Gloria Coates: Beyond the Spheres

Trevor Hunter: I found a reference to you using a male pseudonym at one point for an electronic composition.

Gloria Coates: Yes, I’ve used William Fischer, which was the name of my great-grandfather who was a painter. The electronic music for me was so far away from this inner ur schrei that I didn’t really feel I should include it in my work.

TH: But there was enough interest that you composed eight electronic pieces in the ‘70s.

GC: The pieces were mostly using live electronic music or animal or bird sounds; using water, slowing down tapes, and what one does without a studio in the living room. I was happily experimenting with the sounds.

I was working with my voice creating multiphonics and using a modulator paired with live electronics and laser beams for visual patterns. Together with Ulrike and Dieter Trüstedt, we demonstrated this at Darmstadt the summer of 1972. We had great success; hundreds of people came to hear us. It is recorded at Darmstadt in a discussion that the vocal multiphonics were thought to be ugly. No one at Darmstadt had heard of anything quite like it. I didn’t want to continue, so we broke up the team in 1974.

A commission in 1978 from the East Berlin Festival was for an electronic piece, and I used live animals, insects, and birds which I recorded in the Bavarian countryside, along with machine sounds; it was an ecological piece.

TH: In a lot of your orchestral and chamber music I can almost hear an electronic texture, with the glissandos, microtones, and differing layers.

GC: After working for one or two years so intensely with the electronics and microintervals, my interval perception became keener. There was much more space in between the quartertones. Thus it might have influenced my orchestral music.

TH: You’re one of the few composers that I can think of who really gets away with using lots of microtonal elements in your orchestral music. It’s not something I would expect most orchestras would be willing to take on, but you seem to have no problems. For as strange and difficult as many of these things sound, there’s a lot in your notation and your scordaturas that makes these things perhaps more feasible than they would be otherwise.

GC: I remember studying composition in Louisiana with a very good twelve-tone teacher, even though I was rebellious against twelve-tone music. But one important thing that he said was to always notate your music in such a way that people can play it on short notice, because you’re not going to have much time for rehearsal. And that’s what I always did. I never found other composers who were notating the way I was, and I always had my eye out for a more beautiful, ornate system. Although my notation is not very beautiful and ornate, it’s simple and it works. It gives clarity to the music.

TH: The fact that your notation is so simple is kind of appropriate to me, because your musical structures themselves are not that complicated, often maintaining a singular idea throughout the whole movement or piece.

GC: Otto Luening once said he sees the movement as a whole before he writes it down. This is not minimal music, and I am not a minimalist, although some of my music has minimal qualities in that it is reduced in some way. Each piece I write is different, depending on what I am expressing. My latest string quartet, String Quartet No. 9, is the opposite of this concept. Various sections are strung together and over one another. Alexander Tcherepnin once said that you can tell the greatness of a composer by the way he’s able to weave together sections of music. His music was created in sections. Much of my music is contrapuntal. In this style, it can sweep a movement, but it is not minimalist. I spent a few weeks on three notes of a canon. The result looked simple, but the resolution was complicated. My music is often like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.

TH: That Tcherepnin quote reminds me of a La Monte Young quote used by Kyle Gann in the liner notes to one of your discs. He said, “Contrast is for people who can’t write music.”

GC: It’s probably a minimalist idea.

TH: Sure. But I can hear that in your music.

GC: Perhaps it is related to my reducing material to a minimum. I often like to take very few colors because that allows the imagination more freedom. Jack Beeson once said, “If you limit your ideas, you’re freer.” But you have to first have an idea, so you have to be in a good frame of mind because one is not always creative. Then, too, contrapuntal music has fewer contrasts naturally.

TH: To most people’s ears, the most distinguishing feature of your music is probably the glissandos. How did that develop?

GC: Unlike in the past when our, let’s say, division of listening had to do with horses or walking, we now are either driving or flying. I think that’s also why the glissando is there—because I hear it and I experience it all the time. The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises and other machines such as vacuum cleaners, mixers, and elevators sound in microintervals. Then, too, microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature as in bird songs and animal voices, or thunder, or even trees falling; so our ears are sensitive to microtones.

The first piece I wrote with glissandos was in 1962 when I was studying in Louisiana. This was a string quartet in which I used all glissandi in a contrapuntal form. My professor said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing here. Do you call this music?” I explained that the glissandi went to specific points and a form was created. And he asked, “Why have you written this?” And I answered, “Well, it’s music. You can play it.” Then he said, “Yes, you can,” and he chuckled and asked, “but who will ever listen to it?” Then I thought, well, I’m not writing necessarily to be heard. I stopped writing those glissando pieces for about six years.

In 1962 in Louisiana, no one had heard of Penderecki’s music, but he might have been working on similar things then in Poland. Ideas often happen simultaneously, which seems to give them more validity. A few years later in Europe—perhaps it was because my music didn’t look good enough, or because I didn’t have any publisher, or because I was a woman, an American, in a foreign country, I don’t know—but at first my music using glissandi was not taken seriously.

My scores were not elegant, but simply notated. When I was in Darmstadt for the multiphonic vocal demonstration in 1972, I asked several teachers there if there was anyone with my technique that used a better notation system. Because of my questions, a seminar was devised with Theodore Antoniou as leader to investigate new notation methods. After a long search, we found no composer with my glissando method and objectives; not Xenakis, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, nor Ligeti. I left Darmstadt feeling somewhat hopeless. Now I realize that the notation is very important if you have something new or individual to express. It is primarily through this notation that the idea is recognized.

My music using glissando structures has been plagiarized a few times. The last movement of Music on Open Strings and the second movement of my third string quartet that have been copied. The best way I could guarantee that these glissando structures were mine was to use them in various new pieces. When I modified them in various ways, I discovered one could create a structure in music and then use it as a sort of musical element such as a scale, but it would be in three or more dimensions. I began doing this in some of my later works.

TH: Based on many of your answers to these questions, I get the impression that you place a very high value on originality. Why is it such a virtue to you?

GC: I think it’s part of being American. I remember Harvey Sollberger once saying that music is a long chain, and the Germans say this too. And I believe that, especially if you go back to Mozart or Bach or Beethoven. But I think that an American way of thinking is that creativity springs in giant leaps.

But I must add that in Europe and Germany in particular, originality is valued and considered a very important part of creativity. The Germans admire the music of Cage, Cowell, or Feldman for example, because of their originality. If one writes in the style of Webern or Shostakovich or Hindemith, their music is not highly valued since the composer has no voice of his own. Many composers who are not original are often on the lookout for new ideas which they can use to further themselves. This is always a danger for the young original composer. However, even if he is sometimes robbed, he will have more ideas and the robber will not.

TH: Is this part of why you’re self-published?

GC: Oh, I’m sure. I’m very hesitant to give my scores out, and I usually know who’s performing the music. There have been problems by living in Europe because the publishers there refer me to publishers in America, who refer me to publishers in Europe, so I’ve had this circle going around. I finally stopped trying.

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