Symphony No.1 (Music on Open Strings)
Symphony No.7 (Dedicated to those who brought down The Wall in PEACE)
Symphony No.14 (Symphony in Microtones)
Jorge Rotter [Symphony No.1]
Recorded 23 April 1980 at the Bruder Busch Theater, Hilchenbach, Germany
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Olaf Henzold [Symphony No.7]
Recorded 21 February 1997 at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany
Munich Chamber Orchestra
Recorded 23 October 2003 at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: July 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.559289
Duration: 66 minutes
Gloria Coates (born 1938) casts herself in the independent-minded American lineage of Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell and John Cage.
Her Symphony No.14, for strings and timpani, pays tribute to this tradition, comprising homages to New England psalmodists Supply Belcher and William Billings and the prolific Otto Luening, a pioneer of tape music. Coates’s own territory is experimental tuning systems (Symphony No.14 is subtitled ‘Symphony in Microtones’) and all three works on this disc demonstrate Coates’s long-standing fascination, not to say obsession, with these ideas.
Her Symphony No.1 (Music on Open Strings) dates from 1973, and is in many ways the most successful piece here. It begins with a slow, hobbled theme on open strings tuned to a Chinese scale, which is gradually crowded out by an eerie-sounding array of glissandos, ‘snap’ pizzicato and knocking on instruments. The second movement revisits this material with strings playing pizzicato; the third finds the strings re-tuning the original pitches while continuing to play at conventional tuning. The last movement is a sea of queasily shifting glissandos, building in intensity to a sudden finish. The symphony is compact and effective.
Unfortunately, the same elements are re-deployed in the two later symphonies, with the law of diminishing returns at work. Symphony No.7 (1990, Dedicated to those who brought down The Wall in PEACE) is a re-write scored for full orchestra; this time the glissando movement comes first (that it is called ‘Whirligig of Time’ makes it no easier to listen to), and indeed third. When Coates departs from this technique in the middle movement, the result is an uninspiring collection of canons, across whose anxious twittering and sustained tones the lower brass occasionally offer horror-film banalities.
In his liner notes, Kyle Gann calls Coates’s output “huge, grand, beyond human scale”; but there is nothing here of the terrifying abyss to be found in György Ligeti’s “Requiem”, for instance. The latest symphony (No.14, 2002) is the worst; the moment in the first movement when the honest hymn-tune emerges from, yes, whirling glissandos is utter kitsch.
All three recordings were made live; the noisy one of the First Symphony shows its age and all three suffer from shallow, tinny sound.