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Coates …Of Many Colors

Gloria Coates: Portrait Concert, REDCAT, Nov.13, 2014— la-20372819-et-1113--gloria-coates-kdm-02-jpg-20141114

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Mid-way through its fall season, REDCAT once again stepped out of the box with the presentation  “Gloria Coates: Portrait Concert”The composer, whose output is considered to follow in the footsteps of New Music pioneers the likes of Stockhausen, Ives and Xenakis, was in attendance and roundly applauded at her brief bow, post-performance. Three of her works were promised: Night Music and Symphony # 10, both written in 1992, and the world premiere of an opera called Stolen Identity, composed in 2010-11. REDCAT described Gloria Coates as “a prodigious composer of orchestral and chamber works since the 1960’s” who is “acclaimed for uncanny music that is part microtonal-expressionist, part post-minimalist—at once turbulent and serene”. That’s a mouthful and the music Coates writes is definitely an earful. But despite a lifetime spent listening to classical music, much of it modern, I’d never heard of Gloria Coates so some research was required. Turns out, a lot of listeners and a few notable critics had never heard of her, either…until they HEARD her. And then they became devout fans.

Critics describe Coates’ “brave new sound-world” and “her love of melting, indistinct textures”; a CD liner note said “when Coates turns to the human voice, she is typically atypical”. Referring to her lyric suite for piano trio entitled Split the Lark and You’ll Find the Music—she has many a fanciful title in her oeuvre—a blogger wrote “I’ve never heard another piece where the barrier between consonance and dissonance is so thin” and called it “a masterpiece of grim power”. And everyone seems to mention her effective (over)use of glissando—the continuous sliding of pitch from one note to another—in virtually every composition she writes. Who is this woman?

Gloria Coates was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1938 and won a composition contest when she was 12 years old. After studying at Louisiana State University, Columbia University and with Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin in Salzburg, she moved to Germany in 1969 “with a 15 year old dachshund and six year old child”. Coates has spent considerable time in both New York and London but still lives in Munich. In an interview, she said “whenever I go back to the States I’m regarded as being ‘European’, yet in Europe I’m this strange American composer they can’t quite figure”. Despite Coates’ prodigious output of work–16 symphonies, 9 string quartets and many songs–she is barely known to the public. Her music did not appear on an American label until New World Records took a chance in 2002. Around the same time, Naxos began a periodic release of several of her string quartets, performed by the Kreutzer Quartet.

Eager to listen to Coates’ music before attending the REDCAT concert, I chose a piece on-line, at random, based simply on its interesting title: Hiroshima is Bombed, a movement from a 1973 work entitled The Force for Peace In War. It is scored for various strings, timpani, piano and percussion, including the effective use of a wind machine. The sound is chilling, as if you are hearing—almost seeing—actual bombs falling and exploding, followed by that terrible cloud of atomic smoke rising into the sky. It is surely a workout for the string players’ fingers, making long, glissando slides down the necks of the instruments then back up. The descending and ascending sounds are mystical and eerie; so, too, are the names of other compositions by Coates: “Entering the Unknown”, “Still”, “Glass of Time”, “Time Frozen”, “In the Fifth Dimension”, “Mirage” and “Evanescence”.

Arriving at REDCAT for “Gloria Coates: Portrait Concert”, patrons sat in front of a stage that was rather chaotic–cluttered with chairs, cables, microphones and large percussion instruments bunched in different corners–as if we had interrupted a rehearsal. (Also visible were tree branches, in a circle about 3 ft. tall and 8 ft. in diameter, which would be featured prominently later that evening.) Three musicians entered and took their seats as the house lights dimmed.

Night Music (1992), a chamber work for alto saxophone, electric harp and two gongs, was played, respectively, by Ulrich Krieger, Susan Allen and Joshua Carro. This meditative piece, played somberly, was dirge-like at times. Loud amplification dramatized the harp’s measured chords to great effect. The round, beautiful (and beautiful-sounding) gongs–one large, one small–were struck with soft mallet heads as well as their “stick” handles. The saxophone brought forth some strange audio effects seemingly created by a kind of gargled breathing by the musician; rapid, gradually sliding notes were emitted in staccato bubbles of sound, as if a chain saw were operating, quietly, at a distance. (In addition to gongs, the original “Night Music” called for piano and tenor sax; the version at REDCAT was the premiere of the score re-written for harpist Susan Allen.)

