For this year’s Lent Series i’m turning to a subject that’s one of my personal passions: symphonies. It’s interesting to hear how the word ‘symphony’ has, over time, been defined, consolidated, expanded, elevated, deconstructed, redefined, and along the way become sufficiently loaded that many contemporary composers choose to avoid both the word and the concept altogether. Many, but not all, and over the next few weeks i’ll be exploring some contemporary symphonic works that are highly diverse, not just stylistically but also in terms of their perspective of what a symphony can be.
One of the most fascinating symphonists of the last 50 years is Gloria Coates. Her work has been, and continues to be, largely ignored by orchestras, concert programmers and, to only a slightly lesser extent, record labels (with the honourable exception of Naxos). This is all the more strange considering the uniqueness and power of her musical language, plus the fact that her output is considerable, including no fewer than 17 symphonies. (As far as i’m aware, that’s the most by any woman composer, and more than most male composers for that matter.) A concomitant side-effect of this ignorance is that information on Coates’ music is both sparse and inconsistent, with relatively little that can be regarded as authoritative. Fortunately, i’ve recently made contact with Gloria, and she has been helpful in verifying facts and elaborating upon her work. It’s early days though; there is, literally, much to discuss.
Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Music on Open Strings”, was begun in 1972, and completed the following year, though part of the work began life a decade earlier, in her 1962 Glissando String Quartet. Glissandi are a fundamental, inextricable component in Coates’ compositional language. She began experimenting with glissandi as a structural (rather than decorational) element in the early 1960s while studying composition at Louisiana State University, but her teacher, Kenneth Klaus, disapproved of what she was doing.
He answered, “You can write this way, but who would ever listen to it?” and he chuckled. I answered, “I think I would” … and that ended the conversation.
Coates abandoned the conservative outlook in the USA and settled in Munich, where there was a more open-minded outlook and which she found to be a freeing compositional experience (she has remained there ever since). She continued exploring glissandi and microtones, and their relationship with notation, and this has continued to be at the heart of her music.
Regarding the early Glissando String Quartet, Coates tells me that she “used the glissandi … but changed its form for the symphony.” Though it only applies to one movement (the last) of Symphony No. 1, this kind of origin story applies to a number of her symphonies, starting out as smaller-scale chamber works that were subsequently expanded or extended into their symphonic forms: for example, Planets (1974) became Symphony No. 2 (1988), and Transitions (1974) became Symphony No. 4 (1990).
The processes at play in Symphony No. 1 are straightforward and clearly audible. At the start of the piece, the open strings are tuned according to a simple pentatonic scale: C, Db, F, Gb, Bb. (This scale was given to Coates in the 1960s by one of her teachers, Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who had encountered it while in Peking; Symphony No. 1 is dedicated to Tcherepnin’s memory.) In the first movement, ‘Theme and Transformation’, these five pitches form the basis of a slow, octave-doubled melody, which has the attitude of a solemn ground bass, though despite appearances it isn’t actually cyclical. After a time the ‘transformation’ begins: pitches start to slide around, the theme moves along more quickly and with much greater force, and an array of percussive noises appear, produced by both regular and and Bartók pizzicati as well as physically tapping and knocking the instrument. The theme takes on the quality of a hymn, sounding as if it were trying to maintain dignified composure while mayhem breaks out all around it, until eventually everyone arrives at a behaviourally static plateau.
The second movement, ‘Scherzo’, breaks the tension that’s been built up in a three-minute sequence where the strings go to town on the sounds heard so far. Initially tense and tremulous (with a few phrases redolent of the main motif from John Williams’ Jaws – which wouldn’t be written until two years later), it soon becomes an increasingly intense, rhythmically united, burst of something akin to sonorism, veering between more Bartók pizzicati – now intimidatingly massive, evidently having the aim of destroying the instruments – streaking clusters and clunky wooden impacts.
Throughout the third movement, ‘Scordatura’, the instruments undergo a process of tuning their strings back to their conventional pitches. This is done one pitch at a time, with accented notes suspended in space, slowly sliding up or down, back to where they ought to be. Peppered with shimmering note clashes, miniature glissandi and tremolandi, the process gradually brings harmonic clarity and a sense of brightness to the music as all the instruments begin to align as perfect fourths and fifths, though this is broken up with a ripple of more Bartók pizzicati at the very end.
The way Coates concludes Symphony No. 1 is all the more interesting for being somewhat open to interpretation. Having reoriented themselves pitchwise, in the final movement, ‘Refracted Mirror Canon for 14 Lines’. the strings immerse their restored fifths and fourths within an intensifying soundworld of pure movement. One could hear this as a turning away from stability after the “reset” established in ‘Scordatura’, but i can’t help hearing it as overwhelmingly celebratory. No matter how much the players detract from their open strings with glissandi, the fundamental tuning is never truly obscured. Quite the opposite, in fact, with the open string pitches dominating more and more until they finally form a bright shining chord, bringing the symphony to en end.
The word ‘symphony’ originally implied a “sonic agreement”, though later in the West this became generalised to “sounding together”. In both of those senses, as well as the way the symphony evolved as a form, Coates’ Symphony No. 1 is very convincingly worthy of the name. The members of the string orchestra, even if we posit that they’re not initially all on the same page – that first movement could be read as a conflict between melodic and textural or pitched and percussive tendencies – certainly find agreement before long, ultimately undergoing something adjacent to what Michael Parsons called “people processes“, following a united behavioural trajectory but in unique, quasi-independent ways. (As such, there are superficial similarities to sonorism, as i noted above, though Coates’ aims are fundamentally different.) From a structural symphonic perspective, there’s a theme which transforms and is, in a behavioural sense, developed, and there could hardly be a more clear underlying harmonic scheme, progressing from a pentatonic starting point, emphasising semitones and thirds, to the fifths and fourths of conventional tunings.
Symphony No. 1 had a difficult start in life, when the original orchestra who commissioned it wanted to perform it without a conductor; Coates refused and the piece was withdrawn. Five years then passed before it was given its world première at the Warsaw Autumn festival in September 1978. This first UK performance – note: it took 40 years to arrive here – was given in November 2018 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.