Gloria Coates Interview: September 27, 2010
Rel. 28 Sep 2010
On Friday, September 10, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated American composer Gloria Coates, at her home in Munich, Germany, where she’s been living most of the time since 1969. The interview coincides with a new Naxos release of Coates’ Ninth String Quartet, along with two other chamber works – her Lyric Suite for piano trio, and a Sonata for Solo Violin. Ms. Coates has received great attention in recent years for her prolific output (15 symphonies, 8 string quartets, etc.), as well as her remarkably compelling and individual compositional style – most notably through a distinct use of glissandi. The conversation between Dr. Gasser and Ms. Coates was so full and wide-ranging, that it was divided into two parts – the second part of which now appears. In Part 2, the two continue discussing Ms. Coates’ rich and distinct approach to composition, as well as her life and aesthetic as a visual artist, and how that interacts with her identity as a composer. Don’t miss this fascinating and insightful conversation with a true maverick of contemporary music. Enjoy!
“I would say that my initial work with glissandi had to do with the fact that I’m also a visual artist; I’ve never really analyzed it, but in a way I was building structures visually that could also exist in sound – I think that’s how it all began.”
– Gloria Coates
Nolan Gasser: Gloria Coates, thank you very much for joining us. Let’s start with your new release on Naxos, featuring your recently completed Ninth String Quartet, performed by the Kreutzer Quartet; as well as two older chamber works: your Solo Violin Sonata from 2001; and your Lyric Suite for piano trio – from 1996, is that right?
Gloria Coates: Yes, that’s right. The Lyric Suite is from 1996, but was later arranged for different ensembles, including one for flute, violin, and piano; the version on the CD is the original – and I always think that the original is the best. I’m actually going through all my music right now, with the help of a musicologist from the university here; we’ve been at it for three weeks now – there’s so much [laughs]! Then someone else is working on a book about my music.
NG: Well, it’s nice that musicians are asking to have your music arranged for their own ensembles – it shows the works have life. And we’ll look forward to the new book and overview of your output.
I read a recent comment you made about this latest String Quartet, where you noted that it differs from many previous works of yours – in its more varied design; as you said, this one is less “minimal”, in that it strings sections together one over another. And indeed this does seem to be true – especially in the opening movement: from canonic counterpoint to your celebrated use of glissandi and back again – and all superimposed with wonderful timbral effects. Can you talk about your compositional approach to this Quartet, and how you feel it stands out from some of your other works?
GC: Originally, I only thought I was going to write 8 String Quartets; but then a few years ago, I received a commission to write another Quartet, and thus took on a 9th one – which now means I’ll have to get to number 10 somehow, because that's my lucky number [laughs]. In the 1st movement [Fluendo espressivo] of the 9th Quartet, I decided to somewhat summarize the music of all my Quartets: and so, the glissando canon in the middle of this movement is based on the mirror canon – somewhat obscured – from the second movement of my chamber orchestral work, Planets from 1974 – I had worked on this canon for a couple weeks, and my little daughter suggested I use it alone in its skeletal form; a year later this canon became the second movement of 3rd String Quartet. It's unnecessary to know that it's a mirror canon when listening to it. In addition to the central canon and other elements, the 1st movement references some lyrical motives from my Fifth Symphony – which hasn’t yet been recorded. Now, I don't really “analyze” my music as I'm working, since I work intuitively; but I do know what I want to express; but something unexpected often happens along the way.
The 2nd movement [Moderato] is perhaps the most interesting: I initially decided to base it on the 3rd movement of my Fifth Symphony, especially its lyrical passages; but, it soon began to take on a life of its own, and became more microtonal in sound. It was very strange: I don’t know exactly what happened – except that it began from a motive of the Fifth Symphony, but then developed into something entirely unique, and I just let it go where it wanted to. It all developed in an intuitive way; it’s almost like something from my past traveling into the future.
So the 1st movement is a summation of the past, and the 2nd movement goes into the future. And I thought, “That's okay – I'll leave it like that.”
NG: That’s very interesting: in a way, this new Quartet sums up your previous work, and now looks forward to the forthcoming 10th Quartet. Of course, you’re also in great company to quote from your own previous works – like Handel, Rossini, et al.
