Gloria Coates – Symphony No. 7 (UK Première)

by 5:4

Gloria CoatesSymphony No. 7 was composed from 1989 to 1990, a highly politically-charged time for those (as Coates was) living in Germany. The Berlin Wall would subsequently fall (on 9 November 1989), but while this promised to usher in a new era of peace, the profound uncertainty that suffused this period was the inspiration for Coates’ symphony. Nonetheless, the piece is dedicated “to those who brought down the Wall in PEACE” (a phrase that for many years served as the work’s subtitle), indicating an implied streak of optimism more-or-less absent from the symphony’s turbulent, violently unsettling music.

A recurring feature of Coates’ symphonies is a tense relationship between line (acting as a locus of clarity) and texture (generalised disorder). Her Symphony No. 1, which i explored previously in this series, has as its starting point a pentatonic melody, though this is eventually lost and forgotten in the work’s subsequent textural trajectory returning from scordatura – being the basis for the melody – to conventional tuning. In Symphony No. 4 (1990), subtitled “Chiaroscuro”, the opening movement (“Illumination”) slowly reveals Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’ from within a dark textural environment comprising deep tones, rumbling, wavering high strings and far-off clangorous percussion. This tangible morsel of music is also lost, or at least abstracted, as the symphony continues, surviving (if it survives at all) in a blaze of passionate solemnity in the middle movement (“Mystical plosives”), and as brief vestiges of a processional in the remarkable, disorienting final “Dream Sequence”.

Gloria Coates

In Symphony No. 7 there’s a similar relationship at play. The opening movement, ‘Whirligig of Time’, is all about constant, circling motion. It progresses from sharply accented pitches that are initially sustained but which, over time, begin to come loose and slide up and down. The strings tend to predominate: when the thickness of the texture reduces it’s primarily due to the wind and brass dropping out (in addition to softer dynamics), and in any case the strings’ control over glissandi is far superior to the other sections of the orchestra. This becomes more acute later on when the speed of the glissandi slows considerably, leading to a rather queasy effect (5:30) akin to pitching on a boat, as everything gradually rises and falls. There’s often a palpable feeling of claustrophobia in Coates’ mass textures – though instruments drop out and in, the overall effect is continuous – resulting from the sensation that sound is literally everywhere, surrounding us on all sides, and that’s especially true through this opening movement. Until, that is, its closing bars, arriving at a more static place (6:48) before surging to a climax of near overload.

The central movement, ‘Glass of Time’ features an even more constricted melody than the pentatonic line heard in Symphony No. 1. Twisting around just four adjacent pitches – F, F#, G, Ab – the melody (8:32) is violin-led but echoed and octave-doubled (and occasionally slightly distorted) in the brass and winds.

Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 7 – ‘Glass of Time’, Violins I+II: bars 1-13

It’s answered (8:56) by an even more constricted countermelody in the bass – comprising just D, D#, E – which, together with a periodically pounding bass drum, creates an incredibly heightened atmosphere, solemn yet positively bristling with an ominous sense of threat and dread. The melody is stated twice, both times followed by extensive flurries in the winds and brass: the first of these (9:39) suggests freedom, but the second (11:01) indicates a more volatile and troubling situation. This seems to be confirmed in the sequence that follows, a new melody in the strings (11:20), presented in clashing semitones over a multitude of deep, fragmented tendrils, broken up by a pushy brass motif (12:01) underlined by bells that gets the entire orchestra massively worked up. Chaos briefly reigns, undergoing another huge surge before Coates restores order of a sort with a new, more angular line, at once grandiose, momentous, portentous, though the movement concludes (13:49) with the final two phrases of the original melody, now darkly intoned in the bass instruments.

‘Whirligig of Time’ brought continual cycling motion, ‘Glass of Time’ brought some transparency in the form of an intermittent focus on line; the final movement, ‘Corridors of Time’, channels Coates’ trademark glissandi into a seamless, ever-changing tapestry of sliding sound. Upper and lower registers initially converge on each other, whereafter it gets much harder to keep track of both where the instruments are and in which direction they’re moving. Everything, everywhere, moves – the music is a paradigm of instability suggesting that, though the Wall had fallen when she wrote this music, certainty and stability were concepts Coates perhaps felt still to be remote. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed within the unstoppable maelstrom of ‘Corridors of Time’, where every sound we try to latch onto instantly slips away from us. There are times when its networks of glissandi briefly evoke the sound of sirens, lending an even more disquieting tone to what is already terrible, apocalyptic music.

Many symphonies are impressive, some are amazing, but few, i would argue, are genuinely astonishing. Gloria Coates’ Symphony No. 7 is one of the few; no matter how often i return to this piece (and it’s frequently), it never fails to re-blow my mind.

Completed in 1990, the symphony was recorded and broadcast in January 1991 (and subsequently released by CPO), but its first public performance had to wait another six years, premièred at the 1997 Musica Viva festival in Munich. Over 20 more years would pass until its UK première in November 2018, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

Programme note

How deeply grateful I was to receive a surprise commission from the South German Radio for an orchestral work of any size! After twenty years of developing my linear glissando structures, I was at last able to hear them for large orchestra with the use of fourfold instruments.

This was during a period of uncertainty in Germany. Many new faces appeared from Eastern countries, and the end of the Cold War seemed close at hand. However, would it be the dreaded war of missiles? It was as if time stood still and life lost its importance to the greater threat. This unrest became part of the music I was writing, along with the compression of time-events which took the form of masses of gradually moving sound.

—Gloria Coates

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[…] exploring Symphony No. 7, i spoke of the way that line and texture, broadly corresponding to focused order and generalised […]

[…] year’s 5:4 Lent Series on contemporary symphonies, where i explored three of hers (No. 1, No. 7 and No. 11), all of which had been performed at the 2018 Tectonics festival. It was while i was […]

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