Gloria Coates – Time Frozen – Works for Chamber Orchestra

by 5:4

This time last year I was deeply immersed in the music of Gloria Coates. preparing for the Dialogue we were planning to record in July. It still fills me with deep sadness that Gloria’s cancer got to her before we could get together, but it’s been nice to see a little more recognition of her music happening in the wake of her death. Her Symphony No. 1 will be performed as part of this year’s Only Connect festival in Oslo next month, and the NEOS label has recently released a new album of works for chamber orchestra, titled Time Frozen.

The first thing i did as part of my pre-Dialogue preparation (something i always do for these), was to make an exhaustive list of works. That wasn’t easy, as Coates’ music hasn’t yet been treated to extensive scholarly investigation and analysis, so my list was put together from a collection of mostly secondary sources. Inconsistencies and confusions began to arise immediately. This was in no small part due to the fact that Coates liked to rework and reconfigure existing compositions into new forms, the most well-known example being the way various orchestral works were reconceived and “upgraded”, with some revisions, into symphonies. However, the cross-pollination of material is often more intricate and harder to keep track of. For example, two of Coates’ string quartets, No. 3 (1975) and No. 4 (1977) were reworked into a six-movement piece for string orchestra, Symphony Nocturn (1978), which was later rebranded as Symphony No. 3. The last three movements of this symphony were in turn used as the basis for Holographic Universe (2006), with Coates providing an additional solo violin part to create a concerto. However, take a look at the notes accompanying the CD recording of Holographic Universe, and you’ll find they claim the piece was composed in 1975 (the date from which some of its earliest material originates, in String Quartet No. 3), compounding the amount of confusion that, at present (and, i’m sure, for some time to come), continues to cloud the facts and the multitude of connections within Coates’ output.

As if my list of questions in need of answers wasn’t long enough already (and Gloria was able to address only a small few of them with me before she died), an entirely new confusion has been generated with the release of this Time Frozen CD. It opens with Symphony No. 1 “Music for Open Strings”, followed by two short songs for voice and orchestra, and concludes with Symphony No. 16 “Time Frozen”. This, the last of Coates’ symphonies, again began life in earlier music. Time Frozen was originally composed in 1994 (though to my ears at least some of it appears to have begun life in her 1988 String Quartet No. 5), and a recording of its first performance was released in 1998. i already knew that Coates now regarded this as a symphony as she explicitly told me this earlier last year (admitting that she had “forgotten to list it”). As i’ve indicated, works being revised and upgraded as symphonies is nothing new in Coates’ output; however, what’s bizarre about the way the work is presented on this album, is that the three original movement titles – “Time Advances to No Destiny”, “I Go through Time” and “Where There is Life, there is Time” – have been replaced with the same three movement titles used in Symphony No. 7 (but in a different order: “Glass of Time”, “Corridors of Time”, “Whirligig of Time”). As far as i know there is no connection between these two symphonies, and the decision to replace the movement titles is therefore completely baffling (aside from the fact that they all still reference time). i’ve gone sufficiently deeply down the Gloria Coates rabbit hole that i’m going to do my best to straighten out this and as many of the other questions i have regarding her work as possible. But at this point i’m going to take off my musicologist’s hat (which i only begrudgingly wear in any case) and leave these strange, deeply irritating issues to one side.

Considering that many of Coates’ symphonies have still not been recorded, it’s perhaps something of a shame that NEOS decided to include Symphony No. 1 “Music for Open Strings”, as this piece has been recorded twice previously, by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Elgar Howarth and the Siegerland Orchestra under Jorge Rotter (coincidentally, although released in 1996 and 2006 respectively, both recordings were made in 1980). Nonetheless, this new performance by the Munich Kammerorchester conducted by Ilan Volkov is a strong addition, and easily the most clear and vivid recording of the work so far. i’ve discussed the history and mechanics of the piece in some detail when exploring it in my 2023 Lent Series (in a live performance also conducted by Volkov) so i won’t go over that again here. It’s not difficult to sound ominous in Coates’ music, and Volkov and Munich really latch onto that aspect of the symphony. They take the opening Theme and Transformation initially very quiet, which only makes its subsequent growth feel more menacing, particularly when it comes to resemble an unstoppable march. This continues in the Scherzo, where a tentative sense of circularity (in lieu of stability) is undermined by vicious Bartók pizzicatos and a later retreat into dark uncertainty.

Volkov takes the third movement, Scordatura, slower than both Howarth and Rotter (though still a full minute shorter than his extraordinary live performance discussed in the Lent Series), and this, together with an intense gruffness in the strings, causes the by turns sparse and polarised music to seem oblique, ostensibly simple yet puzzling at the same time. Are the drifting lines slowly falling into some kind of preordained place? Is there a pattern to their movements? These are questions that lurk throughout but remain tantalisingly beyond resolution. The closing Refracted Mirror Canon for 14 Lines is Coates at her most archetypal, a dense network of queasily sliding and overlapping lines. The clarity of this recording isn’t able to disentangle the texture (no recording could) though we’re made even more startlingly aware – and intimidated by – the sheer number and weight of accumulated movement, in the process returning to the menacing tone of the opening, concentrated into a ferocious static crescendo at the end. Personally, Howarth’s recording remains the go-to performance of this piece (it’s rougher and edgier, which works to the symphony’s advantage), but Volkov’s gives it some stiff competition, and the work has certainly never been heard with this degree of clarity.

