Composer  Gloria  Coates
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

In the Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG) article on the American Symphony, Ludwig Finscher hails Gloria Coates’s symphonic works as “the spirit of an expressionistic-apocalyptic-mystical world view.” Kyle Gann writes of her chamber music, “The sparer context of these chamber works sounds solidly American…a rustic stolidity, a willingness to walk firmly forward off the beaten paths…an American through and through.”

coatesBorn in, Wisconsin, Gloria Coates began composing and experimenting with overtones and clusters at the age of nine. Her musical intuition has led her to ever widening visions and experiences. She considers both Alexander Tcherepnin, who encouraged her composing since she was 16, and Otto Luening, to have been her “gurus.” Her studies took her from Chicago and Louisiana (with a Masters Degree in Composition), to New York’s Cooper Union Art School, and Columbia University for postgraduate studies in music composition.

While maintaining a residence in the United States, Gloria Coates has lived in Europe since 1969 where she has promoted American music both in organizing a German-American Music Series (1971–1984), writing musicological articles, and producing broadcasts for the radio stations of Munich, Cologne, and Bremen.

From 1975 to 1983 she taught for the University of Wisconsin’s International Programs, initiating the first music programs in London and Munich. She has been invited to lecture on her music with performances in India, Poland, Germany, Ireland, England, and the United States at Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and Boston Universities.

Gloria Coates’s breakthrough came with the 1978 première of a work composed in 1973, Music on Open Strings, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, a work for string orchestra in which the strings retune. It proved to be the most discussed work at the festival and throughout the European press. In 1986 it was a finalist for the KIRA Koussevitzsky International Award as one of the most important works to appear on record that year.

Festivals and artists performing her compositions include March Music (Berlin Festival), New Music America (New York), Montepulciano Festival (Italy), Dresden Festival, Warsaw Autumn, Dartington (England) and the Aspekte Festival Salzburg, with artists such as the Kronos Quartet, the Kreutzer Quartet, and the Crash Ensemble Dublin. Orchestras to have performed her works include the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Polish Chamber Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, St Paul Chamber Orchestra, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Radio Bucharest Orchestra, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the New Century Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco.

She has written 16 symphonies and other orchestral pieces, 9 string quartets, chamber music, numerous songs, solo pieces, electronic music, and music for the theatre.

[Biographical text from the Naxos website]    

It was in May of 1995 that Gloria Coates was returning to her childhood home in Wisconsin for a visit, and since her trip took her through Chicago, she agreed to stop at my studio for a conversation.  She was very enthusiastic about her work and her plans, and we had a lively chat about many interesting things . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are a composer who makes your living solely from your compositions?

Gloria Coates:    Yes.  I’ve been able to do this for maybe twenty years.

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of being a self-sufficient composer, rather than relying on a teaching position.

GC:    Well, it has its advantages.  I never really thought I would be able to be self-sufficient because I never used to be a self-starter.  But when you have pieces to write, you become that; you can work when you want to.  In the last eight months I had three works that I had to write, so I would simply write ‘til maybe five in the morning and then go to sleep.  I’d wake up perhaps six hours later and work again, and then I’d be able to sleep again.  This went on for several months, and basically it’s quite nice to have that freedom.  I didn’t always have that much freedom, but it’s quite a wonderful feeling if you’re in the middle of a creative process.  One can do this at the colonies, like Yaddo or MacDowell; I’ve been there, and one gets quite spoiled, I guess, but somehow I even feel more freedom when I’m on my own.

BD:    Does this make a difference in the kind of music that is coming from your pen, or do you even know?

GC:    I’m not aware of it.  I’d have to go back and think of each piece!

BD:    I assume that your only deadline is the performance deadline.

GC:    Right, but there are some things I have done without the performance deadline.  I have written a cycle of Emily Dickinson songs, and I compose them when I feel like it.  I’ve written fourteen over a period of about twenty-five years.

BD:    Is each one individual, or will they be collected into a cycle?

GC:    They have been collected.  First it was a cycle of five, which I thought will be my Emily Dickinson Cycle!  Then it became seven, then ten, then fourteen.  Sometimes I write maybe four at a time.

BD:    Pretty soon there will be an entire evening of that cycle!

GC:    [Laughs]  Maybe...

BD:    Speaking of concerts, are you in favor of single-composer evenings, or would you rather have your music played on a mixed program of either all new composers, or composers through the ages?

GC:    Actually it is nice to have a single-composer evening.  I’ve had quite a few.  On the other hand, it is also nice to have it mixed.  For the audience, I think it can be interesting either way.  People like to hear various pieces.  Sometimes, of course, if you write in a certain style
like if you’re very intense, and if one takes only the intense piecesit could be very exhausting, and this does happen with some composers.  If they’re very light composers, then you have a nice light evening.  Mine tend to be a little bit more serious, though.

coatesBD:    When you are writing, are you conscious of the audience that is going to be listening to your pieces?