In the 1st movement, which is about twice as long as the 2nd movement, one is particularly struck by the repeated use of an ostinato built on an F pentatonic scale – which you employ in canon, and in a wonderful micro-tonal treatment. Is this part of the material that you took from your Fifth Symphony?
GC: Only the fragment of the little pentatonic melody is from the Fifth Symphony, but not the use of micro-tones, which I began working on many years ago. The Fifth Symphony is a choral symphony – and the singers have a hard enough time as it is without trying to sing in quarter-tones! In the Ninth Quartet, though, I have the strings tuned a quarter-tone apart.
NG: Right, it's hard to tune voices in quarter-tones.
GC: Right, that’s difficult [laughs]. Some individual singers can do it, but not a chorus. The Fifth Symphony was premiered by the RIAS Chamber Chorus in Berlin quite a few years ago.
NG: Well, that pentatonic melody is certainly very striking, and forms such a wonderful contrast to what precedes and follows it; and then it comes back toward the end to bring such a satisfying conclusion to the movement.
Both movements of the Quartet employ a fair bit of your celebrated treatment of glissandi and glissando structures, for which you’ve become quite well known. I realize that you’ve discussed this quite a bit in previous interviews, but for our readers who are not so familiar with your work – I’d love for you to talk about how this technique came to you; upon hearing it for the first time, people might imagine that this arose from a study of the “Polish school” of [Krzsztof] Penderecki and [Witold] Lutosławski. And so, it’s fascinating to learn that you knew nothing of this “school”, but that this technique came to you very naturally as a young student, and from the experiences you had just hearing the world around you. Can you tell us a bit more about this – how this technique came to you, and perhaps why it has become such a fundamental part of your compositional palette?
GC: Indeed, I never studied the “Polish school”, because there was no “Polish school” when I was studying composition. It wasn’t until long after I had completed my Master’s Degree in 1965 that I even heard the name Penderecki – I can remember being in line in a post office in New York a few years later when a friend came up to me excited about a new composer from Poland named Penderecki, who had written a marvelous work [his St. Luke Passion, 1965-66] – though I don’t think it was a glissando work either. I don’t know when the glissando period began, but it is possible that mine preceded his. The sad thing is that I was a woman composer and without any sort of support system, so no one took me seriously. The women's movement began in the late 60's and early 70's in the USA and in the 80's in Germany. In the end, it all balances out, for time has caught up with itself.
I had always sung, and was very experimental as a child – I loved sliding into notes or holding down the pedal of the piano to listen to overtones, something that was supposed to be avoided, since it caused “muddy sounds.”
My 1st Quartet – called “Glissando Quartet” – was written in 1962 while a student, and it was composed entirely of glissandi – and I notated them at the time very much the way I do today; I’m just a bit more specific now. At the time, my professor wrote on my paper, “The glisses get a little too… too....” – he couldn’t even finish the sentence. Later I asked him why I couldn't write them, since they could be played. He answered, “You can write them, and they can be played, but who is going to listen to them?” I replied weakly, “Well, I might.” [laughs]
NG: Right – you said, “That's what you think!”
GC: But I didn't write those glissandi for him anymore; I just wrote them privately – because he had his own “school” of thinking. He wanted me to do 12-tone composition, and I never particularly liked to work in 12-tone – I would “go around it”. And finally he said, “I don't believe you can do it.” But then I wrote a passage for string quartet, which was a 12-tone fugue over a passacaglia – and I wrote it the evening before the next class! He looked at it and said, “Okay, you never have to prove you can write 12-tone to me again!” Interestingly, I just found this exercise as I was going over my papers today; I’ve never actually heard this work, and never wanted to hear it – because I only worked it out intellectually. That is to say, I’m not really against 12-tone I actually do have a later piece, a Trio for 3 Flutes – with one movement in 12-tone… it’s only that when I was young, I had my own ideas about composition.
NG: Sure, at that time, in the early 1960's, serialism [12-tone composition] was all the rage for young composers, and if you didn't embrace it, you were somehow going against “the academy” – as this professor seems to have demonstrated. But in many ways, he seems to have done his job – to give you aesthetic challenges whereby you could prove yourself.
