Gloria Coates
Gloria Coates: Beyond the Spheres

Gloria Coates: Beyond the Spheres

July 11, 2008–3:00 p.m.
At the home of Catherine Luening
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow
Transcribed by Julia Lu and Trevor Hunter

Have you heard of Gloria Coates? Despite having a career that has spanned five decades, two continents, and 15 symphonies, she remains a largely unknown quantity on these shores even after years of success in Europe. It would seem, however, that the Atlantic tides are turning. A rash of CD releases on the Naxos label have helped her music achieve greater exposure, pushing her name into major publications in print and online. More U.S. performances have yet to follow, but with all the recent attention it may be inevitable. However, an in-depth look at the creator of all this music, the most prolific of female symphonists, was still sorely lacking.

The volume of recordings on which Coates’s music appears—17 by last count—signaled that here was a truly significant body of work. In addition to the 15 symphonies, she is the composer of numerous additional pieces for orchestra, 9 string quartets, 15 songs on texts by Emily Dickinson, 5 pieces for choir, musique concrète, a cantata, and dozens of chamber works. Yet despite the wide range of music in both instrumentation and chronology, there is a consistent and original vision behind it all.

For Coates, artistic expression is a spiritual necessity. She has great interest and significant participation in painting, architecture, theater, poetry, and singing—but it is through composing that she taps into a wellspring of abstracted emotionality that the others cannot reach. Or perhaps abstracted is not the correct term, as it would seem that Coates is merely being oblique about what the inner, personal meaning of the music is to her. Whatever the veiled expressions of her work may be, there is an undoubted emotional richness present, which if not concretely knowable is at least viscerally felt by the audience. Canons constructed of quartertones and glissandos evoke gloomy instability, but also unearthly beauty.

NewMusicBox managed to catch up with Coates on one of her infrequent visits to New York. She opened up about what it means to be an American in Germany, a woman in classical music, and a modernist with minimal materials. In the end, however, Coates is content to let the art speak for itself; she stands apart, a painter of colors and tones.



An American in Munich

Trevor Hunter: The bulk of the last 40 years of your life has been spent in Germany. What has living there meant for you, in terms of your identity?

Gloria Coates: In a way it’s very difficult for me to be in another culture. I’m like a juggler, balancing two balls, and I can’t focus too much on either one, but I’m able to stay objective because they’re both up in the air. I would say it makes me stronger as an American because I’m longing for my roots. Also, one can see one’s country more objectively because one is away.

As far as being in Germany, I love the old masters like Bach—my favorite—and I love Beethoven. I can never walk down a certain street without thinking, for instance, “this is where Mozart wrote Idomeneo.” So it’s exciting to be in a country that has these wonderful composers and this base of knowledge, because I think it goes through the culture. You have more classical music on the radio, you have people on the street who know about composers and are interested even in contemporary music.

TH: If the population is more aware of classical music in Germany, how do you think being there has affected your music?

GC: By living in Europe as an outsider, which I’m considered there, and having had many performances, I am truly a working artist. I don’t rely on teaching, and I’ve been able to earn my living since 1983 from my music. But this is very rare even for a German composer.

I would say maybe the seriousness of the people in Germany has affected my music. It’s a different social climate. One has longer stretches of being alone, and that might have affected my music somewhat because one goes more into oneself. They say in Germany that I’m very American, and here in the U.S. they’ve said I’m very European. Others say I’m sort of in the Atlantic. I don’t analyze it; I simply express myself.

TH: You’ve written a lot of symphonies. In fact, near as can be seen, you are history’s most prolific female symphonist. Is that a label that means anything to you?

GC: I wasn’t even sure until the seventh that I had written any symphonies. I never set out to be a symphonist.

TH: What made you decide that the previous six were in fact symphonies?