GC:    Never.  Never.  When I think of Mozart’s writings to his father, he sometimes talks about the audience.  On the other hand, he has said himself that he only writes for God.  I do believe he would say this, to talk about the audience, to please his father; they had a very interesting relationship, and no one’s quite understood it.  If I myself am thinking of the audience, I can say it’s as if you’re an actress and you are concentrated in your role.  You’re aware you have to project, but basically you’re so concentrated in what you’re doing to create the character that you are not thinking of the audience that much.   It’s the same thing with composing.  You become concentrated in what you’re trying to say and in how you’re saying it, and if I’m thinking of the audience, the flow is lost.  I believe that if your thoughts are what you’re trying to express — maybe not even a thought, it might be something else
— but whatever this is, if it’s very strong, then that should reach the audience.  As a composer you never know, and that is where the interesting part is!  The first performance is always very frightening, and I know when I was first having performances it was really terrifying.  I’d be shaking away.  It has to do with the fact that you’ve given yourself as much as you can in this work and you haven’t thought of the audience, but you would love the audience to be able to feel what you’re trying to say.  This kind of tension creates the anxiety in the composer, if you’re that kind of composer.  Every composer’s different.  Some of them really do write for the audience.  They’ll say, “Oh, we have to have a mixture here; there it has to be different; we’ve been slow for this long and now we’ll have to have some variety.”  That’s not at all the way I write!  I have a sort of something...  How can I say it?  It’s just something that weaves itself.  It becomes this thing that I’m saying, even if I have a basic structure when I start out.  Still, within the music there’s a seed, and then that seed or this germ that I am developing has its first rules.  I don’t have it, but that creates the rules.  So therefore I sometimes have to create new forms, new styles, new structures; I mean I’m not creating it, but rather the germ is causing it to happen.

BD:    So you’re not always in control of where it goes?

GC:    Not completely, but I have to control it
sort of like a wild horse.  You know where you have to go, so you have to control it and get it there.  It may try to go strange ways!  [Laughs]

BD:    But you have to break a horse.  You’re not trying to break the composition, are you?

GC:    No, it has to flow.

BD:    Do you know before you start out about how long it will take to compose a piece?

GC:    Never.  Actually, I work a lot before I write a piece.  For one work, I did research for about twelve years and I still haven’t completed the piece!  Some of it was already premiered in Bayreuth; it is based on Leonardo DaVinci and was a commission from a conductor in Germany.  I started it in 1972.  I read his notebooks and traveled to see his birthplace.  Some of the manuscripts I was interested in I was able to see at the British Museum.  I took a little mirror because he wrote in mirror writing!  Even for things like that, you have to go to the sources, really.  People used to say that his mirror writing was a mistake caused by bad eyesight, but it wasn’t, because he could write normally.  I have seen his writing and held his manuscript in my hand.  It was written on a tiny piece of paper that he would carry around his waist.  I believe it was for his copyright that he wrote in the mirror writing.  I finally selected my text, and I have three parts finished, which were premiered.  Then other things came in the way, so I’ve never finished it.  This is an example of why for so many, many years I’ve worked on Leonardo.  There is another piece I wrote which isn’t premiered yet called Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins.  It was a commission, and again I studied about the Celts because no one knows for sure where they originated — maybe in Asia Minor.  They swept across Europe and eventually up into Ireland and Scotland.  There are ruins of the Celts in Erding, Germany, and the government wants to put a highway through many of them.  They’re called
schanzen, and are about as large as a football field with borders maybe a couple meters high.  They all have the entrance on the east side.  Each one has a deep pit on one end and then sort of a platform near it.  Farmers use the fields of the ruins to plant their crops.  There are many of these schanzen, and I was supposed to write a work for brass and percussion that was to be played out of doors on the ruins.  I can’t say more because I’m a little bit superstitious, but I did do a lot of research on the Celts, and it’s rather interesting.  Nobody really knows what the schanzen were used for, so there’s much speculation now.  Being very practical, I thought perhaps they were for the cattle, because they were agrarian people, but people here said, “No.”  Then I thought maybe they were used for water wells since there was a higher water level because there are streams around the area.  Again they said, “No, it’s impossible,” because they are very well built and quite far down.  Somebody else thought they were used for sacrifices to the gods, but I don’t think there would be that many sacrifices for all the hundreds of schanzes.  So perhaps it’s some other reason, but it’s very interesting.   There was a tour group of ecological people which I once joined, and we went out to one of the schanzen on a very sunny day.  It was like being in a surrealistic movie in the rapes fields, with a blur of yellow flowers.  People were wandering over these rape fields with a pendulum swinging, as if they were looking for traces of who knows what!  [Both laugh]  They were rather far out!  However, they discovered more of those schanzen in the area, and decided that those deep pits were used as lightning rods in reverse to control the weather.  So in my composition about the Druids I have a storm.  I might take it out before the piece is premiered, though, because I’m not too convinced about the lightning rods!

