Interview by Robert Burns Neveldine

Symphonies Nos. 1, 4 & 7
Nos. 1, 4 & 7

"My most sincere search for the truth"
An Interview with Gloria Coates

Another turn of the century--and what better soundtrack than the music of Gloria Coates? The Wisconsin-born composer, who divides her time between the U.S. and Germany, may not be well known to American audiences and record collectors, though she's made quite an impact in Europe. Having so far released four of her 14 symphonies and other works on compact disc, the widely distributed German label cpo is broadening her reach. In addition, the Kreutzer Quartet has recorded eight of her string quartets for Naxos, while Kronos has recorded a number of them for ProViva.

Coates's music, with its glacial semitonal and modal shifts, clustered chord progressions, hair-raising glissandi, and nonredemptive climaxes, would appear to bring late-20th-century orchestral writing, small- as well as large-scale, to terrible life, heaving it into the next century, and reiterates, slides, and builds simply to get there. In conversation with Robert Burns Neveldine, Coates discusses the advantages and disadvantages of living abroad, the relationship of her music to minimalism, and the architecture of 21st-century concert halls.

You're an American composer who has lived in Germany off and on for almost 30 years. When and why did you go abroad? How did you reconcile being an American in a foreign country?

Having composed since the age of 12 in an experimental way--and my musical education in composition completed with performances of chamber works already well numbered in the United States--I went abroad because of a curious break in my life, which made me want time to find a new way as a mother alone with a child of five. It was not my intention to stay longer than a few years.

Orson Welles was quoted once in an interview as saying that if a creative artist is away from his roots for too long, they dry up. I tend to agree with this statement, and through the years, which just kept accumulating, there was always a close connection not only to my home state of Wisconsin but the U.S. in general. I did live in New York some of the time, and, while here in Germany, I was promoting American music in various ways: a music series in Munich from 1971 to 1983, which was subsidized by the Munich Ministry of Culture and the Alice Ditson Fund of Columbia University; writing musicological articles; reviewing books on American music; and being invited to produce programs about new music (I chose to use American music) for the WDR Cologne Radio.

Beside this activity, I had worked for several years when first in Germany for the U.S. Army in Munich as a tour guide, and did some of the original research for them. The Force for Peace in War cantata was an expression of my feelings during this time. From 1975 to 1983, I taught music for the University of Wisconsin's International Program in Munich (1976 in London). From 1989 to 1999, I had an apartment in New York City, where I lived much of the time. With my concentration on my homeland, I never really felt that I was far away from my roots.

How have the very different traditions of instrumental music in these countries influenced your own aesthetic?

When I moved to Europe, I was already over 30 years old, and my aesthetic was well formed by then. I think that what living in Europe did for me was to turn me more inward, for without a good command of the language, one is isolated to quite a degree; and then there is a formality in Germany that allows one to be alone much of the time. This aloneness also deepened my propensity to be introverted, which eventually became apparent in my orchestral writing. It also brought me back to the original early sounds I had used as a teenager, such as glissandi and overtones, which became an integral part of my style. (I had used them already in the early '50s before the "Polish School" was even heard of in the USA or perhaps existed). In 1962 I had written a string quartet, using my own notation, entirely of glissandi.

After I had worked out my notation for the sounds I used as various structures in chamber works such as string quartets, I expanded them to more and more instruments as the opportunities arose. By 1989 I had written a number of chamber orchestra pieces that I was later able to orchestrate fully. Some of these works were symphonic in character and are numbered among my symphonies. It was also in 1989 that at last there was an orchestral commission from the South German Radio Stuttgart. I could use as many instrumental parts as I needed, and I was able to apply the structures to the full orchestra. This led to my Symphony No. 7. It uses 44 instrumental lines and well over a hundred instrumentalists. It was the culmination of my stylistic development, one that took over 20 years.

Was it easier for you as a composer in Europe, or do you think it had been better for you in the United States?

In many ways, the opportunities for performances of larger works are as frequent here (or as infrequent) as in the United States. I should say that there is more attention given to new music among the general public, as well as more musicologists and radio stations, here in Germany. Much of the funding has been curtailed since 1989 because of the financial problems that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, Germany has a long history of music and composers, and the musical past is kept alive in concerts and radio broadcasts. It is always humbling and yet inspiring to walk down a street where Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Beethoven wandered.

Throughout those years, I had various handicaps. I was not a German citizen nor an East European, so I did not qualify for German grant money. As for the numerous and generous U.S. endowment grants during those years, I applied at various times to no avail. I was happy to receive a few Meet the Composer grants, as well as MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Jory Copying, and UNESCO Travel grants.

What is the relationship between your music, which employs certain kinds of repetition and glissandi, to so-called minimalism?

Accessible as it is, I have never used the minimalist technique of composing. The fact that at times my music limits itself to certain pitches at fixed points, especially in Music on Open Strings (Symphony No. 1), brings it somewhat into the sound world of minimalist music. On the other hand, my music sometimes collages several polyphonic forms simultaneously, which form an even larger polyphonic structure.

Also, I feel that most minimal music is chordal or homophonic, the progressive chords being gradually changed and arpeggiated. My music is primarily polyphonic or linear--point against point. So, in reality, it is the opposite of minimal music. However, there are a few structures that I use in canonic writing, in which changes occur microtonally in patterns that may be reminiscent of minimal music. This has nothing to do with the minimalist technique, however.

