Trevor Hunter: Music on Open Strings, composed between 1972 and 1973, was appropriated eventually as your first symphony and was premiered just before your 40th birthday at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. But it was written five years prior to that.
Gloria Coates: It was an unpaid commission for a chamber orchestra in 1972. I went to a rehearsal of the piece and realized that it needed a conductor. The orchestra refused having one, in spite of the fact that I found a young Polish conductor who wanted to do it. I took the work off the program. I waited five years before it was finally premiered. Even then, the premiere had problems, for the orchestra did not want to do the scordatura that was required in all the instruments—one of the movements had the musicians retune the strings in a cascade of canons. I had written in a mosaic pattern of the instruments which built to a climax, and they pointed out that playing on the open strings, they could not crescendo the opening. The day before the final rehearsal, I had the idea of loosening the bow hair and tightening it in the rests which might create the crescendo when played. I needed to check out my idea. Looking out of my window at the old Paderewsky Hotel at 5:00 a.m., I saw a man with a case. I was on an upper floor, so hurried down the winding flight of stairs and found him. It was a viola case and a musician was waiting for a bus to take him to Krakow. With the help of the night doorman, he understood my problem of having to try out the crescendo with the bow. It worked. Thus, the piece was performed as written. It turned out to be a breakthrough. Throughout the papers of Europe it was cited as one of the three high points of the festival.
TH: That premiere was in 1978 at the height of the Cold War. Even living in Munich, you lived on this border of East and West. And you were the first commissioned American at the East Berlin Festival.
GC: Right. Somebody from East Berlin heard Music on Open Strings in Warsaw and asked me to write a piece for the East Berlin Festival.
TH: But it must have been quite the experience, living almost on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
GC: There was always unease in the air–especially in Munich, because that was the spy capital of Germany, and the Russian rockets were targeted on Munich. I went back quite often to Poland. I was there three times for the festival, and then East Berlin. I was invited to Russia for the First International Festival for New Music in the spring of 1980. It was very exciting actually; there were orchestras from all over Russia. Leo Brouwer was there and had a composition done which was very modern. Nicholas Slonimsky was there, too, and his nephew had a ballet performed. I met Alfred Schnittke there, and other avant-garde Russians who were not performed then. But our American composer who then was head of Juilliard, Peter Mennin, had a symphony on one of the concerts I attended. It was beautifully done. After Peter Mennin came forward for his bow, the whole crowd gathered around him, and suddenly he was lifted up into the air and onto the shoulders of this group and carried out of the hall with the crowd following. I’ve heard of this happening, but I’ve never seen it before. It was really an exciting experience to be there.
After this festival was over, there were articles that came out, and I asked someone if I could write one for the United States. They answered, “Oh no, it’s being taken care of.” I did write an article for Musica, but it’s the only one of its kind that came out. The others stated that this festival was only for propaganda purposes, and that there was nothing contemporary on the festival. This wasn’t true at all.
In 1970 I told some German friends that I thought the Cold War would be over in about 20 years, and that the [Berlin] Wall would fall. My reasoning behind this theory was that the people who were involved in World War II would be old or gone, and the young people would come to power. That’s exactly what happened. They are the ones who marched through the wall and brought it down. I think it was a very heroic thing to have done, because they came with their families, little children and wives, walking through that wall; they could have been shot down at any point.
TH: Do you consider yourself to write music that is in any way political? A number of pieces bear dedications having to do with major world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or September 11.
GC: The fall of the Berlin Wall was a major event and changed the course of history. It had been a war of nerves, and the dramatic coalescing of many factors ended it. Symphony No.7 is dedicated “to those who brought down the wall in peace.”
Another work that leans towards politics is a cantata, WWII Poems for Peace, that I wrote in 1972 with texts by women who were writing during World War II. It was done many times during the peace movement, although I had a totally different motivation when I wrote it. I took tours for the American Army in Munich; one tour was to Dachau. During that time, I had a commission to write a chamber work. I used texts by four women writing during WW II; two German and two American. Of the Germans, one was the third-grade teacher of my daughter, who had given me a little poem she had found in a newspaper during the war, “Rinne, regen, rinne auf den Sand und auf die Steine, rinne allerwegen und weine,” which translates to “Run, rain, run on the sands and the stones, run everywhere and cry.” I used that as an aria, and her note to me as the recitative. The other German was a lady with a pension who helped us when we first arrived. She had taken care of children during World War II in the Berlin underground. Her husband had died in a concentration camp. She wrote a very beautiful poem which I used, “Young Widow”. Then I found two American poets writing during that war and superimposed them between the German poems.