BD:    This piece and a couple of others that we’re talking about are based on specific ideas and specific references.  Is that easier or harder to compose than something that is completely abstract or a brand new idea?  Or is it just different?

GC:    It’s different because these pieces are also abstract.  It’s only that I enjoy the research that goes with it.  The Drones of Druids are simply very long tones in different rhythms, so it becomes very abstract as a piece.

BD:    It’s just guiding your abstraction?

GC:    It’s sort of filling me with new thoughts and new ideas, perhaps.  I can tell you about the Leonardo piece, but I translated some of his ideas into music abstractly.  I used his text, but you can’t tell.  You can’t hear it.  It is in the original language, the old Italian, and the voices are used as instruments.  Two of the parts were based on the creation and the balance of nature, but there are more sections to it.  I have the texts and the ideas, and I simply haven’t done them.  I think I rather enjoy not finishing it because Leonardo never finished anything!  [Both laugh]  It’s a goal that you keep going towards, like the tortoise and the hare.  I’m sort of the hare going around to all these other compositions, and maybe I’ll never reach the Leonardo.

:    I assume, though, that you don’t want to leave it as a piece that can be performed incomplete or complete as it now stands, or to let performers decide how much of it to present.

GC:    The parts that I have finished — maybe three parts of it — can be performed as they are because it’s almost like a tone poem oratorio for large orchestra, solos and chorus.  But I really want to complete it; I must!  I have so many notes on Leonardo; I have boxes and boxes of notes!  There was someone going through some of my things for an archive and they said, “Oh, you really should finish this, after all the work you’ve done!”  But who knows?

BD:    When you’re writing something else, do you ever find that some of the notes and ideas from Leonardo are seeping into that other piece?

GC:    No, but I can say that after I finish a piece, sometimes the ideas that were created by that finished piece will seep into the next piece.  I can say that all of my music has, if I analyze it, two parts.  One is the child’s composition.  When I was ten, eleven, twelve, I used to write music of my own expression for voice and piano.  That part of me, which is very close to my heart and very emotional, I continue in the Emily Dickinson songs.  It’s almost like that’s my personal measure to know that I haven’t lost my childhood roots.  I still have things like glissandi, but that maybe comes from my singing.  Instrumental or orchestral works are more abstract, but if somebody hears them, sometimes they can still recognize the same expression, even if there’s no melody!  At least that’s what people have told me.  I find that different parts of me are creating those instrumental pieces.  The heart
or what I call emotionwill be there, but I have to have much more intellect with the emotion.  The songs are a smaller form, and in that smaller form sort of fun things can happen, too.  For the other part, the orchestral pieces are more complex, therefore one needs more of the intellect, but I still keep the emotion sort of there.  Anyway, it should be there, and that’s why I don’t work with a specific system, like twelve-tone.  This is another thing I’ve found out about my music.  I was thinking, What do I have?  What have I been doing here?  In a way, there are certain basic structures, like architectural structures, that I created maybe twenty or thirty years agolet’s say a type of canon that might be all microtones.  This microtonal canon will have its own structure.  Sometimes I will take that and will use that structure again, and vary it in different ways.  Therefore, instead of using a scale, I’m using a structure, which is a very different concept.  I might someday write a book explaining my concepts.  I don’t always work this way, but I have, and it worked quite well.

BD:    Would writing a book be safer than letting some future analyst say how you did it, and maybe be accurate some of the time?

GC:    I guess sometimes they try to do things like that, and they analyze it from their standpoint
which is not really how it’s best understood.  It’s okay, though.  Musicologists are always analyzing music in different ways, and of course the composer never really knows what he’s doing when he is in the midst of it — at least I don’t always know.  I cannot talk for other people, because everybody’s different, but I’m not sure always of how it’s going to go, or what I’m doing.  It’s not until afterwards that I realize what I’ve done.

BD:    The various composers that we’ve studied through history, and the various composers that I’ve interviewed have said that’s been generally the case.  They do it and then see, “Oh yes, this is how it worked.”  They put the form and analysis on afterwards, rather than first.

GC:    Right.  It’s much easier, of course, for someone to take the structure
or someone else’s structureand fill it in, and many composers do it.  But unless they bring something new to music, I would say they have not enlarged the repertoire of a specific style.

