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Gloria Coates

Gloria Coastes 1986 photo by Anne Kirchbach

Symphonies 1, 4 & 7
Composer: Gloria Coates
Conductor: Wolf-Dieter Hauschild, Georg Schmohe, et al.Cpo Records - #999392 
(c) Cover art Gloria Coates

String Quartets 1, 5.6
Composer: Gloria Coates Performers: Kreutzer Quartet
Naxos - #8559091
(c) Cover art Gloria Coates
Symphony No. 2, Homage to Van Gogh, etc
Composer: Gloria Coates
Conductor: Gloria Coates, Matthias Kuntzsch, et.
Performer: Miroslav Kopp, Jirina Markova, et al.
Cpo Records - #999590 
(c) Cover art Gloria Coates
Gloria Coates was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, and began composing at an early age, winning a National Federation of Music Clubs Composition Contest at age 12. Earning a Masters of Music degree in composition from Louisiana State University, she did post graduate studies at Columbia University and the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Her primary composition teachers were Otto Luening and Alexander Tcherepnin.

In 1986, Coates was one of the 10 finalists for the International Koussevitsky (KIRA) Award which honors a living composer for an important work for her composition "Music on Open Strings." She has been the recipient of numerous awards, commissions and distinctions.

Coates' music has been performed by leading soloists, ensembles and orchestras such as the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Stuttgart Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the London Sinfonia, Polish Chamber Orchestra, various international chamber ensembles including Das Neue Werk Hamburg, the Dresden Ensemble for New Music and the Kronos Quartet.

Her work Music on Open Strings, written in1973 for orchestra, was premiered at the Warsaw Autumn of 1978 and proved to be the most widely discussed work on the Festival. In 1979 she was commissioned to write a work for the East Berlin Festival, the first non-socialist composer ever to be performed on it. Some other Festivals include the Dresden Festival, New Music America - New York 1989, Musica Viva Munich, The New York Microtonal Festival, Henze's Festival Montepulciano, Passau International Festival, and the Dartington Festival in England.

From 1969 to 1989, Coates lived in Europe where hers was a powerful voice on behalf of American music. She has lectured, written musicological articles, produced and broadcast radio programs, and organized a concert series of German-American music in Munich from 1975 - 1984. Since 1989 Gloria Coates has divided her time between the United States and Europe. In addition to her composition, she is a trained painter and the CD covers featured in this article are photos of her work.

Coates' canon of work includes compositions for orchestra (13 symphonies), chamber (7 string quartets) and solo music, vocal (a song cycle on poems by Emily Dickinson), choral music, live electronic and music for the theater. Her string quartets 1, 5 and 6 have just been released on Naxos CD.

S21:  You are best-known for your symphonies. How do  you decide what constitutes a symphony? What elements must a work contain to be a symphony rather than, say, an Essay as Barber sometimes called his  pieces)?  Does your definition somehow relate to Mahler's idea that a  symphony is a work that contains everything it takes  to make a "world?"


GC: It was never an intention of mine to write a  symphony, although since 1973 I had written quite a number of orchestral works with three or four movements, always  changing the titles and never being satisfied. Sometimes they would be related to the structures such as "Music on Open Strings" and sometimes to the emotional content such  as "Illumination in Tenebris."  Finally in 1990, all titles seemed  totally unfitting to a  new orchestral work which lasted a half hour and had 52 instruments playing simultaneously.  This was a very serious work and had used various structures that I had developed over many years in a new way, and it seemed heavier in comparison to my other compositions.

I felt that this must be a symphony.  It then occurred to me that the other longer works were somewhat like this one, but were earlier and not quite as complex.  They were also rather dark and heavy.  I decided to take the ones that satisfied several criteria such as the development of my microtonal structures and the fact that they were introverted but had an emotional expression. I numbered them in the order of composing them so that the new work turned out to be Symphony No. 7." 

In 1995 CPO brought out three of the symphonies,  Nos. 1,4, and 7 on a disc...Dr. Giselher Schubert who is director of the Hindemith Institute and also an authority on Charles Ives was asked to write the booklet.   When he asked me to send him the scores, it occurred to me that it was rather presumptuous of me to rename the pieces symphonies, and perhaps theywould not be recognized as such by an authority from 'the land of the symphony'.  It was a relief to read in his liner notes that he not only accepted them, but also gave his arguments to prove they were, which included the 1907 remark by Mahler to Jean Sibelius,  "The symphony has to be like the world.  It has to
include everything."

