Snakes And Ladders

On glissandi, board games, and the music of Gloria Coates.

Snakes And Ladders, cropped from photo by Smabs Sputzer. Shared under Creative Commons Licence.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

‘DO, a deer, a female deer, RE, a drop of golden sun’, sings Maria in a well-known song from The Sound Of Music. In doing so she teaches the von Trapp children about the notes of the major scale, through puns on the Solfège system. This proceeds well enough until LA, which lacks a suitable wordplay partner and merely becomes ‘a note to follow SO’. But there is a more subtle pun hiding at the end, one only recently pointed out to me. After ‘TI, a drink with jam and bread’, we have ‘that will bring us back to DO’ (dough).

Puns or no puns, to learn about distinct notes is normally one of our first encounters with music theory. The idea that the frequency of a sound wave can be segmented into pitches, and into pitch classes which recur in different octaves, is a fundamental starting point. In the film, Julie Andrews’ Maria has the von Trapp offspring scampering up a set of steps as they sing the scale.

This is an appropriate metaphor, as ‘scale’ derives from the the Latin scala, a ladder or staircase. The rungs of this ladder let us navigate any number of musical journeys. They are plainly visible in the lines of a musical stave, and in the bodywork of our instruments – the keys on a piano, the frets on a guitar, the holes in a recorder.

When Orsino in Twelfth Night recalls ‘that strain again, it had a dying fall’ he alludes to the remarkable fact – one easy to forget – that we can hear a series of these discrete pitches and ‘join the dots’ in our head. We can perceive a melodic contour, and grasp the story within it, out of a stream of entirely separate musical moments.

But the human voice has no in-built divisions of pitch, and some instruments also defy these segmentations. The trombone has its famously sardonic slide. The violin family (including violas, cellos and basses) allow the player’s finger border-free travel. To slide between notes is called a glissando, from the French glisser, to slip or glide. Some instruments, like the piano, can only approximate this effect with an extravagant sweep. The harp is well known for creating a mesmerising sound this way, but it is merely a flurry of notes in rapid succession.

Despite all these capabilities, the role of glissandi has for a long time been rather limited in western classical music. Opera singers might use portamento, a short expressive slide between two notes, though too much could be considered vulgar. When a real glissando happens, it is most often an ear-catching flourish, a special effect that briefly subverts (but is subservient to) the arrangement of fixed pitches. And because it defies our expectations, it can – like the cartoony swoop of the swanee-whistle – even sound comical.

Perhaps the most famous glissando in the orchestral repertoire is the clarinet solo that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is notated as a scale figure, but – so the story goes – the virtuoso clarinettist Ross Gorman improvised an upward slide during the rehearsal for the premiere. Gershwin loved it and told him to keep it in. It’s not something the clarinet was designed to do, but a skilful player can pull it off, and it has become standard performance practice ever since. But then pitch-bending – the ‘blue’ note of the title – is a part of the jazz traditions Gershwin was drawing upon.

However, we cannot forget that Maria’s explainer is an introduction to tonal music. The arrival of atonality in the twentieth century freed notes from key hierarchies, while Serialism reorganised them into tone rows. Some composers have explored the subtler shades in between the twelve notes of the standard chromatic scale, such as ‘quartertones’, and other ‘microintervals’.

Quite what Maria’s song to explain these techniques might have sounded like, we can only imagine. But much like the puns in Do-Re-Mi, our word scale echoes with other meanings. If tonality gives us ladders of fixed points, microtones are more like the smooth scales of snakes – from the Old French escale, or shell – which, as in the children’s game Snakes And Ladders, we can slide along.

One composer who has explored the regions between our notes in a serious way is the American Gloria Coates. Coates was born in Wisconsin but moved to Munich in 1969, and has lived in Germany ever since. She has become known for the fact that many of her works feature extensive use of microtones, and in particular long string glissandi. In an interview with New Music Box, Coates cites their origin as an ‘Ur Schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing’.

The experience of working with electronic music sharpened her perception of pitch – ‘there was much more space’ she recalls, ‘in between the quartertones’. At the same time, Coates points out how our technology-saturated lives also means we encounter more microtonal sounds, and mechanical glissandi, as ambient noise:

The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises […] microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature […]

Quite unlike the archetypal flourish, perhaps Coates’ most distinctive use of glissandi are slow and creeping. Usually these are scored for string instruments, so it is unsurprising that she has explored the technique in a number of works for string quartet.

Here we hit on another aspect of music that Maria’s song left out: rhythm. Rhythm is an equally fundamental entry point, one that springs from the very motions of being alive – our heartbeat, our footsteps, our breath. But a long glissando cannot articulate rhythm as a series of notes can – at least, not on its own. If these glissandi sound strangely inhuman then, it is because they literally have no pulse. They might suggest an elemental force of nature, like a rising tide, as much as an accelerating engine. Or it could be our musical world sliding out of focus, a warping of reality. Either way, it is disorientating.