BD:    They can’t be just paint-by-numbers.  [Both laugh]

GC:    It’s almost like it!

*     *     *     *     *

:    Do you find that you’re part of the musical continuum?

GC:    I think so, but I don
’t like other composers taking ideas from me.  Even as a child in first grade, I used to cover up my drawings because they’d be copied by other children and appear on desks all over the room!  [Laughs]  So if I’m creating something, I guess I don’t want it to be copied.  Perhaps it is really not good to be like that; on the other hand it’s only human nature.  I’ve found out from various people that there have been quite a few pieces copied from one specific work of mineMusic on Open Strings.  Someone had taken the whole structure, or maybe taken five minutes of it.  It’s out now on a Nonesuch CD.  It is definitely a form of plagerism.  Another time, a young conductor was in Paris and heard a concert of orchestral music and he thought, “Oh, that’s just like Music on Open Strings.”  So he went up to the composer and asked, “Have you ever heard of Gloria Coates’s Music on Open Strings?” and he answered, “Oh, yes, I was there at the premiere.”  He was happy to even have his piece compared to mine.  So it has influenced younger people.  Actually, I’m getting accustomed to it.  It’s just that I haven’t done very much to promote my own music; I’ve never had time to do it!  This has made me realize that I do have to look around and try to find a way to get my music out, and not to sit on it like a troll!  [Laughs]

coatesBD:    Then you are the mother of many musical offspring!

GC:    [Shrugs]  I suppose, maybe.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope that pleases you eventually.

GC:    Probably.  I don’t know.  I remember talking to Penderecki once about it.  [See my interview with Krzystof Penderecki.]  He had changed his style at a specific point.  I asked him why he did it, and he said, “Everybody was sounding like me.”  But then he started sounding like the older composers!  I can’t believe that’s why he did it!  Now this is also curious...  The music of Ligeti and Penderecki has sometimes been compared to mine in Europe.  They always say it’s a little bit in that direction, but it isn’t at all like theirs; it’s a different style!  I can tell you why, and that’s because when Penderecki works with glissandi when he uses these microtones; he’s not using them really as a total structure.  When I use mine, it’s like they are forms of buildings; these are structures that I’m creating, not a form of decoration or color.  My use, therefore, creates a different kind of music.  Curiously, my publisher put out a CD with three of my string quartets, and I really didn’t know about it beforehand.  On this CD, he included various Austrian composers using glissandi.  I thought, “Oh, I’ll never, ever write another glissando again!”  [Both laugh]  Then I thought that really those other composers don’t use the glissandi at all the way I do.  It’s more like a decoration, and to me the glissandi lose their intensity.  They are simply like wiggles all over the place.  Then I did write another piece after that where I did use structures of microtones, so I guess it’s such an integral part of my style that I’ll probably do it again in the future sometime.

BD:    I would hate to think that others’ use or misuse of your ideas would inhibit your own growth.

GC:    Oh, that could happen.  For instance, a long time ago
like 1972I had a piece that I was working on, and I gave my ideas freely to many people.  I was very trusting in those days.

BD:    Did someone blatently rip you off?

