Gloria Coates Quintet A personal view, by Peter Sheppard Skærved

Posted on December 14th, 2017 by

Gloria Coates-Berceuse (Peter Sheppard Skaerved- Violin)

Engineer: Jonathan Haskell (Astounding Sounds)

Gloria Coates Quintet

A personal view, by Peter Sheppard Skærved

Gloria Coates at Home in Munich. 9 3 17

In the summer of 2015, the Kreutzer Quartet and Roderick Chadwick premiered Gloria Coates’ Piano Quintet at the Gasteig, Munich. This was the latest step on a journey which began in 1992, when I met Gloria in that city, and our friendship and collaboration began.

Gloria’s music is instantly recognisable, a feat which very few composers have achieved. The key to playing and understanding it is to enter fully into her world, which is like no other.  Her music looks very simple on the page, but takes years to learn how to play, to inhabit.

In this work, as in a number of others, one half of the quartet is tuned a ¼-tone higher than the other, which means unisons and chords, bear halos of beats and harmonics.  Talking about the relationship between this micro-tonally tuned quartet and the conventionally tuned piano, Coates noted:

‘The overtones of the piano are very important for their chordal elements of the harmony which is microtonal.’

This offers a glimpse into her harmonic imagination, where the ever-more-intricate interweave of high partials from diatonic chords offers rainbows of microtones – the very pattern of the music. Not for nothing was Gloria’s earlier piano trio subtitled ‘Split the Lark – and you’ ll find the Music’, a quote from Emily Dickinson, so important here.

The Piano Quintet is rooted in the poetry of fellow-American pioneer, Emily Dickinson. Coates has a profound affinity to Dickinson’s work, and an uncanny knack of finding her way to its core. The overall work is inspired by the poem, ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes-’, which Dickinson wrote early in 1862. Interestingly, in conversation, the line which Gloria pulled out as this poem’s title (of course the poems are not named) was, ‘The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.’

However, the quintet’s movements bear titles drawn from other Dickinson poems. Gloria insists that these phrases were ‘taken for their meaning for the music and for no other reason.’ There is no contradiction here, but rather an insight into the layered approach which Coates takes to meaning, and empathy for Dickinson: she naturally writes music in counterpoint with the poetry on many levels simultaneously.


The first movement title, ‘Invisible, as Music’ is drawn from Dickinson’s ‘This World is not Conclusion’. I suspect that one inspiration for its ritualistic feel is the fourth line of the poem: ‘It beckons, and it baffles’. The bulk of the movement is a concertante for the first violin, who sings away, whilst the four colleagues erect implacable defiles of sound all around. By the end of the movement, there is reconciliation amongst the quartet, and the solo line is resolved into hard-won, but wavering, unison. Perhaps this echoes the poem’s peroration ‘Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -/Strong Hallelujahs roll – /Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul-.’ But, the deeper meaning of the movement, seems to spring from the first stanza of ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes-’, which concludes:


‘The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore’,

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?’


The second movement, entitled ‘The wizard fingers never rest’, is large-scale and discursive. It is the only section written in 5/4, the most common time-signature in Coates’ nine string quartets. The title is drawn from Dickinson’s poem ‘A something in a summer’s Day’ (as is the last). The ‘wizard fingers’ inspired the opening cascading figures in the cello, piano and violin. For any quartet that knows the whole trajectory of this composer’s output, which the Kreutzers do, these gestures recall the cello harmonics of Quartet No 1, while the tolling and knocking gestures of the rest of the movement echo the more recent  Quartet No 9. In the centre of this movement, the first violin uncouples from this gigantic mechanism, to return the throbbing lyric of the first movement, this time in artificial harmonics.

The end of this movement, the turning point of the quintet is a perfect counterweight to Dickinson’s central stanza:

‘The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –‘

Movement three, ‘The Torrents of Eternity’ is framed by piano glissandi, ‘on the white keys’ to start, and, inside the piano, circling the strings, to finish. We find ourselves in a glacial landscape of slow sliding and subduction, perhaps Dickinson’s ‘Torrents of Eternity’, which ‘Do all but inundate’, but frozen. As always Coates’ use of ‘glissando’, is tightly organised. This is strict counterpoint, beginning with a mirror canon split between high and low instruments, which re-emerges as inverted vertical counterpoint in four, then five parts. The string players end at maximum distance from each other, pianissimo; verticality achieved by the most painstaking, and sometimes, painful, steps. The centrepiece of the movement, its dark heart, is a piano outburst of ‘nails inside piano’, ‘pound fists on low strings’, leading to tectonic clusters struck with the whole arm. Gloria’s vision of how this should sound, and its expressive and emotional impact, is very precise. Like the music of György Kurtág, the apparent simplicity of her notation belies the exactitude, technical and conceptual, which it, and she, demand.

The fourth and final movement, ‘A something so transporting bright’, offers radiant realisation of ‘A something in a summer’s Day’. The end achieves Dickinson’s ‘shimmering grace’ achieved by the quartet playing in ‘unison/octaves’. The ‘shimmer’, results from the use of microtones. For the whole duration of this movement, the quartet plays the melody, in ‘unison’ whilst the piano underpins, and eventually overwhelms the music with a ladder of slowly ascending chords. For me, this is the perfect reflection of the end ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’:

‘This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go-‘