Coates: String Quartets Nos. 1-9 / Kreutzer Quartet

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“Perched at a sonic event horizon, the nine string quartets of composer Gloria Coates exquisitely warp listeners’ sense of place. The floorboards yield like latex and the supernovae above are seduced to within an arm’s reach through her elongating, microtonal alchemy. In the deft hands of the UK’s Kreutzer Quartet, the nocturnal harmonies found here are rendered not bleak, but radiant.” – Doyle Armbrust, Time Out Chicago

At long last, the aural equivalent to Salvador Dali's melted watches! Gloria Coates (b. 1939) has created a string quartet language out of glissandos: long, short, abrupt, gradual, creaky, rounded, often dissonant, sometimes consonant. The music conjures up vivid aural images. The Fifth Quartet, for instance, begins with delicate high-register, insect-like squeals. These assiduously descend into detuned, slow moving canons that resemble a chorus of drunken cartoon cats and coyotes intoning half-remembered hymns and barroom ballads. Its second movement is built from glissandos that ascend and descend in super-slow motion. By contrast, the third movement nearly recaps the second at a hundred times the speed, the double stops suggesting a veritable orchestra of quartets whizzing before you in a race against time.

The brief First Quartet dates from the composer's late 20s and reveals that the basic elements of her present style already were in place, if not so extreme in their deployment. I especially like the Sixth Quartet's concluding "Evanescence" movement, where palpable melodic shapes emerge from intertwining long, sustained, slowly modulated glissandos, demarcated by occasional gentle pizzicato dabs. If Coates is the painter, the Kreutzer Quartet is the widely varied palette of colors and the big, austere canvas. The sheer variety of nuance and timbre the players bring to these scores will be hard to equal, let alone surpass. Kyle Gann's exemplary notes are analytical without being academic.
--Jed Distler,
Reviewing original release of Quartets 1, 5 & 6

I get the feeling that Gloria Coates does not spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not other people enjoy her music. That is a compliment, not a complaint. Whether or not you like what she does, she does it with a very personal style and with great conviction. The present CD, the fifth of Coates’s music to be released under Naxos’s American Classics imprint, ranks very low on the list of CDs one would play as light background music during a convivial dinner with friends. Coates’s music, this CD included, forces one to consider why we listen to music at all, and to examine what we mean by “entertainment.” To my thinking, entertainment, in the usual sense of the word, is overrated. We need to devote equal time and effort to moving ourselves into new emotional and intellectual territories, even at the risk of causing ourselves a little pain.

Coates is an American who now lives in Germany. In an interview, she describes the German culture as “very serious and formal,” and comments, “One is left alone much of the time unless he plans ahead.” Is there anyone in the United States who is writing music quite like Coates’s? Not that I am aware of. Her music says difficult things—things Americans seem unwilling to say at this point.

This is the world premiere recording of her recent (2007) String Quartet No. 9. The work is in two movements, both of them slow, and both of them making an almost obsessively detailed exploration of texture and sound. The first is a canon and nearly a palindrome, although the materials thus treated are not only melodic but also textural. The long, siren-like glissando, a trademark of Coates’s music from the start of her career, appears six minutes in and produces an unsettling effect. The listener also is thrown off kilter by pitch, because the first violin and the viola are tuned down one quarter-tone. Glissandos occur in the second movement, albeit within a narrower range; imagine listening to the slow movement of a late Beethoven quartet on a turntable whose motor is giving out and from an LP that has been pressed off-center. As Kyle Gann writes in his booklet notes, “The atmosphere is unworldly, creepily dissonant and yet serene, a kind of music of the spheres.”

The Sonata for Violin Solo (2000) allows aspects of Coates’s compositional style to stand out in stark relief. The movement titles—Prelude, Fantasia, Berceuse, and Hornpipe—suggest Handel or Bach, or at any rate more “traditional” composers, but once again, Coates goes her own fascinating way.

One might think that Emily Dickinson would elicit a brighter response from any composer. All of the Lyric Suite’s (1996) seven movements are headed by a fragment from Dickinson’s poetry. The Belle of Amherst was a mystic and a visionary, though, and Coates’s music underscores the notion that much of Dickinson’s work was actually quite strange, considering the time and place in which she lived. Once again, unusual playing techniques, including strings tuned a quarter-tone flat, create a sound world that is eerily beautiful and queasy.

For Coates newbies, any of the discs featuring her orchestral works might be a slightly easier introduction. Nevertheless, I feel that the present CD is an honest representation of who she is and what she does.

The Kreutzer Quartet has participated in earlier Coates recordings, and the quartet’s first violinist, Peter Sheppard Skærved, has championed Coates for her music for two decades. (Neil Heyde is the quartet’s cellist.) It is hard to know what to say about the performances, except that there would be little point in performing and recording this music if one didn’t believe in it. Separately and together, the quartet’s members, plus pianist Chadwick, are committed to the task, and carry it out with deep concentration.

As usual, the cover art is a painting by Gloria Coates, whose visual art looks much like her music sounds. As the saying goes, when God gave out talent, she stood in line twice.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
Reviewing Quartet no 9, Violin Sonata, Lyric Suite

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8503240

  • UPC: 747313324033

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Gloria Coates

  • Conductor: Michael Finnissy

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Kreutzer String Quartet

  • Performer: Bridget Carey, Gordon Mackay, Neil Heyde, Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Philip Adams, Roderick Chadwick