Well, there was a singer who commissioned a work for cello, piano and voice.  I had something like twenty ideas that I wrote down of how the voice could be used by itself and with the various instruments.  She told me she wanted to see them, and asked for the list.  Before I finished my piece, she gave concerts, each with a new piece for the trio, and each new work had one of the ideas from the list I had given her.  I thought, “Isn’t it curious that this is happening,” never suspecting that she would betray me and be giving these out.  That’s what happenedshe was giving each composer one of my ideas.  This hurt me so much that I never finished my piece at all, and I didn’t write anything for about a year.  I talked to her about it and she said, “Well, it’s not the ideas that are important.  It’s what one does with them.”  But in those days, the ideas were very important.  So that’s when I learned to be very careful.  I guarded everything I wrote until it was performed.  Music on Open Strings took a long time before it was premiered.  It was a commission for the Rhineland Chamber Orchestra in 1972, and it was finished in ’74.  The orchestra was going to do it without a conductor.  I went to Cologne and heard a rehearsal.  It sounded dreadfulsort of like an old-fashioned washing machine — really bad.  So I said no, it has to have a conductor.  There was a young Polish conductor, a woman named Alysia Monjk, who had won a conducting contest for Germany, and she was willing to conduct it without any kind of remuneration.  Then at the last minute the director of that orchestra refused to have her, and said they would give the premiere without a conductor.  So I pulled it off of that concert and the piece then went for years without being premiered.  I had to keep it a secret because I had so many new ideas, in that work.  Finally, in 1978 it was premiered in Poland, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival.  It was quite a frightening experience because it was a new work, and it was the first time I was ever on an international festival.  Premiering it was the Polish Chamber Orchestra with Jerzy Maksymiuk conducting.  I think Yehudi Menuhin has the orchestra under another name now.  [See my Interview with Yehudi Menuhin.]  The musicians didn’t want to do it with the scordatura — that’s the retuning of strings which I had asked for in the score.  Actually, it was a Chinese scale which Tcherepnin had given me many years ago.  I had all the strings retuned in the first movement to that Chinese scale, and later return to the normal tuning while playing.  At the rehearsal, the instrumentalists did not want to do this retuning, so I said, “Let me hear what it sounds like without it.”  They played it and I said, “It does sound pretty for normal ears if you do it without the scordatura.”  This raw sound that it had with the open strings is what I had to have because that was a part of that seed which I mentioned earlier.  The honesty of the piece had to be the way it was!  Then they said, “This is an ugly-sounding piece when played this way.  Also you cannot crescendo the opening as you want with open strings.”  It starts with a very pianissimo sound in the open strings, and the entire movement builds with a great crescendo.  That was one problem I hadn’t solved.  I was staying at the Bristol — which was Paderewski’s old hoteland at about five in the morning I was pacing around the room, mulling over an idea that I wanted to try out, but knowing that there would be no time at the last rehearsal.  I looked out of my window and I saw a man carrying a case.  I thought it could be a doctor, or it could be a viola case!  [Laughs]  I threw something on, but the elevators weren’t working, so I just ran down the spiral staircase and looked around, and finally spotted him behind a big pillar.  I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t speak English or German or French.  He only spoke Polish, which I didn’t speak.  Then I pointed to the case he had, and with my hands I made motions as if I were playing a violin.  He nodded yes, and then pointed to a sign on the pillar where his name was — he was with the Krakow Philharmonic and had just played on the festival.  Then I pointed to my name which was on that same sign.  He was waiting for a bus, but I pulled him into the hotel lobby and spoke to the night clerk.  I said, “Please translate so he can try something for me.”  I had him loosen the hair of his bow and play.  Then I had him tighten it a bit and play again.  This was repeated until the hairs were fully tight again.  My idea worked!  This was a fantastic discovery for me!  With the scordatura on the open strings, every time they would pull the bow across the strings they were able to make a gradual crescendo.  All these strings were doing it, and because it was open strings and it had a mosaic pattern, they were able to build a wonderful crescendo.  With this idea, the musicians thought they could do it after all.  They were very good about it and it was written up all over Europe and even in Poland as the most interesting work on that concert, and one of the three most important works on the festival that year.  It was worth taking the risk, but it was very difficult.  Just through the grace of God that man was down there waiting for a bus at 5 AM and I happened to look out my window, and that it all worked out!  That piece had many strange things happen to it, but it was finally born and is finished.

BD:    Does it please you that it has a life of its own, that it goes on?

GC:    Oh, yes!  Oh, yes.  Maybe because it was so difficult to bring it to life
having been delayed for so many years and with all the opposition in the premiereof all the pieces I have done that maybe that’s true.  If you bring up a child and it’s very difficult, and finally it’s there all right, you’re happy about it!  I have other pieces for a large orchestra that I feel are important works in different ways, but I would say of all the works I’ve written, I am most known for Music on Open Strings, perhaps because of the uniqueness of it.

BD:    I hope it’s not like Rachmaninoff hating his C Sharp Minor Prelude because it was always requested...

GC:    No!  Oh, no!  I used to think that would happen, but I don’t like to listen too much to my own music anyway.  I usually go out of the room if somebody’s listening, because it upsets me.  I might hear something that I maybe should have written differently.

BD:    Do you allow for interpretation on the part of the performers?

GC:    As long as they play the right notes, yes, but if they’re going to play different notes, no.  I have a piece for four hands on one piano, and there were so many wrong notes played that I walked out of the concert because it was too upsetting to hear it.  People said they liked it, but it doesn’t matter what anyone else says; it really sounded weak to me.

BD:    It doesn’t please you that they liked some of your ideas, even though there was not the accuracy?

GC:    No, it didn’t please me at all!  I was ashamed of the piece.

BD:    Have you since heard it played accurately?

GC:    Yes, and it’s recorded — not on a CD, but at a radio station.  It was later that someone had done it wrong.  The two pianists had taken so much freedom that it no longer had the tension I needed.  I have certain standards for myself when I’m working
, and even if nobody else may be aware of it, there are various tensions that evolve within the music.  If you take something too slowly, or add something, then that tension is missing.  Anyway, that was not the way I would have liked it to be.  I have a piece called Point Counterpoint.  It’s an early piece, from 1971, and young people have performed it.  It uses ragas and Chinese and ethnomusic scales to represent different cultures.  The musicians would dress in different costumes for different countries.  It had to do with understanding.  Much of it was aleatoric within time limits.