GC: Many of my pieces had technical names, like Music on Open Strings. I also had another name for that piece—more audience friendly—Three Ages of the Samurai. When I came to what today is called Symphony No. 7, I couldn’t find a name. I had something like 54 instruments going simultaneously. It was complex, serious, and used various techniques I had developed through the years. I then decided, well, maybe this is a symphony. Then I thought, if this is a symphony, then what about those other pieces with various names? Then I went back to them. However, I didn’t name all the pieces symphonies; only the ones that had three or four movements, that were serious and substantial in content, and that had two or more names.

When [the record label] CPO brought out symphonies one, four, and seven, they selected Dr. Giselher Schubert, director of the Hindemith Institute, to write the liner notes. I thought, “Oh my heavens! Maybe they’re not symphonies, what am I going to do?” Dr. Schubert telephoned me, “I understand you have seven symphonies. I had no idea you had written symphonies.” Then I told him that I just thought that the seventh was a symphony, but I wasn’t completely sure. He had the scores and analyzed them. I was relieved when his booklet notes were published, for he accepted them as symphonies and used Mahler’s definition of a symphony as his criteria. Other German musicologists wrote in their criticisms similar statements such as Brembeck in Fono Forum, “These are true symphonies, of that there is no doubt.” That made me feel much better.

Voices and Movements

Trevor Hunter: Music on Open Strings, composed between 1972 and 1973, was appropriated eventually as your first symphony and was premiered just before your 40th birthday at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. But it was written five years prior to that.

Gloria Coates: It was an unpaid commission for a chamber orchestra in 1972. I went to a rehearsal of the piece and realized that it needed a conductor. The orchestra refused having one, in spite of the fact that I found a young Polish conductor who wanted to do it. I took the work off the program. I waited five years before it was finally premiered. Even then, the premiere had problems, for the orchestra did not want to do the scordatura that was required in all the instruments—one of the movements had the musicians retune the strings in a cascade of canons. I had written in a mosaic pattern of the instruments which built to a climax, and they pointed out that playing on the open strings, they could not crescendo the opening. The day before the final rehearsal, I had the idea of loosening the bow hair and tightening it in the rests which might create the crescendo when played. I needed to check out my idea. Looking out of my window at the old Paderewsky Hotel at 5:00 a.m., I saw a man with a case. I was on an upper floor, so hurried down the winding flight of stairs and found him. It was a viola case and a musician was waiting for a bus to take him to Krakow. With the help of the night doorman, he understood my problem of having to try out the crescendo with the bow. It worked. Thus, the piece was performed as written. It turned out to be a breakthrough. Throughout the papers of Europe it was cited as one of the three high points of the festival.

TH: That premiere was in 1978 at the height of the Cold War. Even living in Munich, you lived on this border of East and West. And you were the first commissioned American at the East Berlin Festival.

GC: Right. Somebody from East Berlin heard Music on Open Strings in Warsaw and asked me to write a piece for the East Berlin Festival.

TH: But it must have been quite the experience, living almost on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

GC: There was always unease in the air–especially in Munich, because that was the spy capital of Germany, and the Russian rockets were targeted on Munich. I went back quite often to Poland. I was there three times for the festival, and then East Berlin. I was invited to Russia for the First International Festival for New Music in the spring of 1980. It was very exciting actually; there were orchestras from all over Russia. Leo Brouwer was there and had a composition done which was very modern. Nicholas Slonimsky was there, too, and his nephew had a ballet performed. I met Alfred Schnittke there, and other avant-garde Russians who were not performed then. But our American composer who then was head of Juilliard, Peter Mennin, had a symphony on one of the concerts I attended. It was beautifully done. After Peter Mennin came forward for his bow, the whole crowd gathered around him, and suddenly he was lifted up into the air and onto the shoulders of this group and carried out of the hall with the crowd following. I’ve heard of this happening, but I’ve never seen it before. It was really an exciting experience to be there.

After this festival was over, there were articles that came out, and I asked someone if I could write one for the United States. They answered, “Oh no, it’s being taken care of.” I did write an article for Musica, but it’s the only one of its kind that came out. The others stated that this festival was only for propaganda purposes, and that there was nothing contemporary on the festival. This wasn’t true at all.