Between 1973 and 2002, 13 symphonies have been 'born', something that I could never have imagined back in 1989.

S21/:  How do you decide what form a musical idea may take?  What are some of the external things that inspire you to create music?

GC: Whenever there is a text, it is rather simple since the form might be derived from a symbolic meaning in the text, the melodic line of the language or something concrete in the story.  The forms in more abstract music might come from any source, but mostly from whatever is being contained or expanded.

For instance, my fascination with mirror canons has a long history. Mirror canons which are disguised in the middle movements of String Quartets 5 and 6 on the new Naxos CD are derived from one written back in 1974 as part of "Symphony No. 2".  It is an exact notated mirror canon with linear microintervals forming glissandos.

This mirror canon was not difficult to compose since there was a flow while working on it, or so I thought. Alas, there was a chord in the middle that took three weeks to resolve before I could finish it. This original canon has gone through various transformations over the years and expanded to great complexity in "Symphony No. 7"
and then reduced to a skeleton in the central movement of "Quartet No. 5."

External influences on my music might well be the subconscious transferring of our daily world into musical sounds; sirens, planes, cars, engines of all sorts, storms and rain falling softly, voices of animals, and people, even visual images translated into musical lines and densities.  As an art student at Cooper Union, the two most
interesting classes were architecture and painting.  It might be that this visualization has been transferred to my music, for colors and lines in my music are often used almost architecturally.

S21: What were your earliest musical influences? Whose work has influenced you most and why?

GC: My earliest musical influence was my Italian-born mother who sang and improvised Italian songs in a beautiful coloratura spinto voice. Singing came before speaking, so strong was this influence.  When still under age 5, my older sister and I sang at my father's political rallies and also on radio programs. In Wisconsin at that time, we had a progressive music system in the schools.  We learned the entire Peer Gynt Suite, dancing to the music, and works by Nevin and MacDowell, among others while in kindergarten.  There was no television then, but the radio programs broadcast everything from jazz to classical music.

As a first grader, I remember pushing my ear against the wooden laced speaker to hear a muffled program every week broadcast from a great distance of folk music with singers such as Burl Ives and a group similar to Peter, Paul and Mary.

J.S. Bach has been the greatest influence on my music. For me his greatness lies in his intense emotional expression pressed into exquisite forms.  His music has always been an inspiration to me.

 S21:  What was the first piece of music you ever wrote? Do you remember what it felt like?

 GC:  At age three there was a toy piano for me under our Christmas tree, and I can remember very well my mother saying that she had a dream about some music and played it on that toy piano.  This was very exciting to me, and I then began making up my own tunes.  This improvising continued on my 'real piano' and became a separate world from the formal piano lessons I had beginning at age seven. 

It wasn't until I was 12 that I began writing down the music.  The first such work was a song with words and music entitled "My Heart Yearns." This was a very emotional song with crashing chords and a pleading
 melody. Feeling rather shy about exposing my emotions, I eventually showed it to my voice teacher who sent me to the theory teacher in my hometown who had attended Peabody Conservatory around 1918 and was an authority on Bach.  On seeing my song, he praised the melody, but was critical of the accompaniment, saying that it was unacceptable to use the chords I had written. 'One could not find them in the theory books for they were too far up on the circle of fifths,' and proceeded to show me where they would be, very excitedly playing the modulations of fifths and finally shouting, "See, here are those notes...too far away!" He also showed me all his theory books and proved that they were not there. It was not until many years later that I discovered they were tone clusters.

When I was 16, I went to a lecture in Milwaukee by the Russian composer, Alexander Tcherepnin, who had been in the United States for a short time, entitled "How a Composer Works."  After the lecture in the question/answer period I asked him about those chords and why they couldn't be used.  He asked to see me after the discussion, and then told me it was possible to write the chords and asked me if I had written any music.  I told him about my piece with the chords, and he asked to see it.  This was the beginning of many years of encouragement by a truly great and inspiring musician which continued until his death in 1977.

S:21 What do you consider your most important formal training?

