Where We Lost Our Shadows – Composer Portrait: Gloria Coates

Gloria Coates has written sixteen full-scale symphonies, eleven string quartets, several orchestral works, a number of song cycles, and a chamber opera, Stolen Identity. The 1978 premiere in Warsaw of her Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings” brought her acclaim; the work was among the finalists for the 1986 International Koussevitsky Award. It was also the first piece by a woman composer to be performed at Munich’s Musica Viva, in 1980. Symphony No. 1 “Music for Open Strings,” was written in 1973 and is scored for a string orchestra playing entirely on retuned open strings. The work opens with the strings tuned to a minor pentatonic scale (B flat, C, D flat, F, G flat), which are returned to their normal tuning movement by movement.

We spoke with Coates about the story behind Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings,” as well as her experiences as an American woman composer in Europe, and what advice she has for young composers.

American Composers Orchestra performs Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings” on Thursday, April 11, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall, Zankell Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

Composer Gloria Coates. Photo by Simon Leigh

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your decision to write a symphony for open strings with “abnormal” tunings? What was the creative process like?
Gloria Coates: In 1971, I was commissioned to write a work for the Rhineland Chamber Orchestra.  
Back in 1962, after a summer course with Alexander Tcherepnin at the Salzburg Mozarteum, he jotted down several Chinese pentatonic scales he brought back with him from China while he was teaching there, and said, “You might want to use one of these scales one day.” I chose one of the scales and wrote an adequate piece. Not me! I felt, so tore it up. I tried a few more times to no avail. About to give up using the scale, I awoke one morning with an idea to see whether I might tune the instruments to this scale. It worked! Then I wrote a little tune using the scale and had the orchestra play it with open strings.  Many ideas struck me as I looked at the hocket-like matrix. Each time it was played, I had two instruments fall out of this matrix into a phrase of a particular color. With each repeat, more and more colors were added to the melody until it disappeared into an explosion of colors. This was the first movement.
The second movement used the open strings in a sort of scherzo.
For the last movement I decided it should be based on an early quartet I had written while studying in Louisiana in 1963 using glissandi in all instruments.  This had been rejected as “preposterous” by my professor. I had said, “Why can’t I write this in glissandi if it can be played?” He laughed, “You can write it, but who will listen to it?” I whimpered, “I would.” So now I decided I would use this material. I set our normal scale vertically which happened to coincide with the tunings of the strings.  Then I had the instruments emerge from it using open strings. As I wrote it, more complex rhythms and intervals took over and it seemed to be a final movement. I called this piece “Music on Open Strings” and sent it off to the US copyright office.
ACO: Can you talk about what you remember about your very first time hearing an orchestra perform this piece? How long was it from the time you finished the piece to its world premiere?
GC: The Rhineland Chamber Orchestra began rehearsals but there was much protest, especially from the violin section. Someone came into the rehearsal from the street very excited at the new sounds and wanted to know when it would be performed. This gave me confidence which was short-lived as the last movement, when played, sounded like an old fashioned washing machine and the orchestra could not play it without accents on the beats. My attempts at getting a conductor to perform it properly were rejected, and I sadly took the piece out of the concert and put it away, hoping for better times.
I took it to Boosey and Hawkes in New York, and an editor named Stuart Pope was excited about it, and said it would be ideal for their Education Department. I told him it was a regular concert piece so turned down that wonderful offer. Before going out the door, he called at me, “Why don’t you write a movement connecting that last movement with the other two?” (I had thought it would be interesting for the audience to see and hear the orchestra retuning for an interval of time.) This thought stayed with me, and a few weeks later I sat in a restaurant and suddenly saw a possibility. One of the strings did not need retuning, so was able to use it to retune with tuning by fifths. I found myself writing little canons and then arrived at a point of using the fine tuner with chords in fifths from the entire orchestra. This became the third movement named “Scordatura” … and completed “Music on Open Strings.”
It took five years before it was premiered, having been rejected by Wolfgang Fortner for Musica Viva. (After its success at Warsaw Autumn and a change of artistic director, it became the first orchestral work by a woman in the then 34 year history of Hartmann’s famous Musica Viva series.)
The American conductor Richard Kapp was interested in performing this work with his Philharmonia Virtuosi. Alas, some musicians were afraid of their instruments’ being ruined … Stradivarious, Ramati and such … so he sent the score back.
A few years later, an avant-garde ensemble from Poland came through Munich led by Zygmunt Krause. After the concert I told him about my piece and he advised me to send it to Warsaw Autumn Festival. It was accepted. 
Again, a stumbling block! At the rehearsal, the orchestra did not want to play the piece on open strings.  Their reason was that it did not sound beautiful, but most of all, they could not crescendo the movement with open strings. I asked them to play it both ways for me, and I heard it did not meet with my expectations. I told them I would decide the next and last day about what I would do.
That night I could not sleep … pacing the room on the fifth floor of the old Bristol Hotel, an idea struck me: perhaps if I used the bow for the crescendo … loosen the hairs of the bows and in the matrix where the rests were, tighten the hairs, and gradually a crescendo might appear. There was no time to try this out at the last rehearsal. I had to find an instrument before 9am.