Symphony No. 2, etc.
Symphony No. 2
and other works
What made you want to become a composer?

My mother sang to me as a baby, and I imitated those sounds before I could speak. From those early years until today, music has been the propelling force in my life. Whether it was singing or playing various instruments or improvising on a piano, music embodied my two basic artistic drives: expressing and creating. As I grew up, other activities, such as painting, acting, and creative writing, only seemed to deepen my romance with music. Composing was always very personal to me, so promoting or even exposing my music was a problem I had to overcome.

Who were your greatest personal inspirations?

It was Alexander Tcherepnin, the Russian composer, who took an interest in my music when I was very young. His letters through the years were always encouraging me to go forward with my composing. This was necessary to know at times when I needed faith. He had said to me once, "Always trust your intuition. It is always right."

Otto Luening was another person who kept in contact with me from 1966 until his death in 1996. He also saw me through some rough times with words of encouragement.

Who were your greatest musical inspirations?

My greatest musical inspirations were Palestrina and J.S. Bach. It might be that my love of singing has made me more aware of musical lines, overtones, and the harmonies that the moving lines create as they proceed. During my studies at the university, writing counterpoint was my favorite subject. For me both Palestrina and Bach were able to express deep feelings while moving the lines in patterns that are almost games in some of their works. Yet above all, the feelings expressed predominate over their technical skills. Their music always lifts me to a higher level while I listen to it.

And why orchestral music, in particular?

Even when I write chamber music, I often hear full orchestral sounds. One must write for orchestra while studying composition, which I did. I also wrote for chamber orchestra. However, after I was out on my own, I decided to find ways to work with the instruments that would better find expression in the direction I was working. I prepared myself before undertaking to write for orchestra again, writing numerous chamber works in which I explored the possibilities of my style. This took over 20 years. By then, the orchestra was integrated into my style. I now have written various works for orchestra, including 14 symphonies.

String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 4
String Quartets
Nos. 1, 2 & 4
Your work often adopts an alarming, even terrifying, sound, one that might also be described as ecstatic. Have you based this approach in any particular philosophical ideas, or is it more a function of the compositional procedures you prefer?

My music expresses my inner world. I am not aware of its being terrifying, although it does express very basic feelings of life and death and joy as well as anxiety and pain. Since my act of creating is multidimensional--expression, style, notation, and philosophical ideas--I can only say that whatever is created is my most sincere search for the truth, and that the music comes from hidden parts of myself emotionally and intellectually. It comes through still another channel intuitively, which I call God. If I were to know the secret about this phenomenon, then I would perhaps know the secret of life.

What kind of reception has your music received, and what do you make of its effects on audiences?

The effect of my music on the audience never enters my mind when I am composing. However, I always hope that the audience will understand it emotionally when it is performed. This is my gratification.

What do you see as the future of orchestral music?

The orchestra will be more important as the computer gains influence and our lives are in need of emotional outlets. There will be more possibilities, as the instruments will be acoustically and technically modified and new electronic instruments will appear.

I can imagine virtual reality making it possible to sit in any part of an orchestra and hear the pieces from where the sounds are generated. The experience of almost-live music will create the desire to experience live concerts. There will be new, round-domed auditoriums with possibilities of changing the interiors to let the stars be seen overhead through glass or color beams projected across the spaces. Perhaps the audience will sit above the orchestra in rings.

There will be a new style of orchestral music, which will mark the beginning of the computer age. It seems that minimal music inaugurates this musical period. It will use intricate melodic patterns, collages of various styles of music from different periods of time, complicated progressions, ellipses, and complex rhythms. This new music will be made simpler by the use of the computer. This is not to say that music from all periods of time will be forgotten. On the contrary, with widespread use of the Internet, all types of orchestral music will be circulated everywhere.

Music by Gloria Coates:

Indian Sounds Symphony No. 8 ("Indian Sounds"); Cette Blanche Agonie; The Force for Peace in War; Wir Tönen Allein; Fragment from Leonardo's Notebooks, "Fonte di Rimini" performed by the Musica-viva-ensemble Dresden, and soloists, conducted by Jürgen Wirrmann, on New World Records.
Violine Solo CD Sonata for Violin Solo played by Andreas Lucke on Cavalli.
From A to Z, Volume 2 Reaching for the Moon for Flute Solo played by Sharon Bezaly on BIS.
String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 & 6 played by the Kreutzer Quartet on Naxos.
String Quartets 2 String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 & 8 played by the Kreutzer Quartet on Naxos.
Melomania String Quartet No. 3 performed by the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, on a Troubadisc recording that also includes works by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Ethel Smyth, Germaine Tailleferre, Elisabeth Lutyens, Grazyna Bacewicz, and Violeta Dinescu.
Klaviernacht Tones in Overtones played by Eva Schieferstein, piano, on the Bayer Records disc Klaviernacht.
Vitality Begun CD A cycle of songs on poems by Emily Dickinson, as well as a song  based on a poem written by Coates's daughter, Alexandra, performed by Patricia Stiles, mezzosoprano, and Graham Cox, piano, on the Cavalli Records disc Vitality Begun.
25 Jahre CD A performance of Time Frozen for Chamber Orchestra by the Ensemble Das Neue Werk Hamburg, conducted by Dieter Cichewiecz, on the Musicaphon disc 25 Years Ensemble Das Neue Werk Hamburg.

Revised February 22, 2004

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© 2004 by Robert Burns Neveldine. All rights reserved by the individual owners of cover images.