American Classics - Gloria Coates: Symphonies 1, 7 And 14

Regular price $11.99
Added to Cart! View cart or continue shopping.

G. COATES Symphonies: No. 1; 1 No. 7; 2 No. 14 3 ? Jorge Rotter, cond; 1 Siegerland O; 1 Olaf Henzold, cond; 2 Bavarian RSO; 2 Christoph Poppen, cond; 3 Munich CO; 3 Raymond Curfs (kd) 3 ? NAXOS 8.559289 (65:47)

First, this is Gloria Coates (b. 1938) not Eric. Second, we have a welcome addition to a still-too-small discography of one of the most original living American composers. I will confess this is my first encounter (far too late) with her music, but I have been primed by word of mouth, above all by former Fanfare critic Kyle Gann, who praises her lavishly in his American Music in the Twentieth Century. And the advance word has been confirmed by the music I?ve finally heard.

Coates is definitely a composer in the mold of the American ?ultramodernists? of the early 20th century. The listener will immediately sense an adventurous, uncompromising, cantankerous spirit in her work that is a descendant of such as Ives, Ruggles, Cowell, and Crawford. Her most distinguishing technique is that of the string glissando, which in lesser hands can be a cheap symbol of modernist instability, and a passport to aural seasickness. Not here. Coates is careful to place her sliding tones at the service of larger processes: canons in particular, or ?additive/subtractive? lines that expand and contract the range of the glissando over time and in perceptible patterns. She?s a wonderfully paradoxical composer because, on the one hand, the music is highly experimental in its surface technique, but on the other hand, classical in its attention to form and development within the symphonic argument. She?s a very conceptual composer, as both the titles of movements (Symphony No. 7?s movements are ?The Whirligig of Time,? ?The Glass of Time,? and ?Corridors of Time?) and her attachment to strict processes, nowadays called algorithms, may suggest. But no matter how idealistic the music, it always carries a visceral impact, or in good old American terms, a real wallop.

The three works on this program nicely cover the composer?s entire symphonic cycle (up to this point), dipping into the start, the middle, and end. Symphony No. 1 (1972?73) is her best-known work, also referred to as ?Music on Open Strings.? The work begins with an alternate pentatonic tuning of the instruments, and in the third movement incorporates the scordatura (retuning) of the strings back to the conventional tuning into the real-time performance fabric. Not all the sounds are just the five pitches, though, as Coates inserts all sorts of glissandos that enrich the texture, even if they don?t establish other firm pitch centers. It?s a highly original work, and a bracing combination of both minimalist and modernist practices.

The Symphony No. 7 (1990; a tribute to ?Those who brought down the Wall in PEACE,? though there is little I hear that?s programmatic in the actual music) is the most European sounding of the three works: not a surprise, as the composer has lived her mature artistic life in Germany, another marker of her ?outsider? status. It?s highly abstract in its materials, and verges on being the work whose glissandos wear out their welcome. But just when I started feeling the music was becoming predictable (in the first and third movements), it marshals its forces to create overwhelming climaxes that simultaneously sound surprising yet natural. I don?t know exactly what the technique is, but I suspect Coates has deep processes at work that lead to a culmination one desires but can?t easily predict. The relentless growth and impact of the piece, a storm in sound, is similar to Xenakis?s Jonchaies for orchestra, though I don?t claim it?s quite as great a work.

The final work, Symphony No. 14 (2001?02, ?Symphony in Microtones?), is by far the most American-sounding piece, for at least two obvious reasons. First, the piece (for strings and timpani?only the Seventh uses full orchestra on this collection) divides the string orchestra into two halves, tuned a quarter tone apart. Some of the music is so dense one doesn?t really perceive the differences, but in cases of the hymn quotation discussed below, it can be striking. The effect is the most Ivesian of this set and, in particular, I think of the composer of the Robert Browning Overture as an antecedent here.

Second, the first two movements quote pieces by Supply Belcher (a late 18th-century Maine hymnodist) and William Billings, the Boston Revolutionary-period composer who was himself an aesthetic revolutionary of the first order. The Billings choice is particularly apt, as it is ?Jargon,? his completely atonal (though better stated, it could be called ?non-functional,? as all the intervals are consonant, but they don?t make up traditional tonal chords) choral work, a message from another universe to the 18th century. In both movements, the antique sources emerge from Coates?s swirling textures like apparitions, an effect that is magical and unnerving. In the Billings movement, after appearing, the source is then stated with the quarter-tone difference, which feels like a true enrichment rather than a mere distortion.

In short, this is remarkable music. At times it can seem too crude and obvious, spurning standards of polish and taste, and then at the next moment it blindsides you with the power of its vision, a balanced match of manner and substance, form and content, style and idea. And on top of it all, if the booklet?s cover is any guide, Coates is a talented visual artist as well, in the tradition of Ruggles.

The sonic standards of the disc are variable: Symphony No. 1 is a recording from 1980, with more surface noise than we?re now accustomed to, and No. 7 comes from a concert recording of the world premiere. Only No. 14 has the clarity and crispness listeners have come to expect. At the same time, this doesn?t bother me, as none of the earlier sonic flaws are too distracting, and the music overcomes any such obstacle on its innate strengths. There is one serious competitor to this disc, cpo 999 392, which includes Nos. 1 and 7, substituting No. 4 for No. 14. I have not heard it, but I note from its online data that No. 1 is also a live recording from the same year as the Naxos (1980), and No. 7 was recorded in 1991, so I suspect at the very least there are similar sonic issues involved. I have a hunch that, based on repertoire, the Naxos disc will be preferable as an introduction, providing a broad sweep of the composer?s career. But based on what I?ve heard, I also suspect if you are hooked on Coates, you?ll probably need to get the cpo eventually.

This may well reappear on my 2006 Want List.

FANFARE: Robert Carl

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559289

  • UPC: 636943928929

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Gloria Coates

  • Conductor: Christoph Poppen, Jorge Rotter, Olaf Henzold

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Siegerland Orchestra

  • Performer: Raymond Curfs