BD:    Isn’t there a news show that has Point/Counterpoint as part of their commentary?  Perhaps you should submit the music to that program, and have them play it as an intro to the segment.

GC:    I don’t know the show.  Is it television?  I rarely watch television; I’m really a radio person.

BD:    Hooray!  [Laughs]

GC:    I watch television when something dreadful happens, or something really great.  Then I’ll drag my television out and watch it.

BD:    Would you be offended, then, if your music is on the television?

GC:    No.  It has been.  Actually, Music on Open Strings and other pieces have been used in Europe on television.  I have not had credit for it, but I always get an income for it.  I really have objected several times, and yet I don’t object too much because I’m happy to have the income.  [Laughs]  It has to do with copyright.  I’m afraid somebody’s going to pick it off and copy it if it’s used.  So it’s not the fame as much as the protection.  I’m a packrat, packing all this music away!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

GC:    Oh, yes.  I believe so.  It depends on what your standard is, so if you have a very high standard and you almost reach it, it’s the perfect performance as far as I’m concerned, because nothing’s ever perfect.  You can have some very bad performances, too, but if the piece is strong
— if the architecture’s thereit should come through.  You can paint a wonderful structure  using ugly colors, but if the structure is there, this building will still be a beautiful building.

BD:    You look beyond the imperfections, then?

GC:    Oh yes, and especially with singers because singers always have trouble.  It may just be the wrong day or something, but I’m happy if a singer sings a song of mine and really has their heart in it.  That’s the main thing, if she can project the meaning.  She may not even hit all the right notes, although I’d prefer that she would hit the right notes!  [Laughs]  But if she doesn’t and she gives a wonderful interpretation, that’s more important than the right notes and a very dry interpretation.

BD:    Let me ask the big question
— what is the purpose of music?

GC:    In general?  Probably there are many purposes.  If you think of it as a listener or as a maker of music, I would say that first of all it depends what kind of music it is.  If you say it’s rhythmic music, then it would have an entertainment value.  The music I try to create goes to a point where I reach intuitively to places that I’ve never been
or maybe no one has ever been before!  Then I try to explore those places and present them.  It has sort of a religious feeling about it.  It also gives me a feeling of being an inventor or an explorer.  The audience then has to be able to expand.  You want the audience to be with you, to expand with you.  The hearer has to also expand himself.  Every time one expands, one grows, and in a way that’s part of lifecontinual growth.

BD:    You mentioned earlier that you don’t consider the audience that will be hearing your pieces.  Is the music that you write for everyone?

GC:    Yes, definitely!  Actually, I used to try my early works on our dog.  I had a daschund.  I would play things, and usually the dog would be quite attentive.  I would also play things for my daughter when she was very young.  I have found that young people respond to my music, and old people respond to some of my music, and for me this is very gratifying.  In Music on Open Strings, the scordatura movement
which is the most difficult of all the movements — was played in New Jersey by an orchestra of youngsters between the ages of eight and fourteen.  They worked on it and they were able to do it, and they enjoyed doing it.  Then another piece, called Planets — I put that name to it after I’d written it, but you could imagine planetswas done outdoors by a High School youth orchestra in Arkansas.  I didn’t know it was performed there, but  about ten years later at a concert at the University of Maryland, someone came up to me afterwords and said he was in the audience back then and heard that piece.  He told me that as he lay on his back, he looked up and felt like the whole sky was alive with that music.  He was a young person at that time, and he opened up to new music.  Imagine, the music he felt was in the sky!  So this makes me very happy, even if I did not intend that specific interpretation.  Somehow the student reacted to it, and that makes all the terrible things one goes through as a composer worthwhile. 

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BD:    How did you wind up in Europe, and is it good for an American composer to spend so much time there?