In 1970 I told some German friends that I thought the Cold War would be over in about 20 years, and that the [Berlin] Wall would fall. My reasoning behind this theory was that the people who were involved in World War II would be old or gone, and the young people would come to power. That’s exactly what happened. They are the ones who marched through the wall and brought it down. I think it was a very heroic thing to have done, because they came with their families, little children and wives, walking through that wall; they could have been shot down at any point.

TH: Do you consider yourself to write music that is in any way political? A number of pieces bear dedications having to do with major world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or September 11.

GC: The fall of the Berlin Wall was a major event and changed the course of history. It had been a war of nerves, and the dramatic coalescing of many factors ended it. Symphony No.7 is dedicated “to those who brought down the wall in peace.”

Another work that leans towards politics is a cantata, WWII Poems for Peace, that I wrote in 1972 with texts by women who were writing during World War II. It was done many times during the peace movement, although I had a totally different motivation when I wrote it. I took tours for the American Army in Munich; one tour was to Dachau. During that time, I had a commission to write a chamber work. I used texts by four women writing during WW II; two German and two American. Of the Germans, one was the third-grade teacher of my daughter, who had given me a little poem she had found in a newspaper during the war, “Rinne, regen, rinne auf den Sand und auf die Steine, rinne allerwegen und weine,” which translates to “Run, rain, run on the sands and the stones, run everywhere and cry.” I used that as an aria, and her note to me as the recitative. The other German was a lady with a pension who helped us when we first arrived. She had taken care of children during World War II in the Berlin underground. Her husband had died in a concentration camp. She wrote a very beautiful poem which I used, “Young Widow”. Then I found two American poets writing during that war and superimposed them between the German poems.

My Musical Landscape

Beyond the spheres that
Orbit our sun
Across the stars
Through black holes that
Lace the inner realm,
Shapes like dippers, kites and
Strings of pearls–

Sounds that echo–
Crusts of dried
Whizzing, whirling, twirling,
Swirling through
Timeless space in
Circles round, oblong and

Through the
Vortex of my
Singing Soul
Transformed from
Sounds and
Shapes of
Into my

Transformed to
Musical Calligraphy.

Gloria Coates
October 2002

TH: You’re most well known for your symphonies and string quartets, but you’ve actually written a great deal of vocal music. What is it that attracts you to the voice? Is it the means of conveying text?

GC: Well, I’ve always sung. I used to sing on radio programs when I was three and four. If it weren’t for stage fright, I’d probably be a singer, and I might not have composed as much. I still know several operas and literature for the voice, and I’ve taught voice privately. I think that when I compose even orchestral music, the expression comes from an ur schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing. This is the origin of my use of glissandi.

TH: When you set text, is clarity important to you?

GC: With some songs that are lyrical, the text is important. However, I use the voice in other ways that express the text’s meaning without any vocal clarity. It can become a part of the texture, color, or rhythm in a work and not be understood except a syllable here and there perhaps. This is true for the Leonardo fragment and Indian Sounds. The Emily Dickinson songs use the texts in various ways. Even the general colors are derived from the text.

TH: You’ve set 15 of Emily Dickinson’s poems. What attracts you to a text?

GC: Those songs were written over a period of more than 30 years. I’ve always felt a spiritual kinship with Emily Dickinson. At the time that I started with “I’m Nobody,” there weren’t that many Emily Dickinson songs written. Now there are hundreds, maybe thousands by American and British composers. It seems that when somebody dies who’s close to me, and I need comfort, I find reading her poems gives me solace. Then suddenly something touches me, and I can write the music. There is an exchange with her poetry.

TH: You’ve sung your whole life and you know all this vocal literature, but you’ve never written an opera.

GC: That is what I should have done at the very beginning, and I’m not sure why I haven’t. I started writing an opera based on “Fall of the House of Usher” back around 1962. And then I thought, “No, I’m not ready,” so I went back to writing chamber pieces and orchestral music. I felt I had to really be ready. Now here I am, and I’ve written still another libretto, and I have other librettos that I’d like to use, but there has been no time for opera.