For me, this is part of their strange appeal. But Coates tells the story of presenting her composition teacher with an early glissando string quartet, and leaving him completely baffled. If you’re new to her work, you might react similarly. Coates is confronting us with something musically quite unfamiliar: sound always travelling, but rarely arriving.

My reference to Snakes And Ladders offers a little bit more than a laboured metaphor. You might remember it from childhood as a simple game of chance, but as Doug Bierend has shown, it has a long and fascinating history originating in ancient India. There exist many beautifully ornate interpretations of the familiar grid, some of which link the snakes and ladders with Hindu and Jain moral and spiritual concepts, such as karma and Moksha (salvation).

Jain version Game of Snakes and Ladders, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth. Source.

When the British took the idea to Europe in the late nineteenth century, mass-market versions soon appeared, some of which transposed western virtues and vices onto the board. In one hilariously pompous edition, cartoon scenes illustrate ‘kindness’ and ‘self-denial’ jumbled among such perilous pitfalls as ‘unpunctuality’ and ‘frivolity’.

Far from being just a way of helping young children learn to count, the very simplicity of the Snakes And Ladders concept, Bierend writes, served ‘as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs’.

The bigger lesson here is that the systems we teach children, no matter how innocent they seem, are always embedded with our values. And as for the lesson in the Do-Re-Mi song, it arrives with all the subtlety of an Alphorn. When the children sing along with Maria, we see them cooperating and bonding; their carefree frolicking around Salzburg shows us that learning is fun. Arguably, the principal theme of the film is the power of music to strengthen relationships. And from the opening shots, Austria is a glistening ideal of European culture, a place where the hills are alive ‘with songs they have sung for a thousand years’. In a story which climaxes with an escape from the Nazis, we come to understand music as the essence of a loving, joyful life – everything good which is under threat from Fascism.

For a contemporary composer, trying to find a voice in a post-atonal world, things may not be so simple. But whether you reject tonality and construct your own system, whether you re-adopt tonality, or adapt it to your own uses, your response will resonate with your own values. What particularly interests me about Gloria Coates is the relationship to tonal music in her work.

Despite the outlandishness of her musical gestures, Coates draws on that fustiest of musical techniques – the canon. If her music sometimes seems simple in construction, this can be deceptive: often the counterpoint, she hints, is ‘like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.’

Several compositions take much older pieces of music and re-cast them with a microtonal glaze. Her symphony no. 15 uses a ‘puzzle canon’, in which a section of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is heard both forwards and backwards. Symphony no.14 makes dissonant play with the works of two obscure New England hymn composers (William Billings, and the fabulously named Supply Belcher). These resurrections seem to emphasise a distance, the uneasy coexistence of past and present, as much as any continuity of tradition. But her curiosity extents outside of the classical repertoire too. Symphony No.8, Indian Sounds, mixes microtones with Native American music to compellingly mysterious effect.

My favourite of all these invocations, however, is the first movement of her symphony no. 4, Chiaroscuro. Here we are introduced to a haze of microtonality, through which gradually emerges the outline of Dido’s Lament, the exquisitely poignant aria by Purcell. But it is fragmentary and unnaturally slow, a shadowy apparition which grows louder and louder as it lumbers towards us. The title of the movement is Illumination, and its light is decidedly gothic. The result is genuinely sinister.

Dido’s Lament is composed on a ground bass that descends semitone by semitone, a feature which, as Alex Ross described, has been used for centuries to express lamentation. In its own way it is also an approximated glissando, with the poetry of Orsino’s ‘dying fall’ in chromatically tonal terms. For Coates, this had a personal relevance. Symphony no. 4 is an orchestral expansion of the earlier chamber work Transitions, one she described as ‘the translation of metaphysical experiences I had after the death of my father’.

The mention of metaphysics recalls that Ur Schrei, the ‘deeper part of me in singing’, the sense that there is an aspect of Coates’ art which is forever unknown. And this is an important point to remember. However many ladders we climb in the pursuit of knowledge, there is nobody alive who has truly fathomed how music works, not in the way that matters most: the unique spaces of consciousness it opens within us. If Coates’ music often sounds simple, then it recalls our ancient board game, where an idea can unexpectedly lead us in all sorts of directions, even into ourselves.

There is another meaning of the world ‘scale’ – from the Old Norse skál, or bowl – which is the instrument we use to make precise measurements of weight. Perhaps we could say that Coates’ music is a kind of ‘precise imprecision’ – it is highly calculated, and yet it takes us through a continuum of pitch that by its nature can never be settled. It peers in between the lines of the stave, into that mysterious malleability that people have tried for so long to set into something beautiful and ordered. If her work speaks to us, it is by reminding us – quite literally – of the very sound of music.

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