The two orchestral songs, Cette blanche agonie [this white agony] and Wir tönen allein [we sound alone], date from around the same time as Symphony No. 1, and had similar compositional evolutions. Cette blanche agonie (1991), a setting of Mallarmé’s famous sonnet ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’ (often known as ‘Le Cygne’), is an orchestral expansion of an earlier work, Dramatic Scene (The Swan) for soprano, oboe and 2 percussion, composed in 1988. Paul Celan’s poem ‘Sperriges Morgen’ is the text used in Wir tönen allein (1991), a work that also began life in 1988, in Sperriges Morgen for soprano, tuba, double bass and percussion (which was itself subsequently completed in 1994). Both songs have been recorded once before, by soprano Sigune von Osten and Musica Viva Ensemble Dresden conducted by Jürgen Wirrmann.

In this new recording, Volkov and the Munich Kammerorchester are joined by soprano Jessica Niles, who aligns with oboist Tobias Vogelmann to give an absolutely searing account of Cette blanche agonie. Von Osten was hardly lacking for passion, but exhibited some extremes of vibrato that damaged the ongoing, seemingly never-ending line running through the song. Niles is just as passionate, but her voice has a steely determination that keeps the line laser-focused throughout. Volkov gives this line – a curious kind of angular chant, faintly redolent of Messiaen, octave-doubled at extremely high and low registers by the strings – a wonderful sense of grandness. Against this, Vogelmann’s rendition of the solo oboe / cor anglais part is exceptional, handling the multiphonics more smoothly than Bernd Schober in the Wirrmann recording, and forming a perfect, wild counterpart to Niles’ more measured form of passion. There’s a schizoid quality to the work, which comes through loudly here, as if we’re hearing two sides of the same personality emerging side by side, in a heightened atmosphere filled with foreboding by relentless timpani blows and rolls.

Wir tönen allein is a very different act of musical expression. Here, the soprano sits in the midst of what appears to be an ongoing, rather ritualistic process, characterised by long-term glissandi, periodic fizzes of tremolando, timpani rolls, and a strict pulse marshalled by a snare drum. In the Wirrmann performance, von Osten’s role seems subordinate, subject to this indefatigable process, which itself comes across, both literally and sonically, as rather remote. The combined effect is therefore impersonal, with the work’s impassioned final climax a surprising break from what’s gone before. Jessica Niles is allowed far more agency in this new recording. This is partly due to the way Volkov presents the work like a number of layers – strings, percussion, voice – which we can regard both individually and as a larger composite. There’s no remoteness whatsoever here; indeed, the string glissandi in particular have an edgy forcefulness that suggests both the plunging parabolas of warplanes and also the related sound of air raid sirens (surely no-one since Varèse has used these kind of glissandi to such powerful effect). There’s a palpable sense of the orchestra and soprano interacting; they literally shiver on one occasion before she enters, and later, when things become really heightened, it seems that Niles has single-handedly changed the orchestral behaviour through the intensity of her ardour, the strings thinning out and the timpani, for a time at least, becoming subdued. Everything about the performance is mesmerising, managing to sound abstract and emotional at the same time.

In its original, pre-symphonic incarnation, Time Frozen was released in a recording of the 1995 world première by Ensemble Das Neue Werk Hamburg conducted by Dieter Cichewiecz. It’s a reasonably strong performance, particularly the first movement, but there’s a rough ugliness of tone in the strings that casts the music in a very different light from that presented in this new recording. The opening of the first movement is here given a beautiful, pristine clarity, communing a quiet sense of deep disquiet, the drums gently causing the ground below to shudder. It’s about as gorgeous as i’ve ever heard any of Coates’ music performed, the circularity of the music indicating something of the “frozen” state of things, the orchestra moving gingerly forward in a pained procession made more plangent by the winds. An abrupt doubling of the tempo leads to what Volkov makes a hugely portentous conclusion, a keening chorus covered in bass drum thunder. The central panel returns to the world of sharp accents and slow-sliding glissandi, here presented like an essay in Shepard tones, the music acting akin to a transition between the outer movements (all the more reason why its original title, “I Go through Time”, made total sense). There’s an impressive sense of overload at its centre, but musically Coates intends it to be perceived as either a road to nowhere or back to where you started. In this respect, it benefits from being taken a great deal quicker by Volkov than Cichewiecz, being a full minute shorter. The final movement is another messy tangle of overlapping sliding strings. The Munich Kammerorchester gives extra clarity to each one by announcing them sharply, but this is the one portion of the symphony where Cichewiecz’s recording is superior. Here it just seems a bit too clean; there’s wildness in the string undulations and accumulating clamour, but the way the Ensemble Das Neue Werk Hamburg conveys a complete morass of instability is much more compelling, and more true to the music.

Overall, though, this is an important addition to the Coates discography. i’ll say it again: it’s a shame that all the works on this album have been recorded and released previously, but considering the quality of these new performances, it seems churlish to quibble about that. This is a deeply compelling album that sheds new light, and gives fresh energy and impetus, to Gloria Coates’ unique and remarkable music.

Time Frozen is available on CD and download.

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