GC: Oh yes, he was really quite nice about everything he did; I can recall him once saying, “You're writing everything in D minor.” And he was right, and that was a good observation for me; he was really a very good teacher. But when I was 16, I met the composer Alexander Tcherepnin at a lecture in Milwaukee, who took an interest in my music that he had seen; he said, “Follow your own intuition when you compose; however, learn all the harmony and theory and history you can, so you do not repeat what was done before.” I really consider myself a student of Tcherepnin, because he embraced the way I was thinking, and wanted to see my work at various stages of my life. We corresponded for years, and I would say that he gave me the most confidence in what I was doing. Especially at a time when women were usually not respected as composers; this was even truer in Germany as the Equal Rights movements came later there.
NG: And wasn’t it much due to your studies with Tcherepnin at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1962, that helped lead to your current, and long-term residence in Europe [in Munich, Germany]?
GC: Well, he originally said I should go to Paris; I had studied French in school, and Paris was his second home. However, I went to Germany to study Lieder. I intended to be in Germany one to two years, but after a concert of a performance of my Emily Dickinson Songs – there were 5 at the time – at the Munich-America House, there were several commissions to compose more works, and this continued for me, so that I kept postponing my return home. And so, I’ve stayed a much longer time.
NG: Yes, a few multiples of two!
Staying on the topic of the glissandi technique just a bit more: so, to be clear, you really had not heard the technique in a composition before – perhaps in a piece by [Edgar] Varèse? It was just something that came to you?
GC: Varèse was still alive when I was studying in Louisiana, and a professor might have mentioned his name, but we did not listen to his music, or much of his music, at all. Of course, the record industry was not very advanced at the time, nor were the loud speakers and record playing machines, so we learned mostly from lectures, theory books and writing ourselves. The final copy of a new composition we printed on a transparent paper with India ink, and had to send it off to New York for reproduction if we wanted a copy of it. Two of us owned a Wallensak tape recorder, which I used for inventing sounds for the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father while writing music for Hamlet, a city production. I used a theramin, which the University owned, and the Wallensak – playing the tape backwards and forwards and altering the speed… There was no electronic studio at that time in the University, and I remember seeing on the board a New York Times review of the New York Philharmonic's first electronic instrument in a work by Vladimir Ussechevsky and Otto Luening. Things have changed through the years, and the creation of music has a wide palate of sounds at a composer's disposal and help from all sides.
Actually, … I would say that my initial work with glissandi had to do with liking Gershwin's glissando in Rhapsody in Blue on the clarinet. But it’s also due to the fact that I’m a visual artist; I’ve never really analyzed it, but in a way I was building structures visually that could also exist in sound – I think that's how it all began.
NG: I certainly want to come back to your life as a visual artist – but I find it so fascinating that you were unaware of what Penderecki and his contemporaries were doing in Poland – while you were creating something similar at the exact same time; clearly this technique was alive in the Zeitgeist of the time. I know you’ve spent some time at various festivals in Warsaw, etc.; have you since developed a friendship with Penderecki – and been embraced by members of the so-called “Polish school”?
GC: I did eventually collide with Poland and the Polish composers! What happened is that in 1975 I had a commission to write a piece for a festival in Hanover called The Days of New Music; I wrote Planets – which is really the forerunner for my Second Symphony. At the festival, someone came up to me with a group of young people and said that mine was their favorite piece on the festival; at the time I didn't know this was Barbara Dupkowska,who was leader of the delegation and who invited me to be an honorary guest at a Juenesse Musicale Summer Seminar in Torun, Poland, the ancient Copernicus town. That summer I met Lutosławski, Kazimiere Serocki, Zbigniew Rudzinski, Boguslaw Schaeffer and other Polish composers. None of them used glissandi, but were involved in fresh viewpoints and ideas on composing in a stimulating atmosphere. I remember a lecture by Lutosławski on a work of his using tetrachords and following the pattern of speech, Serocki explained the minimal system having been in the USA, and finding it an interesting new movment there. Schaeffer used a different technique of blocking out time in various ways and building music from outside to in. Penderecki wasn't there. I brought my score of Music on Open Strings along with me and showed it to Schaeffer who looked at it and said nothing. However, he had his own aesthetic, which might have been in conflict.