Next up was Coates’ Symphony No. 10 (1992), subtitled Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins written to help prevent the building of a highway over ancient German archaeological sites. (The highway, thus far, has not been constructed.) The three-movement work was conducted by Susan Allen and featured an ensemble of 3 trumpets, 3 French horns, 3 trombones, tuba and 12 percussionists, most of whom played snare drums. This was a good selection for those hearing music by Coates in person for the first time. She is famous for her use of microtones, the notes between semitones, which are the shortest intervals in traditional Western music. (Although always common in Asian music, microtones were first used by the American Charles Ives, for example, only in 1903.)


After increasing, strong gusts from the wind machine and a loud crash on a bass drum, the first movement began with that odd, gargled breath effect, this time performed by trumpeters, in a repeated series of splintered, slightly altered chords. The addition of gongs and French horns created an impression of far-away, fabled places–ancient India or Tibet. The music, gradually louder for several minutes, built to a tonic resolve. Five attention-getting snare drums, tuned to different pitches, began the second movement; the drummers beat the sort of rhythmic, non-stop rolls that a military band might play at an execution. Susan Allen, conducting the symphony, maintained a firm, steady meter with her arms. Glancing over her shoulder, those of us sitting close to the stage saw an almost solid black music score, dense with pages of hemidemisemiquavers, seeming to stretch to infinity. Kettledrums, timpani and brass instruments added to the rising, hypnotic sound that eventually came to an abrupt end. The third movement was even wilder. A rarely used percussion instrument—the aptly-named “thunder machine”—added to the stormy mood when its hanging, metallic sheet was struck with mallets. War-like snare drums and trumpets intertwined in a kind of call to battle, as if driving soldiers forward. Atonal trombone notes, gongs and rolling booms from the timpani suggested the endless pounding of battle. The score instructs the brass section to blow their notes–and to continue holding them–until, as jazz musicians used to say, “their lips go bad”. Diminishing breath creates a diminishing sound and microtones are the result. “This”, writes Gloria Coates in the program notes, “is desirable. One can hear the cries of the banshees at times, especially in the last movement”.

The 22 members of the orchestra, most of whom appeared to be young students, gave their all to the music. Following intermission, it would have been wonderful to hear these dedicated musicians tackle another Coates symphony–ideally something with a large, added string section–but that was not the case. What we heard and witnessed, for 90 increasingly tedious minutes, was a chamber opera entitled Stolen Identity (2010-11). Coates’ own identity was hacked a few years ago. The morning after the crime, she woke up with a vivid dream about a “music bird” who is robbed of his song and wounded by a greedy thief. In time, the bird is restored, cared for and healed by an angel. Something else was stolen, too: apparently, most if not all segments in Coates’ opera are portions of other compositions she’s written over the past four decades. The result is a hodge-podge with too many ingredients spoiling the broth.

Thanks are owed to the opera’s excellent singers and musicians, some of whom are graduates of CalArts, the entity which gave birth to REDCAT. (In addition to yeoman-like work on stage, they deserve credit for having to sit through the rehearsals of Stolen Identity.) The singers were Timur Bekbosunov as the wounded bird, Carmina Escobar as his healing angel and Babatunde Akinboboye as the thief. All three are fine singers who were unfortunately restricted by the costumes they wore and the “nest”—remember those tree branches?–that confined them. The Isaura String Quartet is composed of Madeline Falcone and Emily Call, violins, Melinda Rice, viola, and Betsy Rettig, cello. These four performed an immense amount of very difficult music, full of twittering bird sounds, strings bowed and fingered, instruments percussively patted and far too much of Coates’ trademark quavering glissandi. Abetting the quartet was the adept Westin Troiano who played beautifully on a piano whose strings he sometimes plucked. Percussionist Anna Wray got a workout on several instruments, but primarily by grinding the huge wind machine in both the opera and the symphony played earlier.

Much of Gloria Coates’ canon is unusual, difficult, probably not what the average classical music fan enjoys. If you like her post-modern, idiosyncratic sound—I’m now a convert—this piece has some very beautiful passages. But it’s difficult to comprehend why Coates would tack seven different movements from three of her string quartets onto seven plodding songs she’s written, then combine the music with the words of 14 poems—a dozen by Emily Dickinson, one by Paul Celan and one by Alexandra Coates—and, finally, tie it all together with a weird allegory about a wounded bird and call the result an opera. The songs, staged as if the singers were sleep-walking, seemed endless. No matter how beautiful it was, an excessive amount of repetitive music was played by the string quartet. After more than an hour, some audience members quietly walked out of the theatre; among those remaining, there was plenty of impatient squirming. Some of us felt especially sorry for Mr. Bekbosunov, who portrayed the battered bird, since he was forced to continually writhe in near-death pain for about 60 slow-moving minutes.

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