Trevor Hunter: The bulk of the last 40 years of your life has been spent in Germany. What has living there meant for you, in terms of your identity?
Gloria Coates: In a way it’s very difficult for me to be in another culture. I’m like a juggler, balancing two balls, and I can’t focus too much on either one, but I’m able to stay objective because they’re both up in the air. I would say it makes me stronger as an American because I’m longing for my roots. Also, one can see one’s country more objectively because one is away.
As far as being in Germany, I love the old masters like Bach—my favorite—and I love Beethoven. I can never walk down a certain street without thinking, for instance, “this is where Mozart wrote Idomeneo.” So it’s exciting to be in a country that has these wonderful composers and this base of knowledge, because I think it goes through the culture. You have more classical music on the radio, you have people on the street who know about composers and are interested even in contemporary music.
TH: If the population is more aware of classical music in Germany, how do you think being there has affected your music?
GC: By living in Europe as an outsider, which I’m considered there, and having had many performances, I am truly a working artist. I don’t rely on teaching, and I’ve been able to earn my living since 1983 from my music. But this is very rare even for a German composer.
I would say maybe the seriousness of the people in Germany has affected my music. It’s a different social climate. One has longer stretches of being alone, and that might have affected my music somewhat because one goes more into oneself. They say in Germany that I’m very American, and here in the U.S. they’ve said I’m very European. Others say I’m sort of in the Atlantic. I don’t analyze it; I simply express myself.
TH: You’ve written a lot of symphonies. In fact, near as can be seen, you are history’s most prolific female symphonist. Is that a label that means anything to you?
GC: I wasn’t even sure until the seventh that I had written any symphonies. I never set out to be a symphonist.
TH: What made you decide that the previous six were in fact symphonies?
GC: Many of my pieces had technical names, like Music on Open Strings. I also had another name for that piece—more audience friendly—Three Ages of the Samurai. When I came to what today is called Symphony No. 7, I couldn’t find a name. I had something like 54 instruments going simultaneously. It was complex, serious, and used various techniques I had developed through the years. I then decided, well, maybe this is a symphony. Then I thought, if this is a symphony, then what about those other pieces with various names? Then I went back to them. However, I didn’t name all the pieces symphonies; only the ones that had three or four movements, that were serious and substantial in content, and that had two or more names.
When [the record label] CPO brought out symphonies one, four, and seven, they selected Dr. Giselher Schubert, director of the Hindemith Institute, to write the liner notes. I thought, “Oh my heavens! Maybe they’re not symphonies, what am I going to do?” Dr. Schubert telephoned me, “I understand you have seven symphonies. I had no idea you had written symphonies.” Then I told him that I just thought that the seventh was a symphony, but I wasn’t completely sure. He had the scores and analyzed them. I was relieved when his booklet notes were published, for he accepted them as symphonies and used Mahler’s definition of a symphony as his criteria. Other German musicologists wrote in their criticisms similar statements such as Brembeck in Fono Forum, “These are true symphonies, of that there is no doubt.” That made me feel much better.