No sleepy lagoons
here, this Coates writes music of uncompromising modernity.
It’s certainly as contemporary as it gets, the symphony composed
for Mozart’s 250th anniversary (2006), the other two works dating
back to the 1970s and 1980s. One hesitates to use the word ‘accessible’
– sometimes misconstrued as a criticism – but Coates’s sound-world
fuses intellectual rigour with moments of genuine power and
emotion; the end result is music of considerable interest and
The symphony’s first
movement ‘Iridescences’ certainly has a shimmer, a glow, achieved
through the use of extended glissandi and pulsing, elemental
percussion. There’s a mesmeric quality to the music which, strange
as it may seem, doesn’t so much transfix as endlessly fascinate.
And it isn’t amorphous either, displaying plenty of bone and
Given that this
symphony is subtitled ‘Homage to Mozart’, it’s not surprising
the second movement ‘Puzzle Canon’ contains what the liner-notes
refer to as a ‘quasi quotation’ from the Ave Verum Corpus
K.618. The same slides and subterranean drums permeate this
section, although submarine might be more accurate; indeed,
in his liner-notes Kyle Gunn characterises this music as ‘wavery’.
That’s not to suggest it’s tremulous or uncertain; in fact it’s
complex, edgy, always evolving. The material is worked to a
powerful climax at 7:11 before giving way to a serene Mozartian
theme – albeit filtered through Coates’s distorting lens. It’s
really memorable stuff, the juxtaposition as startling as it
With that ‘puzzle’
out of the way ‘What Are Stars?’ takes its cue from an Emily
Dickinson poem. Again there is a strong elemental drive, the
timps providing a constantly questing bass line. Boder and his
Vienna radio band play this score with obvious commitment and
concentration, bringing out all those ‘wavery’ timbres and pulses.
The original engineers – presumably with the Austrian broadcaster
ORF – have done the score proud, providing a clear yet warm
sound. There is weight aplenty and the strings have lots of
body, which really helps to give this music its tingle factor.
Although she is
American-born Coates has lived in Munich since 1969, so she’s
been at the heart of contemporary European music and intellectual
debate for some years now. Not surprising, then, that her Cantata
da Requiem, which dates from the dying days of the Vietnam
War, reflects this.
Poems for Peace’ the Cantata is based on a series of
wartime texts, beginning with a grieving widow, ‘The twilight
slowly enveloped me and / Pressed icily against my breast’.
It is music of unstinting angularity and grief, the emphasis
on exposed, individual instrumental voices. The Canadian soprano
Terri Dunn has some pretty taxing passages to sing, falling
to quieter episodes sung almost sotto voce.
After the brief
‘BBC Weather Report 1942’ – echoes of Britten’s Sea Interludes,
perhaps – comes the aria ‘The Flying Bombers’. This looks ahead
to the sound blocks of the symphony – and backwards to the Polish
avant-garde composer Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims
of Hiroshima – as it mimics the drone of bombers flying
‘God knows where’. And as a technique Coates’s use of glissandi
can surely be traced back to another of Penderecki’s early works,
Elfriede’s sad little
notations of war are much sparer in texture, gaunt even, which
makes for the strongest possible contrast with what has gone
before. The short poem ‘Run, rain, run’ – taken from a wartime
German newspaper – may come a little too close to sentimentality
for some but Coates infuses the score with enough martial menace
to keep mawkishness at bay.
unquiet timps link all these fragments, including Marianne Moore’s
‘All These Dyings’, written in 1942; although it is unremittingly
bleak – ‘All the world is an orphans home’ – the text and the
music do at least modulate into a key of hope, ending with an
affirmative chorale for soloist and players.
is very much a piece of its time, a potent mix of angry polemic
and naive optimism. This ‘protest music’ obviously resonates
most strongly with listeners of like mind, but cynics might
dismiss it as hopelessly idealistic, even quaint. Whatever your
response Dunn and the Toronto-based Talisker Players deliver
the work’s simple message with uncommon energy and conviction.
Skipping ahead 12
years to Transitions we are back in terra cognita.
The ‘signature’ instrumental slides and percussive pulses are
there in ‘Illumination’, aided and abetted by a strange, repetitive
figure on the piano. There is a strong sense of music in flux,
elastic even, stretching and contracting. It’s all very effective
and the Ars Nova Ensemble Nuremberg – the visceral percussion
especially – are vividly captured in a warm, vibrant acoustic.
Plosives’ makes use of the nine-note scale invented by the Russian
composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), with whom Coates
studied for a time. This appears in the grotesque little march
towards the end of this eruptive movement, which Gunn aptly
describes as a ‘noise fest’. Equally quirky is ‘Dream Sequence’,
in which Coates creates the effect of a cosmic string being
tuned, surrounded by ecstatic bursts of light and colour.
won’t please everyone – too radical for some, too tame for others
– but inquisitive listeners will revel in a sound-world that
positively explodes with imagination and brilliance. And how
extraordinary that Coates, the most prolific female symphonist
in history, is rarely heard outside the new music circuit. All
credit to Naxos for bringing her work to a wider audience –
it’s long overdue.