TH: Have you written many of your texts?

GC: Some. I began writing music using my own texts and poems as a teenager, but that didn’t really work for me since I didn’t feel I wanted to reveal my inner feelings that directly. Eventually I clothed them in expressions by Emily Dickinson, Mallarme, Paul Celan, my daughter, Leonardo da Vinci, and Native Americans. My own poetry is private, but sometimes I have used this form of expression as I did for a book by Peter Sheppard. He asked me to write a chapter about my musical landscape in composing. I condensed it into a poem.

In 2004 I created a musical text poem from Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address which was performed in the Great Hall of its origin 150 years later.

TH: You mentioned how in Germany there was no women’s movement when you arrived there. Did you ever feel like your gender was a barrier to your success as a composer?

GC: I had a German-American Music Series from 1971 to 1983, subsidized by the Munich Ministry of Culture and a grant from the Ditson Fund of Columbia University. I played many American composers and also women composers on this series; I think I presented one of the first European performances of Joan Tower’s work in 1972, a flute solo called Hexagons. I also presented an electronic piece by Ann McMillan. There weren’t many German women composers at that time. I never felt personally at a disadvantage because I already had had performances in the U.S., and there were no problems in Germany. I enjoyed being a pioneer in promoting women composers and performers. Sometimes I would hear jokes made about women composers, but that ceased as they proved themselves. The movement in Germany started around 1978, and women’s groups formed that were able to get financial subsidies from the German government. This created a type of ghetto at first. I felt the women should integrate and not separate. I disagreed with their separateness philosophy, and therefore was not very active in those organizations. In a series of radio broadcasts for the WDR Cologne on music called “Open House Broadcasts,” and other radio invitations, I played as many recordings by women composers and American composers as I could find on my visits to the U.S. In time, women composers became part of the concert world in Germany, as did American composers.

From Theory to Practice

Trevor Hunter: I found a reference to you using a male pseudonym at one point for an electronic composition.

Gloria Coates: Yes, I’ve used William Fischer, which was the name of my great-grandfather who was a painter. The electronic music for me was so far away from this inner ur schrei that I didn’t really feel I should include it in my work.

TH: But there was enough interest that you composed eight electronic pieces in the ‘70s.

GC: The pieces were mostly using live electronic music or animal or bird sounds; using water, slowing down tapes, and what one does without a studio in the living room. I was happily experimenting with the sounds.

I was working with my voice creating multiphonics and using a modulator paired with live electronics and laser beams for visual patterns. Together with Ulrike and Dieter Trüstedt, we demonstrated this at Darmstadt the summer of 1972. We had great success; hundreds of people came to hear us. It is recorded at Darmstadt in a discussion that the vocal multiphonics were thought to be ugly. No one at Darmstadt had heard of anything quite like it. I didn’t want to continue, so we broke up the team in 1974.

A commission in 1978 from the East Berlin Festival was for an electronic piece, and I used live animals, insects, and birds which I recorded in the Bavarian countryside, along with machine sounds; it was an ecological piece.

TH: In a lot of your orchestral and chamber music I can almost hear an electronic texture, with the glissandos, microtones, and differing layers.

GC: After working for one or two years so intensely with the electronics and microintervals, my interval perception became keener. There was much more space in between the quartertones. Thus it might have influenced my orchestral music.

TH: You’re one of the few composers that I can think of who really gets away with using lots of microtonal elements in your orchestral music. It’s not something I would expect most orchestras would be willing to take on, but you seem to have no problems. For as strange and difficult as many of these things sound, there’s a lot in your notation and your scordaturas that makes these things perhaps more feasible than they would be otherwise.

GC: I remember studying composition in Louisiana with a very good twelve-tone teacher, even though I was rebellious against twelve-tone music. But one important thing that he said was to always notate your music in such a way that people can play it on short notice, because you’re not going to have much time for rehearsal. And that’s what I always did. I never found other composers who were notating the way I was, and I always had my eye out for a more beautiful, ornate system. Although my notation is not very beautiful and ornate, it’s simple and it works. It gives clarity to the music.