A year later, a group came from Poland through Munich with a folk ensemble for modern music led by Zygmunt Krauze; After the concert I mentioned to him my piece Music on Open Strings - which had never been performed - and told him how it was constructed. He suggested I send it to the Warsaw Autumn Committee for consideration. I was very fortunate to have it accepted and premiered by the Polish Chamber Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. On the same concert was a work by Penderecki. This was a beautiful experience for me, for after the performance I was warmly welcomed by this wonderful and brave musical country.
The division between East and West was bridged musically via the Warsaw Festival during the Cold War, and Munich stood as a central target for the Russian missiles, which created a somewhat uneasy atmosphere. However, it became far more intense for the Poles in 1981 as the Russian troops marched into Warsaw for a tighter grip. This happened during the time I had another commission for a chamber work on the festival, and knowing what happened in 1944 to Lutosławski and other musicians and their works, I decided to document the composers from Poland during the festival so their gifts would never be destroyed. I took a small tape recorder and used my spare time at the festival interviewing as many polish composeers as I could, so that I have now at least 14...many of whom are now deceased, other such as Gorecki or Kilar are world famous.. I have not only their voices but also their expressions about how they work. Once I gave a lecture using some tapes for the University of Wisconsin. Another tape I gave to the Polish Composers' Union for the archive of Thadeuz Baird, the only such interview he had given, since he did not like interviews. He died soon afterward. This interview was also copied for his memorial on the Cologne Radio WDR.
NG: All very interesting. Okay, one last question about the glissandi techniques, and that’s how you’ve gone about to actually notate them...
GC: Right, it's very different from any of the Poles. I actually think you can see how a composer thinks by looking at the notation they use, and mine is one I completely made up: specifically, I designate the beats or time distances between two notes of an interval with a little mark – or “chicken stick” as I call it – above the diagonal line between the notes. If the gliss is going up a fifth, then I will divide it into five “chicken sticks” for the overall number of beats. In truth, it looks very simple and not very interesting, but it has always worked – even for children. You have to know what you’re doing before you go to write it down; and every situation is a little different.
NG: I can recall reading how you were in Darmstadt at one point, and it became a sort of group campaign to help you find the best manner to notate your glissandi…
GC: This was around 1972; I came to Darmstadt as someone invited to demonstrate a new technique I had developed in singing multiphonics [more than one note at a time] – a couple of years before Joan La Barbara. Darmstadt at the time was one of the key centers of new music ideas in Europe, and so I asked around for ideas about glissandi notation. Nobody there had seen my notation, but I was very self-critical about my approach. I had tried other notations: for example, using different note values – eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes – to show the differences in time it would take to divide the gliss; but it was very complicated to read and didn't work at all. They appointed Theodore Antoniou to be the leader of this little group – he's a Greek composer who lives in the United States. But they could find no solution better than mine, so I just continued to use my own style, my own way of doing it. Several years ago, [American composer and critic] Kyle Gann was analyzing my music for an article in American Chamber Music; he compared it to the music of the “Polish school”, and showed how my notation was very different – and as a result the sound was very different, because it's a different way of looking at these micro-tones
NG: Well, you found the system that worked best for you – and it seems that what you developed in the early 1960s is basically the system you still use?
GC: It really is. And several composers since have become interested in learning more about my notation system. I intend to eventually write a book, where I can share my techniques with others. As one gets older, one doesn't want to lose what’s been developed, but rather to pass it on. I’ll either write a book or an article – because I have various other ideas that are new, as far as composing is concerned.
NG: This will bode well for young composers, who I’m sure will want to know how to notate some of the things they’re hearing in your music. It's a balance, I imagine, for you as a composer to not want to give away your secrets – but at the same time to share what you've developed over your fruitful career. It also shows the importance of the visual component of notation in musical composition, and how throughout the whole history of Western music, the visual affects the aural.
