Oct/Nov 1998 Making Time

Postmodern Symphonies: Review Of

by Don Mager

Gloria Coates. Symphony No.4 "Chiaroscuro." Symphony No.7 "Dedication to those who brought down the Wall in PEACE." Symphony No.1 "Music on Open Strings. Elgar Howarth conduction with the Symphonierorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. CPO recordings 999 392-2.

Gloria Coates grew up in Wisconsin but has made her career in Germany. This release is the first of her work in this country, and is includes music well worth exploring.

Coates designs a distinct sound world that one is hard put to find peers for comparison. Certainly, it shares some of the large orchestral timbres with the weight of full strings that one associates with the grand symphonic vision. And certainly, her sound world encompasses an introspective gloom that makes one want to compare her to Pettersson or Hartmann or Holmbe or Kancheli. But I hear something fundamentally different—something that fundamentally asks us to reimagine the symphony itself as a genre.

Her compositional method borrows from aspects of recent minimalism, even as its textures come out of the European postromantic symphonic vocabulary. For instance, almost every movement circles around an ostinato pattern of repetition through which change comes slow. In place of traditional symphonic development, Coates' movements seem to all use repetition and incremental slow change to build to an apex of density (a climax of sorts), then to recede back to the initial stasis. Certainly, this is not symphonic developmental writing in any schoolbook definition.

Even as her movements are blocked so simply, the weight of their material has the feel of grand symphonic statements, and like more traditional symphonies, her three movement structures work to establish strong contrasts between movements around tempo and instrumentation.

My repeated listening to Symphony No.4 and to its first movement in particular has led to certain bewilderment. I have passed through various stages in my understanding of it. Immediately on my first listening I recognized that Coates has taken the chaconne theme from Henry Purcell's "Lament" in Dido and Aneas as the basis for her minimalist repetitions. Purcell's dirge is one of the sadder pieces in opera, encapsulating as it does Dido's grand pathos. Coates pushes the pathos right over the edge. As I listened, I found myself saying aloud, this is the most lugubrious music I've ever heard, and then laughed.

As I've returned to listen, the adjective "lugubrious" sticks in my mind, not only for the lament movement of Symphony No.4 but for much of Coates' music. By any standard, this is an odd adjective to describe music. One might sense a pejorative insinuation to it—which I don't intend. Let me explain.

As I have meditated on the unusual effect Coats' music produces, I have sought to compare it to other recent composers who have musically plumbed lamentation and grief as central themes for their sound worlds. In particular in their symphonies, Pettersson and Kanchlli are existential romantics. They see the essential human experience as tragic almost nihilistic, just barely salvageable of affirmation, due to their relentless, indeed heroic, honesty of living though and confronting our impending disintegration. For them, the tragic vision with its depths of emotional lament for what we as a culture can no longer have or sustain is musically projected as a composerly vision and emotion intended to be re-experienced by a listener-ly analogous vision and emotion. Thus, for them, the music serves as a representational medium that transfers or transports a way of being in the world from composer to listener. For this reason, I call theirs a romantic vision.

Coates, by contrast, blocks out her materials and sets them in motion as an object for our contemplation and reflection. Rather than the music forming a bridge between composer and listener, the music is an object at some distance from the composer made audible for the listener you observes it from an analogous distance. Turning Purcell's paean of loss into a study in lugubriousness take the music out of the domain of experienced emotion and frames it. Coates' music frames all its ideas. Her symphonies project as if on a sound screen, a sequence of static aural tableaux.

"Lugubriousness" is a distinctly different kind of way to describe something from, say, "sad" or "tragic." Lugubriousness is a postured or performed emotion, not an existentially grounded one. Therefore, her music's minimalist procedures, eclectic mixing of romantic sound textures with a non-developmental forma, the framing of musical ideas, and the posturing of emotional content together combine to create what I think can be seen as one of the first forays into the brave new world of postmodern symphonies.


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