coatesGC:    I went to Europe for a period of one to two years, and every year I extended it because something was happening.  I kept extending it, and extending it, and my poor parents in Wisconsin said, “Please come back.”  I would say, “Yes, next year,” which I truly intended!  So I never quite put my roots down there because I was always planning to return the next year!  Now I have...  I did finally come back in 1989, but I had left in 1969, so it was twenty years.  Most of my activity is in Europe, but I’ve always had things happen here, like the Milwaukee Symphony, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and New Music America with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.  Often my Emily Dickinson Songs have been done in the U.S., too.  There
’s another piece called The Force for Peace and War, which I wrote in 1973.  At that time I was working as a tour guide for the American army in Munich.  Simultaneously I had a commission to write a piece for chamber ensemble and soprano.  One of the tours I was leading was to the Dachau concentration camp.  This was before the movie Holocaust had come out.  Back then, one never heard anything about the atrocities of World War Two!  I had been to Dachau with some of the prisoners who had come back, so I knew quite a bit about it, and when I was to write the music, I couldn’t express anything except something related to my feelings about Dachau.  The feelings that I had were very negative.  I believe music should have something of hope or joy, otherwise you can’t sing.  If I am too unhappy — such as when a close friend dies — I cannot write music until I get out of that depression.  I have to find something of hope.  It was the same thing with Dachau.  What I finally did was start thinking hopefully; maybe this can be a way to prevent something similar in the future; that this Dachau concentration camp is there not only as a monument, but as a warning so that this inhumanity will never happen again.  If all these dyings and sorrows can teach us how to live in peace, then they have not been in vain.  This was the only way I could compose the piece.  I remember walking across the field toward the buildings where the prisoners had stayed.  The camp is still there with the poplar trees along the sides, and then a couple of the barracks still standing.  Way across the field where other barracks had been are the ovens.  I remember walking there in horror, then thinking of the burning bodies in Japan as well.  I also was thinking of having an orchestra recitative for the last section — maybe like an atomic bomb before this apotheosis would come.  At that time I only had a cello, piano, percussion and a singer.  I found poems by two American and two German women who were writing during World War Two.  I could not get the copyright permission for the American poems in time for the premiere, so I had to rewrite them in my own words in a similar way so that they had the same feeling and the same intensity.  As might be expected in this situation, I had difficulty with the performance.  The pianist did not like the ending — or so he said — and the singer said the songs were anti-German, and she refused to sing them.  I told her they were against any kind of inhumanity, and the piece ends with an apotheosis.  I asked her to just sing the notes, and that is what she did.  It was recorded live by the Bavarian Radio.  There was a lot of opposition beforehand, too.  People wanted me to take the piece off the concert.  Some said it would be my last concert in Germany for I would never be accepted after bringing this subject into the concert hall.  However, I kept it on the program.  Dr. Helmut Lohmueller, an important critic who attended the concert, wrote in his review that it was the most important work on the concert.  He praised it for its humanity.  That was in February of 1973.  The Holocaust movie had not come out in Germany and the war was a forbidden topic until then.  (That movie opened up the entire war and feelings that had been repressed for so many years after the war.)  The piece was then called Voices of Women in Wartime, and I put it away thinking it would never be performed again.  Then in 1981, someone phoned from Berlin and asked if I had ever written any political music.  I said that I only wrote abstract music, but then remembered this piece against inhumanity that I had written back in 1973.  The caller said it sounded like what they were looking for.  This was at the beginning of the peace movement in Europe which eventually crescendoed to the fall of the Berlin wall!  So my work was performed in Berlin.  I was not able to go to that performance because I was in Russia at the time, but a team of television people heard it and televised it.  It was used in a documentary for television in a scene with people on fire running out of buildings in Berlin during the bombings.  The music echoed that film.  People who had lived through that era — including a prisoner from the camp — would react with tears when hearing the music.  Somehow the music came to me like a powerful force.  It has had many performances.  One was in 1989 at the Bonn Festival, having been selected by Dennis Russell Davies, who is a conductor in Bonn.  For this performance I was able to put in that atomic bomb recitative which was not sung.  Curiously enough, the conductor of the ensemble for the premiere of this version — now called The Force for Peace and War — was a Japanese who was working against using atomic bombs.  It was also performed that same year at the Dresden Festival when the borders were closed around East Germany.  The Czechs were fleeing from the East and the trains were filled with families from Czechoslovakia.  The performance was being given when nobody knew if there would be a war or if they would all be killed!  Again, I was not there, but many sources who were there said it spoke to everyone, and was sung with deep emotion by Sigune von Osten.  It was recorded live by East German Radio.

BD:    Has all of this encouraged you to write more political music?

GC:    No.  Oh no.  Nothing of this sort!  Nothing about wars!  I have said all I want to say.  I never, ever want to go back there again; not to Dachau, not to the war and inhumanity.  When I finished that job taking tours, I never went back to Dachau.  People have asked me to go with them when they came through Munich (since I am living there part of the time), but I won
t go back because it brings all those feelings!  I don’t want to see it again; it’s too painful.  I went to see Schindlers List because I feel as though I lived through that era myself just by having been a part of that soil on which it happened at Dachau and then telling people about it.  I left the movie; I couldn’t watch it.  I should have done something about having my work sung this year during the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, but I’ve been working on other pieces.  Maybe it’s that I’m not writing this music to say anything about myself or promote myself as much as to create in the medium that I love.  Somehow I feel that The Force for Peace and War will have to have its own kind of life, and therefore I haven’t pushed it.