GC: You are right; and there’s always the challenge that you might be able to create something interesting visually – but unless you know exactly what you're trying to say, it's going to sound superficial. It’s the same, really, with everything else in music: a thrown-together 12-tone piece may sound “serious”, but it will never compare to one that’s truly well put-together; there’s always a difference in the “content” – by which I mean feeling, but more than feeling, also structure and form, and the “expression” that’s combined with these other elements. If you do something superficially, you’ll never succeed in this way.
NG: Sure, technique alone is never what makes a great composer; there has to be good technique, of course; but also great content and expressive sensibility – all of which is clearly so important to your own aesthetic.
And speaking of technique, another big part of your output, beyond glissandi, is the use of counterpoint. You’ve talked, for example, about the use of mirror canons and palindromes in your most recent String Quartet; I was thus not surprised to read of your great love of J. S. Bach. Can you talk about some specific ways in which composers like Bach – or other composers – have impacted your own approach to counterpoint?
GC: Even if I love Bach very much, I would that my biggest influence in counterpoint really is Orlando di Lasso.
NG: Ah, that's interesting…
GC: When I studied counterpoint, I loved Renaissance counterpoint most of all, because in studying the writing style of the early Renaissance, one trains one's ear to hear these resolutions and dissonances. For a composer, the most important studies – more so even than harmony – is counterpoint. And by the time you get to Bach, it's more formed; it's easier to produce than early Renaissance counterpoint – though, of course, I love them both. I really love counterpoint, and I somehow automatically think in lines; I don't think harmonically as much as I do in contrapuntal lines. But I also hear harmonically at the same time.
That’s the thing about the glissandi – everybody hears them differently. Every composer hears sounds differently: some are better at rhythm, some are better at hearing melody and some not good at rhythm, and some are more abstract in what they can hear. With glissandos, you have to think kind of in a “diagonal” way, and I believe that your inner hearing has to be strong – so that you can hear the microtones in combination at different points. It's almost like I have to listen in three-dimensions instead of two, or one; it's very complex and it takes a lot of nerve concentration, I would say – you can almost feel it at the tips of your fingers, it's that concentrated; but that's just the way I work!
That is, it's not only from point to point – because if you gliss even one step, there are other things happening in another voice, and perhaps that one is going in some other direction; so you have to be able to hear all those other things that are happening; and that takes a special kind of listening, a special kind of ear. In all, I would say that how I write is not for everybody, but only for some people.
NG: That is a truly fascinating answer. And it’s true: I do sense that your glissandi really are contrapuntal, and I hear them as such – not just as end-points, but between the end-points, which of course also results in some very interesting harmonies. But it is the internal, linear counterpoint between the arrival points that makes such an incredible sonority – and it's clear that this is very much your intent.
You also beat my next question, namely your potential interest in pre-Bach counterpoint – of which I hadn’t read. Of course, you’re preaching to the choir here, given my own fascination with Renaissance polyphony. Thus, I couldn’t agree with you more about the richness and necessity for any composer to know these older approaches to counterpoint. I was even wondering if your interest went further back – say to the “isorhythmic motets” of the 14th century.
GC: Yes – oh yes! In fact, when I first began composing as a student, I wrote music for Hamlet and St. Joan; I used various elements of the isorhythmic technique – and from even earlier in the Middle Ages. In fact, I’m trying to locate that music – for the archives interested in collecting my works. It’s good to see how we can relate to what we’ve done in the past. I think every composer feels a line of development in his or her work.
For example, my current use of overtones in the Lyric Suite, for piano trio (tracks 7-13 of the new CD) stems from my earlier work on the Emily Dickinson songs (1966-98). I use overtones in most of the piano writing, so that they resound; then within the overtones, I have other tones sounding, often from the piano itself, but also from other instruments. And throughout I’ve used various melodic ideas from the Dickinson songs as well. Some of the movement titles of the Lyric Suite are themselves taken from my Dickinson songs, though not all – for example, “Split the Lark” (track 9) isn’t; nor are “Noon is the Hinge of day” (track 11) or “Evening – the Tissue Door” (track 13) – I just love these phrases of Dickinson (in fact, I just spoke about these songs at Oxford, at the International Emily Dickinson Conference). But the Lyric Suite overall has a heavy use of overtones, and is very micro-tonal and “over-tonal”; at the same time, it’s also quite lyrical – as is much of the music of this CD.
