Gloria Coates: A Composer You’ll Love

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 5 min.

gloria_coates1One of my favorite discoveries in recent years is composer Gloria Coates. I first heard of her via an interview she gave on the Naxos American Classics podcast in promotion of a recently released recording of her 15th Symphony (along with two other works) by Naxos. I was taken not only with what she said in this inspiring interview, which you can listen to here at iTunes, but was also, of course, quite taken with her music. There is a spirit of freshness and sincerity in her work that I can’t put my finger on (nor do I feel a need to), but I think we get some insight into her world when she explains in the interview that, as a young girl studying music in Wisconsin back in the 1940s and ‘50s, she would play tone clusters because she liked the sound of them (and against the advice of her teachers who were no doubt insecure about their inability to classify what their inventive young pupil was up to). She didn’t know what to call the clusters until she encountered Alexander Tcherepnin, with whom she ended up studying as a young adult. In 1969, she moved to Munich, Germany, where she lives still.

The best way to get an idea of what her music sounds like is, obviously, to listen to it, though I will say that, in addition to the abovementioned qualities, it is technically brilliant without being perfunctory, and there is an emotional quality that is both arresting and highly temporally focused even at its most seemingly chaotic (you can read about attempts to describe her music here; it also includes info on her methods). This mixture of the intellectual and the emotional is a very refreshing thing to find in an essentially avant-garde (or mid-20th century modernist) American composer whose generation quickly gravitated towards embracing a purely intellectual musical approach.

I’ve always felt that what we often refer to as the music of the Institutional Avant-garde worked better before it abandoned its expressionistic element (I use “expressionistic” here in its multiple connotations). So, I vastly prefer Arnold Schoenberg’s (“pantonal“) music to Milton Babbitt’s totally serialized compositions: both composers are very intellectual, but Schoenberg (who invented the serialism, or dodecaphony, upon which Babbitt built his own methods) has a balance of intellect and expressionism/intended hyper-romanticism without which, Babbitt’s work just sounds like a math problem set to music. Coates, who I think also has an expressionistic leaning (though, to be clear, is not a serialist), uses her intellect as a means for getting at something deeper than what the intellect alone can understand or describe. She herself claims her work to be technically simple enough for “young people” to play, though I would be surprised if that were true, but maybe it is… maybe the scores are easy to read and execute, but the moving, original music that results is a more complex affair.

One last comment I’ll make on this matter is that it’s conceivable that the the only reason her music might be considered (or even mischaracterized as) intellectual at all is a result of that which results from contrasting it to current popular and, in contemporary classical music, neo-romantic (such as minimalism) musical trends. The upshot is that her music is beautiful and moving, and that’s what counts to me, regardless of how it came to be thus, though, as someone who has largely rejected the post-modernist (!) avant-garde philosophical perspective as a rich source of contemporary aesthetic endeavor, it’s wonderful to discover someone who straddles the largely forgotten ambiguous lines found therein .

All right, now to the music itself. I recommend:

  • Symphony No. 15 “Homage to Mozart” (my favorite is the second movement, called “Puzzle Canon,” which is how she refers to the form she used)

  • Symphony #1 (especially the fourth movement, titled “Refracted Mirror Canon for 14 Lines”; this title, as with the Symphony No. 15 example, alludes to her methods)

  • Symphony #14: “Symphony in Microtones” (especially movement 3, titled “The Lonesome Ones: Homage to Otto Luening”; this is on the same CD as Symphony #1)

  • String Quartet #1 “Protestation Quartet” (I think it was this piece I recall her mentioning from her early college years, written outside of her studies, which expected a different style from students than the one she was naturally interested in; this would be before she went off to study with Tcherepnin, who encouraged her to pay special attention to the study of Renaissance era counterpoint but to keep her studies-related composing and her intuitive composing quite separate; this idea brings to mind my recent post about music theory).

To learn more about Coates, here’s a website with bio, works, articles, and listed recordings. And/or check out her Wikipedia entry.

Finally, here’s something she said about becoming a symphonist (she decided to call some of her works “symphony” well after having written them, and was initially worried about having called them that):

I always had an idea of symphonies being in the 19th century, somehow. I never set out to write a symphony as such. It has to do with the intensity of what I’m trying to say and the fact that it took 48 different instrumental lines to say it, and that the structures I was using had evolved over many years. I couldn’t call it a little name.

I could write pages on the wonderfulness of this outlook, but will just say: There you have it. Gloria Coates: listen to the interview and investigate her music!

PS: The title I gave this post reminds me of the scene in the Woody Allen film Love and Death, when a highly affected aristocratic opera attendee says, “there’s something about Mozart,” and Allen’s character responds, “I think you’re referring to his music.” I think it goes beyond that, though. We look for more in an artist than just their art… I’ll save this idea for another post.

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