BD:    It’s important for you to move on and not have to go back to revisit all of this again.  You have made your statement.

GC:    Right.  But I’d be happy if someone would have pushed it.  I should have done something, maybe announced it in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.  I should have told about it to various people here.  It is a piece that says something.  I think it should be done again.  I know there are prisoners who wrote music while they were interned in these prison camps...

BD:    ...and a lot of it is now coming out in performance and on CD.

GC:    Right.  It is really very serious, very expressive music; painful in a positive sense.  Mine is not the same as theirs, but it still is that Dachau.

BD:    You’ve made this statement and the piece should have its own life, and now you’ve got to move on.  I hope you continue moving on!

GC:    Well, thank you!  Yes, I’ve got to move on to the next thing.  I’ve just finished a piece for Hamburg called Time Frozen in three movements.  It’s coming out on a CD, hopefully.  I should knock on wood; I don’t like to talk about things before they happen.  [Both smile]  It’s for chamber orchestra, and I didn’t know what to call the movements.  I can’t really call them allegro non troppo because they’re not built that way.  I looked in the dictionary, which did not inspire me.  Then one evening I was paging through Shakespeare, and I discovered three quotations about time, and they fit the structures perfectly!  One is called “The Glass of Time,” another movement is “The Corridor of Time,” and the last is “The Whirligig of Time.”  It’s really amazing; mystical.

BD:    Thank you for coming back home again, and thank you for being a composer.

GC:    Oh, well, thank you for having me here, and for liking to interview composers.  It’s good for me to talk about what I’ve done, because it gives me a better perspective for my next step.  Otherwise one gets a little bit bogged down, I think.  [Laughs]

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As has been noted in a few other transcripts, one of the most nifty things about this internet age is the ability to easily re-contact previous guests.  So far, all those I have reached have been very pleased to see their thoughts and ideas
which originally were used on radioreappear in this visual form, and they are glad the conversations have a new life on the worldwide web. 

Some of the replies include updates on current and recent activities, and I am happy to include this one from Gloria Coates . . . . .

September 4, 2010

Looking back over the past 15 years, there are so many events which have happened that one can only touch on a few.  In the midst of living a very demanding existence, I have managed to write 16 symphonies altogether, 9 string quartets, much chamber music and a libretto.  My life has become one of trying to organize papers that go back over 50 years, and perhaps get a few of the symphonies into computer script.

The computer has taken over everywhere, including my life, so it seems I spend more time with my little Mac friend.   There are fewer radio recordings these days, but many of the old live performances are now on CDs, or can be downloaded to I-Pods and such, which is the new path music seems to be taking.  A music website from Italy called Wellesz Channel discovered my music, and have been posting on Youtube many recordings of orchestral works including one "Leonardo da Vinci" excerpt, and the “Force for Peace in War” (now called “Cantata da Requiem”).  Videos have been created with documentaries from World War II in both sections.  There are also videos of the "Leonardo" and "Mallarme" orchestral pieces.

Another Youtube site called NewMusicXX has  included works such as "Music on Open Strings," string quartets and a late symphony.  Even Last FM is an interesting listening source.   A Chinese student friend set up a Facebook for me a year ago, and it seems that many friends are enjoying each other on my site!

To follow up on the early pieces I have mentioned 15 years ago, they did have their own lives and are doing well.  "Music on Open Strings" became "Symphony No. 1" and is on a CPO CD and also on an American Classics Naxos  CD.  "Drones of Druids" was premiered, but not in the Celtic fields.  It was at the new music school located in Erding.  A critic wrote that, "The sound of the brass and percussion, with storm included, almost brought the walls down in the acoustically perfect  new chamber music hall!"

The "Emily Dickinson Songs" are now 15 in number and are still sung often.  A few weeks ago I gave a paper on them at Oxford University for the International Emily Dickinson Conference, dealing with the relation to their philosophical aspects as traced to those that Coleridge brought back to England  from Jena in 1798 -99, a discovery I had made while working on another commission for the ‘Blue Flower’ Passau Festival a number of years ago when studying the works of Novalis.  "Time Frozen" was premiered and is on a Naxos CD.  There are other commissions , but I am still superstitious, so will say nothing and hope they come to life.  As for recent works, the ninth string quartet was premiered in Cologne on a concert and recorded by German Radio.  This will be on a Naxos CD this month, along with a piano trio and solo violin sonata all performed by the Kreuzer Quartet members, the violin solo by Peter Sheppard on his lovely Stradivarious.

© 1995 & 2010 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on May 19, 1995.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1996 and 1998, and on WNUR in 2002 and 2009.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.