TH: The fact that your notation is so simple is kind of appropriate to me, because your musical structures themselves are not that complicated, often maintaining a singular idea throughout the whole movement or piece.

GC: Otto Luening once said he sees the movement as a whole before he writes it down. This is not minimal music, and I am not a minimalist, although some of my music has minimal qualities in that it is reduced in some way. Each piece I write is different, depending on what I am expressing. My latest string quartet, String Quartet No. 9, is the opposite of this concept. Various sections are strung together and over one another. Alexander Tcherepnin once said that you can tell the greatness of a composer by the way he’s able to weave together sections of music. His music was created in sections. Much of my music is contrapuntal. In this style, it can sweep a movement, but it is not minimalist. I spent a few weeks on three notes of a canon. The result looked simple, but the resolution was complicated. My music is often like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.

TH: That Tcherepnin quote reminds me of a La Monte Young quote used by Kyle Gann in the liner notes to one of your discs. He said, “Contrast is for people who can’t write music.”

GC: It’s probably a minimalist idea.

TH: Sure. But I can hear that in your music.

GC: Perhaps it is related to my reducing material to a minimum. I often like to take very few colors because that allows the imagination more freedom. Jack Beeson once said, “If you limit your ideas, you’re freer.” But you have to first have an idea, so you have to be in a good frame of mind because one is not always creative. Then, too, contrapuntal music has fewer contrasts naturally.

TH: To most people’s ears, the most distinguishing feature of your music is probably the glissandos. How did that develop?

GC: Unlike in the past when our, let’s say, division of listening had to do with horses or walking, we now are either driving or flying. I think that’s also why the glissando is there—because I hear it and I experience it all the time. The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises and other machines such as vacuum cleaners, mixers, and elevators sound in microintervals. Then, too, microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature as in bird songs and animal voices, or thunder, or even trees falling; so our ears are sensitive to microtones.

The first piece I wrote with glissandos was in 1962 when I was studying in Louisiana. This was a string quartet in which I used all glissandi in a contrapuntal form. My professor said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing here. Do you call this music?” I explained that the glissandi went to specific points and a form was created. And he asked, “Why have you written this?” And I answered, “Well, it’s music. You can play it.” Then he said, “Yes, you can,” and he chuckled and asked, “but who will ever listen to it?” Then I thought, well, I’m not writing necessarily to be heard. I stopped writing those glissando pieces for about six years.

In 1962 in Louisiana, no one had heard of Penderecki’s music, but he might have been working on similar things then in Poland. Ideas often happen simultaneously, which seems to give them more validity. A few years later in Europe—perhaps it was because my music didn’t look good enough, or because I didn’t have any publisher, or because I was a woman, an American, in a foreign country, I don’t know—but at first my music using glissandi was not taken seriously.

My scores were not elegant, but simply notated. When I was in Darmstadt for the multiphonic vocal demonstration in 1972, I asked several teachers there if there was anyone with my technique that used a better notation system. Because of my questions, a seminar was devised with Theodore Antoniou as leader to investigate new notation methods. After a long search, we found no composer with my glissando method and objectives; not Xenakis, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, nor Ligeti. I left Darmstadt feeling somewhat hopeless. Now I realize that the notation is very important if you have something new or individual to express. It is primarily through this notation that the idea is recognized.

My music using glissando structures has been plagiarized a few times. The last movement of Music on Open Strings and the second movement of my third string quartet that have been copied. The best way I could guarantee that these glissando structures were mine was to use them in various new pieces. When I modified them in various ways, I discovered one could create a structure in music and then use it as a sort of musical element such as a scale, but it would be in three or more dimensions. I began doing this in some of my later works.

TH: Based on many of your answers to these questions, I get the impression that you place a very high value on originality. Why is it such a virtue to you?

GC: I think it’s part of being American. I remember Harvey Sollberger once saying that music is a long chain, and the Germans say this too. And I believe that, especially if you go back to Mozart or Bach or Beethoven. But I think that an American way of thinking is that creativity springs in giant leaps.

