> COATES Quartets 8559091 [GH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gloria COATES (b.1943)
String Quartet 1 (1966)
String Quartet 5 ( 1988)
String Quartet 6 (1999)
Kreutzer Quartet
Recorded St. John’s Church, Loughton, Essex, September 2000
NAXOS 8.559091 [59.02]


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As a discerning listener one sometimes has to work hard to find one’s way into a composer’s sound-world. It may take some considerable time; even years and sometimes we give up. I can remember as a student determinedly concentrating on Webern and Stockhausen. Then there are those early composers, Dufay and Machaut whose music sometimes defies understanding. But it's normally contemporary composers who are the most difficult as with Harrison Birtwistle. Sometimes in our frustration we announce that the music is not worth the effort, possibly we come to think of it as "rubbish" and dismiss it.

With Gloria Coates you are certainly going to encounter this problem. Some of her symphonies have appeared on CD (on the CPO label) and some other works here and there but, I’m sorry to admit that this is the first time I have heard anything of hers. At this present time I have to say that I have still not spent long enough with the music to decide what to make of it. All that I can do in this review is to try to explain what you might encounter.

The 1st Quartet; begins with an angry cello solo incorporating the so-called Bartok pizz., tremolandi and harmonics. The work progresses intensely and is entirely atonal. It lasts for just a little over five minutes. It also incorporates two characteristic fingerprints of the composer, the glissando and the canon. The latter are sometimes difficult to pick out as they form just a small part of the complex texture. The canon here serves as a structural device as it did for a composer like Josquin; in other words it moves the structure forward.

The 5th Quartet. This lasts for over thirty minutes and has three movements entitled ‘Through time’, ‘Through Space’ and ‘In the fifth Dimension’. I was reminded, at the start, of Ligeti especially of ‘Ramifications' (1969) with its slow moving and very stratospheric harmonics overlapping with each other above a slow cantus firmus like bass. But Coates holds that sound-world for the entire movement. The second one gives less respite but its glissandi are more closely formed as they swirl around creating massive tone clusters. Kyle Gann, the writer of the indispensable booklet notes comments that "the texture is carefully notated, with continuous glissandi amid fragments of other tunes like …. "Fling out the banner". Charles Ives lies behind the inspiration, perhaps. The third movement consists entirely of glissandi moving in different tempi; obviously therefore constantly employing microtones. I know of no string quartet like this anywhere.

I should add at this point that Gann does say that Coates "should not be regarded as the glissando composer" (despite the fact that even as a teenage student she produces a quartet consisting entirely of glissandi which baffled her teacher) "because there is so much more to her work". We are also reminded that she is widely performed both in America and in Europe where she now lives.

The 6th Quartet; Lasts just about twenty-two minutes. It begins with an aggressive snap although the opening movement is entitled "Still". This is a slow metamorphosis starting after the snap with close, microtonal dissonances and resolving, dare I say, after six minutes on a chord of E minor. Kyle Gann describes this movement as "spiritual". "Meditation" comes next and is a set of glissandi. The web of precisely notated glissandi has an occasional note picked out by the 1st Violin like a distant bell. The final movement is to me a disappointment because it is a developed recapitulation of the 1st movement. Its title "Evanescence" is suitably descriptive. The booklet ends by saying that Gloria Coates is "one of the most intriguing musical voices of our time".

It appears also that she is a painter, as her 1991 abstract called ‘Tintinnabulation’ adorns the cover.

All this for less than a fiver!

Gary Higginson

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