NG: Yes, it absolutely is, and certainly the 9th Quartet as well. Now, in terms of process and technique, you mention how in the Lyric Suite, you’ve made overtones a critical part. Are you actually mapping out the overtones ahead of time, or is this something you just observe as coming out of your overall compositional approach?
GC: No, I guess I'm not that technical about it. If I'm playing the piano, and I hear the overtones, then I'm aware of what's going on – and I will notate it, and will put in directions to the one who's playing: to hold this chord, or to play a note with a certain intensity, etc. I mean, I know the overtones series, and I hear it very well; I even hear the “undertone” series sometimes, but my approach is not so technical. I think there’s a French composer who tries to make a science of it…
NG: You might mean Tristan Murail?
GC: Yes, but I don't have to do that, because for me it’s already there in what I hear. There are different ways of approaching it, I guess, and it depends on how you hear I think.
NG: Right – for you, it’s coming out of your own aural experience of the music, as opposed to from of a mathematical approach.
GC: Exactly – in fact, in all of my music, there is first of all a basic desire to express something. And then I ask, “What route are you going to take to get there?” I'll usually answer this question visually – I will make a little sketch, a few lines here and there that show where I'm going to go. And then as I start composing, I already know the direction I'm going. Of course, I might take a different route, but I'll eventually get to what I'm trying to express.
Nolan Gasser: I want to come back to issues of expression and aesthetics – which tie in so beautifully to your identity as a painter, but I’d first like to discuss one other technique that you employ: quotation. One thinks of Charles Ives – who I assume is a hero of yours – in that you likewise have quoted in your works American songs, Christmas carols, and even an anthem by William Billing [(1746-1800)]: his quirky Jargon; this seems to be another way for you to express your identity as a composer.
Gloria Coates: Well, in fact, there are only 6 works out of over 200 in which I use quotations by other composers in my music, and usually in a semi-hidden manner; and there are not too many pieces in which I quote from myself. However, every quotation I have used is a part of my life – just as I’m sure that every quotation Ives used was a part of his. As for the use of Jargon: a long time ago I was doing a program on American music at the Cologne WDR station, and I spoke about Charles Ives; it was so difficult at that time to find a recording of Jargon – I looked everywhere. Finally, we had to spend a fortune to get one from the BBC. I would say that Billings and his philosophy have always been very interesting to me. Some time later, I was writing a work for the Munich Chamber Orchestra [the Symphony No.14 (‘Symphony in Microtones’), 2001-02 – available in recording here], and I wanted to dedicate it to my own country – so I thought of Billings; he was a contemporary of Mozart, you know…
NG: Of course, and was perhaps the first great American-born composer…
GC: Right, and he was like the opposite of Mozart; whereas Mozart was very well dressed and had access to many orchestras, poor William Billings had to work as a tanner and a teacher, and had only a chorus to write for, without access to all the instruments. But he was strong in his intuition about what he was doing – he had a real “American” philosophy of composing: that everyone who creates is his own master. So, I felt I had to honor him somehow in this “American” symphony. What I did was to use Jargon exactly as Billings had written it in his notation; and then right afterward treat it in microtones – so that it becomes “shrouded” in my own style. I enjoyed doing that – and honoring Billings and his philosophy.
In the first movement of this same work [Symphony No.14], I used a beautiful melody of Supply Belcher [(1751-1836), early American composer, compiler of tune books], but I did something different – something I had done previously in my Quartets, from around 1972: which was to “melt” a quotation from myself in the quartet. In this symphony I did something different: I found the tones of the melody within a canon I had created, and somehow joined these notes together, so that while the canon is going on you almost hear the melody, but you almost don’t hear it too. It’s a bit hard to explain, and I can’t quite tell you how I did it, because parts of it are rather intuitive.
The last movement of this piece is dedicated to Otto Luening [(1900-96], who was a very good supporter and friend, and also a teacher of mine. I didn't use any of his melodies, but I called the movement, “ To the Lonesome Ones”, after a poem he'd written when he was quite young – and used that as inspiration. Incidentally, this movement also borrows a melody which I composed myself from the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, which as we’ve talked about, is a choral symphony which is very melodic, and was likewise a source for the Ninth Quartet – though not the same melody, since I’d already used that one; I don’t like to repeat myself if I’m going to quote myself.
