Gloria Coates’ Microtonal Music

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G. COATES: Piano Quintet / Kreutzer Quartet; Roderick Chadwick, pn / Symphony No. 10, “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins” / CalArts Orchestra; Susan Allen, cond / Naxos 8.559848

American-born Gloria Coates, who has lived mostly in Europe since 1969 (when she was 31), has tirelessly promoted American music in both England and Germany. She also taught for eight years (1975-83) at the University of Wisconsin’s International Programs. Her composition style is resolutely modern, using close chromatics and microtonalism. Yet she also favors a lyric line amidst this sound-world, which makes her music flow smoothly even when the harmonies do not. I found it interesting that the same forces that recorded Jeremy Dale Roberts’ music for Toccata Classics—the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Chadwick—also played her quintet on this Naxos CD. It turns out that this group premiered the quintet at the Gasteig in Munich in the summer of 2015.

As I mentioned in my review of the Roberts disc, these forces play with considerable emotion and attention to detail, which forces the listeners’ attention. They also understand the structure of the pieces they play and bring out extraordinary clarity. I was fascinated by her use of microtonalism, making her work resemble, to a surprising degree, the music of Julián Carrillo, who I wrote about in January of this year. The liner notes make no mention of Carrillo as an influence, however, but rather say that she was already writing music “with overtones and clusters at age nine,” and cite Alexander Tcherepnin and Otto Luening as “important mentors.” The only small complaint I had was that each of the four movements were in the same tempo and basic mood; a bit of variety would have been welcome. Taken on its own merits, however, it is extremely interesting and well-written.

The Tenth Symphony, titled “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins,” was commissioned in 1989 by the Erding (Bavaria) Ministry of Culture. It occupies the same chromatic world as the quintet (and much the same tempi) while using a conventional symphony orchestra playing in an unconventional manner. Even the trumpets are called on to play chromatic smears and microtones in the framework of this piece. She does use a considerable variety of orchestral color, however, and in this work varies the rhythm of the individual instruments and sections, though strings are conspicuous by their absence. The music here is scored primarily for brass and percussion…the second movement, in fact, is all percussion, nearly 12 minutes of it.

An interesting disc, then, worth hearing at least once.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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