Gloria Coates in Billerbeck 2002

Posted on December 3rd, 2009 by

Gloria and I flew to Munster together on the concert morning, meeting the rest of the quartet who had taken an unconscionably early flight from Stansted that morning. The Lufthansa plane was too small for me, and 20 minutes before landing we ran into the worst turbulence that I have ever experienced , which pitched the plane every which was, engines howling as the propellers flailed at the air pockets and thermals. I hate flying at the best of times, but was determined to not be the person on the plane throwing up. Tossed back and forth like a paper bag in a tornado. Gloria looked out of the window, as the rolling hills and woods swung up and down outside, and quietly remarked, with apparently no irony whatsoever: ‘Well the good news is that we are really close to the ground.’ This did not seem good news to me, and I went green in silence. The turbulence came back to mind at the end of the same evening. The last movement of Gloria’s 5th Quartet is a maelstrom of glissandi, each player traversing the entire length of their instruments, at different rates, again and again, in four interlocking gradients, as the resultant harmonics and overtones whistle and wail around the concert hall like banshees. It’s one of the most terrifying noises ever conceived in western music, all the more so because its fury grows inexorably in the tiniest increments, from four initially still instruments. I find this extremely physically painful to play, as the metal covered strings of the violin up and down which I am sliding on one finger, heat up terrifyingly from being rubbed without pause for over ten minutes. I start to feel like a Neolithic fire maker, my tired hand the kindling. My fingers are always black with rubbed-off metal by the end of this movement. At the beginning of the performance, Neil had what could have been a catastrophic accident, as the top of the second A3 sheet of music from which he was playing flopped over, hiding the first 30 bars or so, which meant that, since over half the piece is devoid of any specific event, he would have to play ‘blind’. Moreover, there are no rests, so there was no way that he could possibly stop and put the page to rights. All that there is, is one place where the wailing glissandi reach piano and another moment, 3 minutes later, where the Höhepunkt, climax of the whole piece is reached. What an audience might not recognise is the complexity of the signals which a quartet can pass around in a concert, when such an emergency arises. At such a time, the crucial factor is economy of information; a plethora of winks and nods will inevitably be misinterpreted. So I sat like a rock for the first six minutes, studiously ignoring Neil, whose music had, by this time, threatened to totally disappear. With every passing moment, as the music became wilder, the leaps of each player every more vertiginous, his concern that he was never going to get any information from me increased exponentially. When I finally gave him the information he needed, his face resembled a thirsty explorer in the desert, who finally reaches a verdant oasis after days of mirages.

Diary Entry, Billerbeck 2002