Thursday, March 19, 2009

Of Sound and Vision: An Interview with Composer Gloria Coates

It was but a few short years ago that I started to become familiar with the music of Gloria Coates. While generally speaking I tend to respond more to chamber music it was in fact the orchestral works of Gloria that blew and continue to blow me away. Her string treatments are completely unique, trance inducing, multi-dimensional, and sometimes even fierce. Her symphonies flow and spiral and venture to places dark and swirling, fluorescent and beautiful. No symphonies before or since have gone. They continue to astound. Recently I contacted Gloria to see if she would mind being interviewed for our NOA blog, I was and am delighted that she said “YES”.

CJR: Gloria, when I listen to your music weather it be symphonic or chamber works what ALWAYS strikes me is your unique approach to strings. Can you talk about the process you’ve gone through to achieve this sound of yours and what it means to you perhaps beyond its immediate aural impact?

Gloria: Since I was a small child I always sang, and was always experimenting with sounds, so that a glissando was as natural for me as singing intervals in a song. The entire string family of instruments always interested me, for they seemed extensions of the singing voice but could go higher and lower in sound and slide as the voice could, especially in expressing sad feelings as in the Irish keening for the dead. In my first year of composition I wrote a string quartet entirely of glissandos, but structuring them in polyphonic forms. This appalled my professor. Later I asked him why he objected. . He said, “You can write this, but who will ever listen to it?” I whimpered, “Maybe somebody will.” To which he laughed. This was before Penderecki or the Polish School. I did not write any glissandos for him, but on my own worked as I pleased. Six years later I wrote a few pieces using various glissandos both as ornaments and structures in string quartets and songs…and in 1973 wrote “Music on Open Strings” (Symphony No. 1) for string orchestra. Five years later it was premiered at the Warsaw Autumn Festival and widely discussed in the international press. This work was important for me as it confirmed my method and established some of my structures which I have used in various ways throughout the years, just as one might use a scale in conventional music or a pattern in minimal music.

CJR- If you had to choose 5 composers / artists that most impacted your life to this point who would they be and why?

Gloria: This is difficult to answer since I feel that as a creative artist, one is led, or perhaps accompanied by various “Guru” persons who lead him onward in his creative quest.
They are there for many years as an inspiration giving courage in moments of doubt. But even after they have gone, one still has their memory to help as the way gets steeper. For me these long time “Gurus’ are soprano Elizabeth Silverthorn, my voice teacher from Wausau who encouraged me since I was eleven for thirty years, then the Russian composer emigrated to Chicago Alexander Tcherepnin who asked to see my compositions when I was 16..and who remained a mentor for twenty-five years, American composer Otto Luening who also was for thirty years a mentor and good friend, and more recently the English violinist Peter Skaerved Sheppard who took an interest in my music while in Munich seventeen years ago. He not only understands it better than any string player I have known, but has performed and recorded all my quartets with his Kreuzer Quaartet and much of my chamber music. I would consider him to be a “young Guru”. He is an inspiration to me as a truly great musician.
Here too I could list J.S. Bach and Orlando di Lassus whose counterpoint remains a point of perfection, or Beethoven’s great piano sonatas…and the sensitive outpouring of Mozart…
But in aural memory are also the sounds of Gershwin, jazz, and blues from the American soil that are also a part of me. 

CJR-You are also a painter, can you describe the relationship you have with painting and in turn the relationship your painting has with your music? What visual thinkers have really struck you in some way? (Positively or negatively).

Gloria: For me painting has always expressed a different part of myself from my composing. The colors excite me while I paint so that my emotions and thinking are more rapid and my brush or palette knife seem to be forgotten as they become a part of my thoughts and fingers, almost a feeling of flying over the canvas.. Sometimes months of dreaming and thinking can go by before I have the urge to paint, but then the creation goes quickly and the ideas flow very freely. I cannot stop since there are color relationships and forms that need to be expressed at once with the lines and shapes intertwined… It takes about the same concentration as composing, but it is limited in time. Painting is much simpler because in painting I can immediately see the results, and it gives me a feeling of being released. In composing, the process of working out the forms and relationships take longer, and it is more difficult to recall sounds in combination and ranges when putting them down in a longer time frame,. There is also a feeling of urgency to notate the sounds and therefore I use visual sketches at times that precede writing the notes. . It is really a painful process for me to compose except when the flow of ideas comes, but that is only a small fraction of the time involved in composing. The true feeling of satisfaction often comes only after it is completed, which means ‘after it is ‘performed’ since music must be heard. Leonardo da Vinci and van Gogh are my two favorite visual thinkers. In 1976 I researched the writings of Leonardo a search which lasted fifteen years before composing some of his texts. I was allowed to handle his manuscripts in the British Museum, a thrilling experience no longer allowed today. With van Gogh, I feel a relationship to his method of painting and how I compose. This has primarily to do with concepts and forms…glissandos becoming brush strokes. In 1987 I had a commission to select a painting from a museum in Dresden and use it as a theme in a composition. I discovered one of Van Gogh’s last paintings called “Fruit Still Life’ and composed music for it, mirroring his technique as part of the content. The painting was brought on stage during the performance.

CJR-Have you heard or seen anything recently that has really struck you or inspired you? If yes what? How?

Gloria: My most inspiring moment in the past year has been watching the inauguration banquet of President Obama in Munich. This in itself was most uplifting, but even more moving was sharing the evening with Gloria Roberts, an accomplished pianist now in her 80s, and the great great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I will never forget her face as she looked up at the screen with her eyes filled with tears of happiness, wonder and pride.

CJR-You are an American composer living in Germany, has the German culture impacted your art? America is of course going through many changes at the moment, what is America to you as this point in history?

Gloria: I feel that the German culture has influenced my art in that the general atmosphere I have encountered is very serious and formal. One is left alone much of the time unless he plans ahead. This aloneness when working plus the seriousness around me causes me to go deeper into myself when I am composing. Also, one feels here the musical history of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Schumann, Mozart and other giants which might add to that golden solitude.
Being away from my native soil makes me feel more American than ever! Perhaps it is because of the yearning for those roots that American elements from my life as a child appear in my music.

CJR-What are you working on this very moment? Composing projects? Painting projects? Recording projects? What are they? In other words tell me what you’re up to!

Gloria: There are many projects that take up my time now, but I cannot talk about them since I am superstitious. I will try to announce them after they happen.

CJR-If you could create a new term or genre for your music what would that term be?

Gloria: I really don’t know…but it might have to do with four or five dimensional

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