Gloria Coates: String Quartets No. 2, 3, 4, 7, 8

[Notes by Kyle Gann] Gloria Coates: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 

Listen, before reading these notes. The sound world of Gloria Coates' music is a strange, perplexing one unlike any you will hear elsewhere, and yet when her methods are examined closely they turn out to be simpler than might be expected. Beneath those glissandi, those melting textures calculated to afflict even the most experienced ear with vertigo, are some surprisingly traditional structures, canons, palindromes, ostinatos, quotations of traditional themes. Coates uses simple, clear devices as scaffolding for tremendously way-out textural innovations. If you know in advance what is going on, it may distract you from what you are actually experiencing. Steep yourself in the weirdness first, then learn how elegantly she achieves it. 

Coates, a Wisconsin native born in 1938, studied with Alexander Tcherepnin, a Russian émigré who invented the nine-tone scale now known as the Tcherepnin scale, and also with Otto Luening and Jack Beeson at Columbia. Trained also as a singer and painter, she still, to this day, paints large, splashy canvases as surreal and colourful as her music. More essentially, she is the world's leading woman symphonist: she has fourteen such works to her credit, more than any other woman has ever written, and has staked out a firm claim in a genre that few women composers, even those of orchestral ambitions, ever touch. Although not used in every work, the device with which Coates is most associated is the glissando, the slowly sliding pitch ascent or descent, which in her symphonies frequently blurs the more conventional lines of the winds and brass. Since glissandi are most easily played by strings, it is almost predictable that she would make a major contribution to the string quartet repertoire, and this she has certainly done with the eight she has written so far. 

Quartet No. 7 was written in 2000 and first performed within weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. It is subtitled Angels, and includes the organ along with the quartet, the only work I know of for that combination. Its underpinnings are completely modernist, with dissonant trills, glissandi, and organ tone-clusters reminiscent of Bartók or Xenakis. What is stranger about it, though, are the aspects that are not strange: the slow hymn quotations that wander through the texture. We hear Angels we have heard on high, then fragments of God rest ye merry, gentlemen, and finally As shepherds watched their flocks by night. This is a Christmas piece, rare within the instrumental repertoire; Schoenberg's lovely Weihnachtsmusik and John La Montaine's fantasy on Twelve Days of Christmas are the only other examples I can think of, but the other-worldly atmosphere does evoke angels, and the piece mixes the divine and the mundane in a mystical meditation. 

The Quartet No. 2 (1972), the briefest, least ambitious work here, opens as a canon, each instrument eventually entering with the same material. The theme, though, is so remarkably heterogeneous in its glissandi, trills, tonal and atonal phrases that the canonic effect is not immediately apparent. One of Coates's favourite effects is a poignantly sad tonal melody surrounded by weirdness, like a lament in the midst of battle, and we get that here, on a tune she had written in childhood. A rather chaotic climax of angular lines and hectic improvisation finally gives way to the lament, stated in different keys at once. 

The Quartet No. 8 (2001-2002) was written as a memorial to the victims of 11th September, and moves through three movements from complete instability to a kind of hypnotic serenity. The opening movement, On wings of sound, is entirely in glissandi, with no fixed reference point anywhere; it is a palindromic canon, a fact that can hardly influence one's perception of its eerie writhing. In falling timbers buried, the second movement, hints at a human presence amid the falling glissandi and the slow, gradual convergence of the cello and first violin lines. The tune that appears here and there is from a song Coates had earlier written on a poem of Emily Dickinson, about someone who was buried alive: Many things are fruitless 'Tis a Baffling Earth But there is no Gratitude Like the Grace of Death. 

The final movement is a Prayer couched in stately chords of parallel fifths - you might notice its repeated eight-note tune coming back in retrograde. The entire quartet takes a sense of unease from the viola and cello being tuned a quarter-tone off from the violins. A field of uninterrupted glissandos also marks the opening of the Quartet No.4, from 1976-77. Here, though, an accelerative process is in motion, the lines moving faster and faster up to an unexpectedly serene close. The following Adagio molto is like one of Bartók's celebrated "night music" pieces, based on a clear motive in a wavering tonality, and the finale turns to ostinatos, repeating phrases that are quite different in each instrument, but which add up to a funky texture not difficult to hear through because it has been built up so gradually. 

The Quartet No.3 from 1975 is similar to the Fourth in its use of ostinato, but comes closer than any of Coates' other quartets to the idea of theatrically contrasting the personalities of the different instruments, as in Charles Ives's Second Quartet or those of Elliott Carter. All play their own repeating ostinati ascending by transposition upward, until finally the violin floats into free glissandos, precipitating an abrupt close. The second movement is a mirror canon in glissandi, meaning not only that the moving lines played by the violins are a mirror reflection (down become up and vice versa) of those of the viola and cello, but also that the movement itself is a perfect mirror canon (except for one note) with the second half reflecting the first). The finale begins with an angry outburst in the viola, eventually inciting riot in the other instruments, and occasioning what is, in a conventional sense, the greatest virtuosity on the disc, including some very difficult glissandi in double-stops. 

Behind the variety of such techniques, behind even the varying deployment of similar structures, one hears Coates's constant aesthetic: her sense of each movement as a unified gesture, her almost post-minimalist unidirectionality. Above all, while sadness, anger, and mysticism appear in her work with stylized clarity, they are subsumed to an overarching tranquillity that often has the last word, and always the most important one. – Kyle Gann [Kyle Gann (OM 16) a composer, has been music critic for the Village Voice since 1986, and is the author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow and American Music in the Twentieth Century. He teaches at Bard College.]

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