NG: I understand completely; and so I see that that quotation is another, albeit limited, part of your arsenal as a composer. So, with this, and our earlier discussion on the visual “roots” of your glissandi techniques, I’d love to talk a bit about your life and career as a visual artist. Can you share some thoughts on how Gloria Coates the composer parallels the aesthetics of Gloria Coates the artist?
GC: There was a time when I wasn't sure which direction I would take – whether it would be music or art. I studied at Cooper Union Art School, and although it was a full tuition scholarship, I took a leave of absence because of my music – I just didn't have enough time to do both since I was working to support myself. However, I still have the foundation of what I learned and was doing at Cooper Union Art School – which, I believe, is one of the finest art schools in the country. I was also very interested in architecture at the time, and had an excellent teacher named Harry Horowitz. I might have gone on to become an architect, for architecture was one of my favorite subjects. In fact, before I start to compose, I approach things architecturally; musical form is in a way comparable to architecture.
NG: Indeed, thinking of Goethe’s famous line of architecture being “frozen music.”
GC: And I think [Iannis] Xenakis, who is also an architect, had some of the same experiences: although he uses architecture differently, there are parallels that I'm sure he’s found when working in three dimensions.
Perhaps the equivalent of color in art is the use of instruments in combination, and the various colors they can create to add a different sound to the orchestra. I have always been interested in finding new colors of instruments such as multiphonics, various extended techniques, and combinations of sounds. All of this would be the same as in art, but using one's hearing instead of one's sight. I have never copied the technique of another composer for orchestration, but studied and used instruments for perhaps ten years in various combinations and colors before I wrote my first orchestral work. By then I was able to feel free to apply the instruments to my way of writing and hearing.
NG: You mentioned Xenakis – who indeed continued to work on architectural projects throughout his life; you've clearly continued to work on your painting; have you likewise continued to utilize your skills as an architect – for example, to design your home in Munich?
GC: No, I haven't; I rent a small apartment in Munich, so this would be impossible for me, although I have designed many houses in my head. I guess I just apply the architecture to composing. And though I’ve painted through the years, I never did it to “be a painter” professionally – rather, it was simply a release from all the concentration and intensity of composing. Sometimes I paint even to get started composing – to free up feeling. Actually, I love to paint. I have had several exhibitions, but only if everything is done for me – such as insurances, transportation of the paintings, the entire work before and after an exhibit – because I’d never have enough time to do both; I don’t know if anyone can do both professionally. And so now, during the last five or six years, I have practically not painted at all – even though I have canvases around. I might try again, but it takes so much energy to compose – more and more; maybe I’ve become more of a perfectionist, as I’ve gotten older. When I look at the paintings I’ve done, for instance, it really amazes me – they’re so detailed, and there are very strong colors in a lot of them too. There is a painter in Germany named Gerhard Richter, and he sometimes paints something similar to what I have done a year or so earlier! He does not know of me, but it makes me happy to know there is someone like that on the same “wave length”. He has become famous and wealthy now. I have never regretted becoming a composer and can live “simply” on my music. I’m actually looking at my paintings now while we talk; I have them hanging up in my room – some of them are gone, but a lot of them are here. They were expressing another part of me: more spontaneous and brighter than my music. They almost create a balance for me.
NG: By the way, visitors to Classical Archives can enjoy some of your visual art, since you've donned a few covers of your Naxos releases with your paintings.
GC: Oh, those paintings are so small on the covers, and these are huge paintings! So you can't really see what they're like, which is too bad. And the colors, of course, are not as vibrant as they are on these huge canvases.
NG: Are they available elsewhere online? I haven't actually checked to see if your paintings are available elsewhere via the Internet?
GC: They can be seen on the various sites that sell the CDs that feature my paintings on the covers – by Naxos, as well as from the CPO, New World, and Cavalli labels. I'm happy that I have those CDs with the paintings. However, with this new release, the painting became really tiny on it – and it's a much larger painting; the reason for this is that the painting in the format of a rectangle, and we wanted to get all the names of the performers on the front cover; so it became rather small. But I think it still looks all right.