GC:  The most important formal training was at Louisiana State University with a "pioneer" woman composer-teacher named Helen Gunderson who had studied at Yale in the 20s and had attended the new music seminars at Bennington College in the summers. Her courses in counterpoint were excellent as well as her Form and Analysis classes.  We analyzed Bach; the "Art of Fugue," "Inventions," and "The Goldberg Variations."  After that we analyzed all the Beethoven Sonatas. This was very helpful in my own writing in evaluating proportions in my own structures and forms. The early counterpoint courses, especially renaissance counterpoint, gave me a security in writing linear music and a feeling for its harmonic consequences. 

In 1962 in a graduate composition class I had written a string quartet entirely of glissandi. My professor became very upset and wrote on the piece, "A glissando is used once or twice in a piece for color, but the entire piece with glissandos is too...too...." He couldn't finish his sentence. I continued my own intuitive composing parallel to the work I was doing in composition at the university.  It was in the post-graduate courses at Columbia University with Jack Beeson and Otto Luening that I was exposed to a freer approach to composing in which my views and uses of instruments and colors were respected.

S21: Who are some younger composers whose works interest you?

GC: There are too many to name that I find interesting, often because of their use of the computer.  The computer creates a different sound world.  It might be that there will be a division in music history of BC (before the computer) and AC (after the computer). It enables the composer to easily use complex ellipses and modulations, rhythms and microtones, and to experiment with various electronic sounds.  I find this all very exciting.

S21:  Most establishment music organizations are fairly conservative and tend to play music they think will attract an audience. That usually translates into a lot of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart.  How difficult is it to get contemporary works played and heard? What can be done about it? 

GC: It has always been difficult to have contemporary music performed, but I do believe that in our country
there have been great strides made in this direction. There are many young conductors interested in new
music, and they encourage the inclusion of new music in the programming of concerts.  The Endowment for the
Arts has also helped in this direction. 

Of course, it would help even more if there were music appreciation and rhythm bands in the grade schools like at the time when I was a child in Wisconsin. Besides this, it would help if more new music were played on radio stations.  I think this is a problem of subsidy and public radio support by the government. There is an audience for new music as proved by the CDs that are sold and produced.

S21: You have lived much of your life in Germany.  Is it easier or more difficult for a contemporary composer to be heard in Europe than the United States?

GC: The European countries are comparatively small so that a composer will be more easily found and heard.
Countries in Europe also promote their own composers first. There is a lively interest in new music among
many people in Europe, and they are quite well informed on the subject which means that there are opportunities for a composer to be heard. The critics are often specialized musicologists. 

We also promote our own American composers, but sometimes prefer the foreign composers over our own. I
think this is less so in recent years. In the end, though, opportunities for performances are more or
less the same as long as the composer is in his own country. 

However, this was not true during the 'Cold War" at which time many composers of new music from the
Eastern countries Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary were given an unusual reception of performances by
the rest of the world. 

Otherwise, it is better to stay home, for a composer can easily be lost in the cracks "between the keys."

S21:  Tell us about your day-to-day life, your family,your work habits, and how you achieve a balance
between your career as a composer, and other demands?

GC:  I have no real balance in my life anymore.  At one time I had, but now after more than 40 years of
composing, there is so much to do to organize programs, letters, scraps of music, scores, and all the new works to be created that my life has become absorbed in my music.  It has been almost five years since I painted which had been a good emotional balance for me.  Friends are dear to me as is my daughter and grandson here.  My family and friends back home are as near as the telephone or internet allow. 

S21: This is a tough question, but what would be your five Desert Island disks?

GC: Many amusing answers come to mind such as "Jurassic Park" music for the lizards, "Someday my Ship Will Come," "Desert Song," 'I'm Wishing" from 'Snow White' and a very loud electronic piece to signal a passing ship.

To be more serious, I would take with me positive music such as "The Art of Fugue" by Bach, Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Mozart's "Magic Flute," "Magnificats" by Orlando di Lasso, "The Four Seasons" by Vivaldi.

S21: What are you working on now?  How is it going?

GC:  There are three commissions that I am now working on in a thought process somewhere in my subconscious mind. One of them is due in a month.  Unfortunately, I am too superstitious to talk about them until they are finished. 

Visit Gloria Coates sites:

American Music Center

Andre Chaudron's Composer's Page