TH: You’re most well known for your symphonies and string quartets, but you’ve actually written a great deal of vocal music. What is it that attracts you to the voice? Is it the means of conveying text?
GC: Well, I’ve always sung. I used to sing on radio programs when I was three and four. If it weren’t for stage fright, I’d probably be a singer, and I might not have composed as much. I still know several operas and literature for the voice, and I’ve taught voice privately. I think that when I compose even orchestral music, the expression comes from an ur schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing. This is the origin of my use of glissandi.
TH: When you set text, is clarity important to you?
GC: With some songs that are lyrical, the text is important. However, I use the voice in other ways that express the text’s meaning without any vocal clarity. It can become a part of the texture, color, or rhythm in a work and not be understood except a syllable here and there perhaps. This is true for the Leonardo fragment and Indian Sounds. The Emily Dickinson songs use the texts in various ways. Even the general colors are derived from the text.
TH: You’ve set 15 of Emily Dickinson’s poems. What attracts you to a text?
GC: Those songs were written over a period of more than 30 years. I’ve always felt a spiritual kinship with Emily Dickinson. At the time that I started with “I’m Nobody,” there weren’t that many Emily Dickinson songs written. Now there are hundreds, maybe thousands by American and British composers. It seems that when somebody dies who’s close to me, and I need comfort, I find reading her poems gives me solace. Then suddenly something touches me, and I can write the music. There is an exchange with her poetry.
TH: You’ve sung your whole life and you know all this vocal literature, but you’ve never written an opera.
GC: That is what I should have done at the very beginning, and I’m not sure why I haven’t. I started writing an opera based on “Fall of the House of Usher” back around 1962. And then I thought, “No, I’m not ready,” so I went back to writing chamber pieces and orchestral music. I felt I had to really be ready. Now here I am, and I’ve written still another libretto, and I have other librettos that I’d like to use, but there has been no time for opera.
TH: Have you written many of your texts?
GC: Some. I began writing music using my own texts and poems as a teenager, but that didn’t really work for me since I didn’t feel I wanted to reveal my inner feelings that directly. Eventually I clothed them in expressions by Emily Dickinson, Mallarme, Paul Celan, my daughter, Leonardo da Vinci, and Native Americans. My own poetry is private, but sometimes I have used this form of expression as I did for a book by Peter Sheppard. He asked me to write a chapter about my musical landscape in composing. I condensed it into a poem.
In 2004 I created a musical text poem from Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address which was performed in the Great Hall of its origin 150 years later.
TH: You mentioned how in Germany there was no women’s movement when you arrived there. Did you ever feel like your gender was a barrier to your success as a composer?
GC: I had a German-American Music Series from 1971 to 1983, subsidized by the Munich Ministry of Culture and a grant from the Ditson Fund of Columbia University. I played many American composers and also women composers on this series; I think I presented one of the first European performances of Joan Tower’s work in 1972, a flute solo called Hexagons. I also presented an electronic piece by Ann McMillan. There weren’t many German women composers at that time. I never felt personally at a disadvantage because I already had had performances in the U.S., and there were no problems in Germany. I enjoyed being a pioneer in promoting women composers and performers. Sometimes I would hear jokes made about women composers, but that ceased as they proved themselves. The movement in Germany started around 1978, and women’s groups formed that were able to get financial subsidies from the German government. This created a type of ghetto at first. I felt the women should integrate and not separate. I disagreed with their separateness philosophy, and therefore was not very active in those organizations. In a series of radio broadcasts for the WDR Cologne on music called “Open House Broadcasts,” and other radio invitations, I played as many recordings by women composers and American composers as I could find on my visits to the U.S.. In time, women composers became part of the concert world in Germany, as did American composers.