NG: Maybe that's something to talk to the folks at Naxos about – or your website designer: that you could include some larger files with your paintings so people can enjoy them in a fuller context.
GC: I think the Internet is a great source for conveying art.
NG: And so many museums have wonderful online libraries of their images – and you can make the paintings as big as your screen. Well, we'll look forward to when that happens with some of your paintings.
Of course, you’re also in great company with other composer-painters, such as Mendelssohn and Schoenberg – who did manage to find some time to promote his paintings as well as his music; and Gershwin as well was a pretty talented painter.
GC: And I know that Schoenberg was with the Blue Rider [Der Blaue Reiter, a German Expressionist movement, 1911-14] right here in Munich…
NG: Yes, with Kandinsky…
GC: I think my favorites by Schoenberg are his self-portraits, which are wonderful. Some people say, “Oh, he should have never painted,” but I think he was great as an Expressionist painter, really wonderful. Another composer who was an artist was Hindemith; he drew in almost a cartoon manner and illustrated some of his scores. They are usually humorous drawings.
NG: One last question related to the visual arts and its relation to your composition work: I recently read the play “Red” [recipient of the 2010 Tony Award, by John Logan] about [American painter] Mark Rothko, and it makes me think of your approach: Rothko stated that although people tended to focus on his use of colors, or lines, or a particular technique, for him it was all about the emotion that “vibrated” out of the painting – and if one missed that, they missed everything. From what I’ve read, and from our discussion today, I sense that this is an aesthetic position you can relate to. Is that valid?
GC: Yes, I agree with Mark Rothko – that the painting should evoke an emotion or some sort of reaction in the viewer. In music, each person hears his own way, which I believe has to do with his own aural gifts that he brings to the music. He does not have to know anything about music. This is the same in art. One brings to the painting his own gift of vision and does not have to know anything about art. It is this almost primitive reaction that Rothko meant.
For me, composing is far more difficult than painting. I work from the germ of an idea that I'm trying to express and notate everything; I don't think of the audience. I can only hope I was intense enough with what I was creating, that it will communicate – though it may not. For this reason, every premiere that I've ever had makes me very anxious– not knowing if I have succeeded in communicating this basic musical emotion that Rothko was talking about in his paintings.
NG: And, of course, two people can look at the same painting by Rothko – or any abstract expressionist painting – and likewise have very different reactions...
Your emphasis on the challenges of composing compared to painting reminds me of something [14th-century composer] Guillaume de Machaut – who was also a poet – once wrote: that poetry is easy, but music is hard. It also reminds me of something you said about your Ninth Quartet: that you spent a few weeks on just three notes of a canon; can you elaborate?
GC: There's a place in the middle of the glissando mirror canon, it's an almost perfect canon – meaning that each note is the same backwards as forwards, and works harmonically as well; but there's a place where it didn't quite work harmonically; so, I spent a long time finding a way that worked perfectly, but had to change several notes, which made it imperfect – though one wouldn't notice it. I’ve seen many scores where people will just take lines, and they look “canon-like”, but in mine every space, every note is thought through in the glissando; one interesting thing is that Peter Sheppard [first violinist of the Kreutzer Quartet] noticed these notes: he was analyzing the Ninth Quartet, and he found it.
NG: That’s impressive; and so the three weeks was the time it took to get the canon as you wanted it…
GC: Right, it wasn't like Ruggles pounding on three notes – it was trying to figure out how to construct the canon, and to have it like what I heard in my head. As I mentioned, it was no longer a “perfect” mirror canon, but almost.
NG: Well, we're all grateful that you took those three weeks to get it right. You've mentioned how nervous you get at a premiere, not knowing if you succeeded in communicating; and so, it's wonderful to see that you are now getting the recognition you deserve, and connecting to an ever-growing audience with many performances and recordings – such as this new Naxos release. Thank you so much, Gloria, for speaking with us – and congratulations on the wonderful new album!
GC: Thank you so much, it really was inspiring talking to you.