—is the Hinge of Day, the fifth movement, in which the cello has the high melody, its sweetness tempered by being often a quarter-tone flat. The final movement, Evening—the Tissue Door, repeats a similar effect.
Coates’s use of glissandos and other orchestral effects sometimes gets her linked to the so-called Polish school that originated with Krzysztof Penderecki. The sparer context of these chamber works, though, makes her use of clusters and quarter-tones sound solidly American—that is, used not for psychological effect, but to express a rustic stolidity, a willingness to walk firmly forward off the beaten paths. For all her blended, expatriate sympathies, that frank mix of simplicity and strangeness reveals her as an American through and through.
– Kyle Gann
Kyle Gann’s books include The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, American Music in the Twentieth Century, Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, and No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”.
A Personal View of Gloria Coates
I met Gloria Coates in Munich in 1991. From the moment that we met, I felt empathy: a conversation began which continues unabated. We have shared ideas over innumerable cups of coffee at the Lenbachhaus. There, the paintings of that most musical group of painters, the Blaue Reiter, can be seen.
As a quartet, we often speak about Gloria Coates’s way of listening to her own music (she is, perhaps, the most self-critical composer that I have ever met). Unlike many composers, she will not sit in rehearsal with the score in her hands. Instead, she will almost always close or cover her eyes, intently concentrating on every moment, each sound; listening to every level and scale, and in the various dimensions and sliding harmonies of her sound-world. This is surprisingly liberating, as she seems to experience her music in much the same way as a player, almost as if she herself is playing the instruments. Perhaps super-listening is the secret of her unique voice. Once the floodgates are open, its extraordinary beauty is irresistible.
– Peter Sheppard Skærved
Peter Sheppard Skærved, heard both as soloist and chamber player on this recording, is a Research Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, London. He plays the 1699 ‘Adelina Crespi’ Stradivari.
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