I glanced down at the plaza from my window and saw a man carrying a case. It was now about 3:30am so wondered if this were a doctor called out to deliver a baby in the night. But there was a slight chance it was an instrument. The elevator was locked for the night so I ran down the spiral staircase and out into the plaza. I saw no one. Then, around a column there he stood! I tried to talk to him, but he spoke no English, no German, no French. I motioned as if playing a violin and he nodded! … and pointed to the poster on the column about an orchestral concert and to Krakow … pointing to his watch. I showed him my name on the same poster and he understood. We woke the night watchman of the hotel who spoke German and he translated my request with the bow hairs on the strings. It worked!!
ACO: Many of your earlier works for orchestra were not originally classified as symphonies. Why was this the case? What made you retitle them as symphonies?
GC: I would say my life is different from most composers, because I was rather isolated. I wasn’t getting grants like my peers were. It was a different situation because there were no women composers then. I never set out to write an orchestra work. The first titles I had, I always tried to do something sort of programmatic. Even with “Music for Open Strings,” at one point I called it “The Three Ages of Samurai.” I never called it a symphony … Then there was a piece I wrote and it was so complicated. I think I had 54 instruments going simultaneously. It was a commission for an orchestra piece from the Stuttgart Radio and I could use all my ideas for a very large orchestra. I was able to put into practice things that had never been done for orchestra before. I thought that this piece was so huge that I would call it a symphony. It didn’t follow the rules for the old-fashioned symphonies, but then nothing that I had written followed the rules.
I thought, “If that’s a symphony, what were those earlier pieces that I’d written?” I went back over them, and the ones with more movements, that were heavier, I called symphonies. So by this time I had seven symphonies altogether. 
I sent Classic Produktion Osnabrück, which is very good label in Germany, recordings of my Symphonies No. 1, 4, and 7 … CPO sent my symphonies to a well-known musicologist, who wrote back, “I had no idea you’d written symphonies.” I thought, “I wonder if those were symphonies?” I wasn’t sure because they were different from symphonies normally. So he analyzed them and wrote that these are real symphonies, using examples of Mahler to evaluate them. Then other musicologists realized this and called them real symphonies, which they were. I continued then to write symphonies. 
ACO: An important part of your career has been to promote American music in Europe, with a German-American Music Series (1971-1984), writing musicological articles, and making broadcasts for the WDR Radio Cologne, and Radio Bremen. Can you talk about why this initiative is important to you? What improvements, in terms of the attitude towards American music, have you seen since you first moved to Europe in 1969?
GC: I think Germany is very proud of its musical heritage, and when I was first there the Americans were thought of more as light and superficial, even Charles Ives … Basically American music had very little promotion. I didn’t get paid for it … but I was able to have a music series promoting American music at the Amerika Haus. They helped with promotion and production. I did that for 13 years, and I think it made quite a difference. I also helped organize performances European music in America to facilitate an exchange of ideas.
Things changed through the years. The Wall came down. There was more money. And then there was a book that came out called Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians around 1975 and I was asked to review it. Basically what the German writer [Walter Zimmermann] was doing was promoting only a very avant-garde group of Americans, like John Cage and Harry Partch. I would say that more conventional and new music people, even electronic artists, were pushed out. I created quite a long radio program for Radio Bremen, which was also broadcast on WDR Radio Cologne, which sampled all these various American composers … That was so successful that WDR Radio Cologne invited me to do a series of broadcasts music based on different themes, which I could use to promote more American music and also women composers, because there had been no women composers on the radio at that time. So I promoted American music quite a bit. In fact, I wasn’t able to do much of my own composing because I was busy doing this. It was kind of a dedication feeling I had. 
ACO: You have lectured about your concepts and techniques of composing at Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and major institutions around the world. Can you talk about some of the most common advice you give young orchestral composers?
GC: There’s a way that you can compose by looking at scores and developing your technique from that. That’s all right. However, I feel that it’s important to go within yourself and that means you have to live more. It has to do with exploring yourself and trying to find the connections with what you’re expressing. It sometimes happens with an instrument, like if you’re a singer you’ll have a different compositional expression from if you’re a saxophone player. So my feeling for young people is to experience life and to find their own individual expression. If you have say 2,000 composers all with a similar technique, which one will stand out? It’s really the one who has that basic knowledge of music, but also has a personal voice that touches the audience.
Each composer has his own manner of composing. Mine is more intuitive than technical. I express myself as honestly as I can. I only hope it is received by the listener in his own way.

American Composers Orchestra performs Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings” on Thursday, April 11, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall, Zankell Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

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