January 24, 2008


Gloria Coates: Symphony No. 15; Cantata da Requiem; Transitions. Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Boder (Symphony); Teri Dunn, soprano, with the Talisker Players, Toronto (Cantata); Ars Nova Ensemble Nuremberg conducted by Werner Heider (Transitions). Naxos. $8.99.

Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait. Produced and directed by Mark Kidel. Arthaus Music. $24.99 (DVD).

In modern music, and perhaps especially in modern American music, it is mighty hard to tell where one genre leaves off and another begins. The matter becomes even more complicated as American music is increasingly played in Europe and elsewhere – to the point that the venue for which the music is written seems as much a determining factor in what kind of music to call it as is the structure of the music itself.

Gloria Coates, who will be 70 this year, certainly seems to use traditional “classical” forms, but most of her music does not sound “classical” in any traditional sense. Neither her Symphony No. 15 nor Transitions, both of which have their world première recordings on this new Naxos CD, really lives in the sound world of the concert hall. Both are three-movement works using the forces of a symphony orchestra – indeed, Coates expanded Transitions (1984) into her Symphony No. 4, “Chiaroscuro.” But what unites the works is nothing thematic, harmonic or rhythmic, but what might be called “Gloria glissandos,” of which Coates is inordinately fond and which she uses again and again to create a sonic background that is also, in her music, the foreground. The pervasiveness of these glissandos results in music that always seems to be yearning to go somewhere, but never actually goes there – an unusual sonic world that seems not quite to fit into the concert-hall environment. Coates deliberately includes little bits of classical works in her pieces, although they may be played backward or only in part and are not easily heard: there is a touch of Mozart in her Symphony No. 15 and of Purcell in Transitions. But it is the sonic experience of both works, not their structure, that is likely to please listeners or dismay them.

Coates, born in Wisconsin, has lived in Europe since 1969, and it is interesting that both Symphony No. 15 (written in 2004-5) and Transitions are performed by European ensembles – it is hard not only to tell what sort of music this is but also whether it ought to be called American in the first place. Cantata da Requiem is a live recording, too, but this time from North America, although not the United States. This is fairly early Coates, from 1972, and has a direct emotional appeal and impact that the purely orchestral works on this CD lack. In alternating German and English passages, ordinary people living during World War II contemplate their lives, their world and the meaning of what is occurring. The final, desperately hopeful thought – that a future of peace could mean that “all these sorrows were not in vain” – erupts with affirmative tonality that is immensely striking and tremendously moving. The work’s musical genre becomes thoroughly irrelevant.

Jazz is considered the quintessential American musical form, but it is interesting that Mark Kidel’s documentary, Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait, features a performance by the Zawinul Syndicate at The Point in Cardiff, Wales. Zawinul’s contributions to music are undoubted, but as with Coates, it is hard to know exactly how to classify what he produced. Coates works more or less in classical forms and Zawinul – who died last September – worked more or less in jazz. But his music is usually, and more accurately, described with such words as jazz fusion incorporating electric keyboard and synth. The visceral appeal of this music is in the end what matters, and that it certainly has, as Kidel’s thoughtful documentary shows. Kidel is fond of getting close to Zawinul and the others shown on this DVD, including Sabine Kabongo (vocals), Nathaniel Townsley III (drums), Amit Chatterjee (guitar), Linley Marthe (bass) and Manolo Badrena (percussion). This gives the film both immediacy and intensity, nicely complementing the improvisational feel of the musicians’ performances and especially the flair that Zawinul brought to the keyboard both as composer and as player. Zawinul’s music is not aimed at the concert hall, and its intimacy makes it somewhat far-fetched to imagine it being played there. But given the blurring of boundaries in modern American music, anything is possible. That is one message that both Coates and Zawinul convey forcefully.

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