But I must add that in Europe and Germany in particular, originality is valued and considered a very important part of creativity. The Germans admire the music of Cage, Cowell, or Feldman for example, because of their originality. If one writes in the style of Webern or Shostakovich or Hindemith, their music is not highly valued since the composer has no voice of his own. Many composers who are not original are often on the lookout for new ideas which they can use to further themselves. This is always a danger for the young original composer. However, even if he is sometimes robbed, he will have more ideas and the robber will not.

TH: Is this part of why you’re self-published?

GC: Oh, I’m sure. I’m very hesitant to give my scores out, and I usually know who’s performing the music. There have been problems by living in Europe because the publishers there refer me to publishers in America, who refer me to publishers in Europe, so I’ve had this circle going around. I finally stopped trying.

Reality in Abstraction

Trevor Hunter: You’ve had some success as a visual artist, having had to your credit some ten solo exhibitions and more group shows. When did you start painting?

Gloria Coates: Oh, I think at the same time I started in music, maybe when I was three years old. Even in grade school in Wisconsin, sometimes my paintings would go on exhibit to other classes and other schools. But I was also singing. I never really thought about my career, I just simply enjoyed the arts. I remember as a girl scout when I was ten years old, there was an arts badge, and we had to find the correlation between the arts. And it was exciting for me to do this. I found color, rhythm, line, form, mood, and many similarities.

There’s a pastel in the Wisconsin historical society that I did when I was 13. What I was doing then with pastels is very much what evolved in my paintings and music—already the direction was set when I was very young. As I got older, my art remained a spontaneous joy. But for me, composing was more serious and important. I could paint much more quickly, because visually I saw the results in my mind’s eye and realize the form and structure very easily. In composing I could also see what I wanted to express, but it was more abstract and took time to write out all the notes; and with the time needed to unfold an idea, circumstances might change in either my thinking or surroundings, and then the form might change as well. This process is more detailed and time dependent compared to painting.

This (see video above) was painted in 1974. It has similarities to what I was doing intuitively at age 13. That style that I had kept evolving on its own. I didn’t lead it. One sees many details. If we take a contrapuntal part, it would be here [points to painting]. And there’s always a counterpoint. I paint very quickly, but it might take months before that expression comes out of my subconscious. Painting has a freeing effect for me. I look at this painting, and I can see it with all its detail, although I would not try to do the same thing in my music. Seeing a painting I had done would give me courage for the patience needed for the long time that it would take to write out the musical compositions.

TH: I was playing a colleague some of your music, and I had given him no background information. Midway through he turned to me and asked, “Does she do any architecture?” He could hear the lines and the structures in your music.

GC: That’s true, I did study architecture. I went to Cooper Union Art School and at that time, I was either going to major in architecture or in design and painting. However, my life still revolved around music, and I needed the time for my musical studies which were more important to me then. I took a leave of absence from Cooper Union, thinking I could always come back to complete the painting or architecture. But I never did; my life took various turns, and I left New York. But I kept painting, and I always had an interest in architecture. In composing I use the various elements of painting relating to color and architecture, relating to form; I am aware of a certain sensitivity to balances and relationships.

Although I can never generalize about my various pieces because every piece has a different expression, and every expression needs another form, another structure, and other colors—but some of the string quartets are more related to architecture. The architecture is primarily in the form, and perhaps also in the expression of the piece—and if I’m designing something like a large mirror canon in glissandi, that must have the architectural standard of form and content. It sometimes takes weeks to put it together, for one can meet a snag.

TH: Do you see any parallels in the evolution of your visual art and your composing?

GC: I would say yes, because in some of the later paintings I have various elements of reality within the abstraction, and I have done the same thing in the past 10-15 years in the music. The music is still abstract generally, and so are the paintings.

TH: But again, even though they’re abstract, they come from a deep personal expression.

GC: Yes. I’ve never written my autobiography, and I don’t think I can. It would be too complex. In a way, my music is my autobiography.

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