Monday, December 1, 2008

The String Quartets of Gloria Coates

As Philip stated in his post about Lucier the other day, part of the liquid mission of this blog is to find the composers who are writing new and engaging orchestral and chamber music, who are expanding on the already rich tapestries of 20th/21st century music.

My biggest itch that needs scratching is one for string quartets - that intimate little combo of two violins, viola and cello seems to be the soil in which much of my favorite music flowers. Thanks to our ever-inquisitive friend Robert Gable at aworks, I have come to witness and quickly love the eight string quartets of Gloria Coates, tenderly captured by the Kreutzer String Quartet.

The sum of the experience of listening to all six in order is that Coates finds the most interesting things hidden in the folds of time and space's fabric, things that on occasion stir her to rapture, allowing her to step into those exalted planes and record and report back the wondrous things she witnessed there.

Here is a quick interpretation of each:

  1. "Protestation Quartet" (1966) - It opens with a low wolf's growl and a quick strike, the way any good protest should. The bulk of its five-and-a half minute run is given over to rumination, sides of one's argument, sometimes harmonious, sometime incongruous, hover in the air, sliding back and over each other like they are on a slippery ground. I can almost picture our wolf looking puzzled at the options that have opened from that first growl. it ends with more quick strikes, more consternation until one final blow sets the wolf on its decided course of action.
  2. The single movement of the 2nd quartet (1972) is subtitled "Grave" and again I get the sense that the thing that is grave is consequences. The mulling here is deeper than in the first, the decisions that come from it braiding out in threads sometimes off into the sky until they disappear. There is a nest of sighs in here, or perhaps protracted hmmmmm's that take away from the dramatic rattling that underpin a lot of the action here. Plucked tiptoes become more trepidatious steps toward the end of this piece that dissolves like a nervous horror movie victim fainting at the final, horrible realization that always awaits.
  3. The 3rd quartet (1975) opens ("Marcato," each note beginning with a new attack of the bow) with a somber fog from the low strings blowing in from the cold morning on the ocean, with what seems like deconstructed folky melodies echoing around that empty dock. A bit of dreamy circus environment can be inferred here, with melodies making soaring loops as if on a trapeze. Fellini could have done wonderful things to this music.

    The second movement ("Mirror Canon") comes in screaming from the distance, like sirens at the horizon with which you become acclimated by the time they arrive. The "Agitato" third section has some of the stretched loop-de-loop from the first, but with the melodies more pronounced. The sweeping strings remind me of the sliding notes that happen a lot in Harry Partch's works - as if the shortest path to get from A to B is long curving slide. At the bottom of that slide, though, is a hive of bees perturbed by your sudden appearance, a situation that a few mechanical motions repeated enough times to sound mechanized quickly remedies.
  4. The "Molto sostenuto espressivo" that opens her 4th quartet (1976-7) captures the dips and flights of the previous items but here the entire quartet is hanging onto the trapeze, inspiring movement with slow slides and adjustments of texture. The circular motions interlocking in this piece made me think of trying to describe a sphere with music.

    The second movement has a more sinister air, as if it is filling the sphere from the first with smoke, the cello offering a church organ groan of remorse to the proceedings. The third movement "Allegretto scherzando" (I wish writing had sexy Italian terms like this) is possessed with a much more palpable menace emerging from the screams, the quickening pace of taps on the instrument bodies, the locomotive chugs punctuates by sharp blows that sound like bones being snapped.

    This section possibly can be read as discovering that wails and whoops of the previous movement were just the zeroing in on the the inner clockwork of this sphere, as if you are having the sudden realization that the sphere is the monad, the fundamental unit and once that enlightenment happens, the music comes to a complete stop.
  5. The 5th quartet (1988) is in three lengthy movements subtitled "Through Time," "Through Space," and "Into the Fifth Dimension." Time here is measured in waves of dissonance against intoning structure, only finding existence in the contrasts, like real time I suppose. Does time exist when nothing happens? Is when the right world there? Should it be where, or maybe even a paradoxical as?

    Space offers a similar terrain as it is traversed, except it seems to take longer. An analogy between the two is thinking for two days about how long it is going to take to drive across Texas vs. spending two days actually driving across Texas.

    I would have to be stoned to explain the fifth dimension to you right now, but one way to look at it as the realm of possibility, the plane on which one can plot all three dimensional things existing at all possible times. It is through this labyrinth that crazy of Nietzsche strolls, knowing that the end of the maze will only lead you to the beginning again. Coates expresses this confluence once again as waves, but instead of the ripples out of dissonance, we lope seasick up and down folds in time/spaces slippery fabric.

    The real meat of this piece is revealed halfway through this movement, in that the sine waves build up to dizzying degrees only to drop us into momentary silence as they build up again. On this second trip, we have our sea legs and can hear the basic tones of the system, we can see the threads in the fabric. Toward the end, the undulations slow down to a drone, perhaps consciousness or a Nirvana state where we are everything, everywhere all the time. And then it stops. Maybe there is actually an additional movement into the sixth dimension, but it is too complex for our three-dimensional brains to hear it.
  6. The 6th quartet (2000) is built of "Still," "Meditation," and "Evanescence" it opens in what I like to call De Chirico stillness, notes occupying the deserted plazas occupying the spaces in the painter's metaphysically charged yet lifeless landscapes. Coates is almost, but not quite playing in the walled garden of drones, letting tones exist like flowering plants long enough to experience their subtle perfume. I say not quite, because there are traces of the melodic still present, keeping these pieces from being the physics lab demonstrations that drone music often becomes.

    I tried to plug my brain into the wikipedia article on evanescent waves but I stopped when the fuses started to smoke in their sockets, leaving me to walk away with evanescent meaning "tends to vanish." The magnificent drones of the previous movements are now collapsed, almost existing as radiation from the previous having been emitted. Tiny events occur in this near silent primordia, little thuds of strings, a faint murmur from below begging you to dig into the hear mist-covered ground. Theses little sprouts are doing the opposite of vanishing, they are instead thriving in having existed, more alive as echoes than as the original shout.
  7. The 7th quartet (2001) is one dramatic movement called "Angels" conjuring spirits out of pulses and shivers. There is some similarity in cinematic effect with Ligeti's more famous works, but "Angels" is more melodically brazen, allowing melodies to twitter out like birds as the sky blazes with bursts of an organ.

    This, by the way, is precisely what I am looking for in contemporary string quartet, and music in general - something that rips at the fabric of the familiar so that I may peek through and glimpse the fantastic.
  8. I am reticent to even try to listen to music after "Angels" but it is a mention of the 8th quartet (2001) that brought me here. This one seems to be an amalgamation of the previous quartets, but I am also open to the idea that I am projecting that notion from having sat through them all. The peaks and valleys here in the first movement "On Wings of Sound" are familiar ones after having experienced similar landscapes in the previous quartets, but the line of the land seems to be folded here, such that the high and low points match up. Perhaps this is the confident products of the pan-dimensional musings of the 5th quartet.

    "In Falling Timbers Buried" we are thrust into a realm of sighs, larger and more laden with exhaustion than those in the 2nd quartet. The organ of "Angels" is invoked in dissonant clusters out of which searing high tones ceaselessly rise, bringing out the most unexpected thing, a simple, orchestral semi-Romantic big finish. "Prayer" continues this unabashedly melodic trek, the whole quartet working as one through a simple, nay hummable melody. Compared to the rest of the works here, "Prayer" is the most accessible piece of music, but also the most elegant, as if it is a culmination of the previous meditations and soul-scrapings that went on in the previous pieces, which is, I suppose, the form a proper prayer should take.

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