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 at right) 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.