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Mason BATES (b. 1977)
The B Sides [21.43]
Broom of the System [4.12]
Aerosol Melody [4.00]
Gemini in the Solar Wind [5.32]
Temescal Noir [3.14]
Warehouse Medicine [4.45]
Liquid Interface [23.34]
Glaciers Calving [6.47]
Scherzo Liquido [3.54]
Crescent City [8.24]
On the Wannsee [4.29]
Alternative Energy [25.57]
Ford’s Farm, 1896 [7.07]
Chicago, 2012 [5.53]
Xinjiang Province, 2112 [8.05]
Reykjavik, 2222 [4.52]
Mason Bates (electronica)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, 8-11, 15-18 January, 10-13 September 2014
SFS MEDIA SFS0065 [71.14]

‘Contemporary music that would not frighten the horses’ might serve as a flip description of Mason Bates’ music. The question, however, is whether this is music of substance as well as attractiveness.

He has a considerable reputation. He has a doctorate from Berkeley, studied with Corigliano and has been the subject of a Beethoven Bates Festival with the San Francisco Symphony. His music is widely performed, especially in the United States. Bates also performs in night clubs as DJ Masonic.

The music, for which this CD is an excellent introduction, is a blend of orchestral sounds and electronic effects (see review of MSR release). The most substantial work here is probably Liquid Interface, which he describes as his first symphony. The four movements reflect aspects of nature, as the titles suggest. The electronic sources range widely: one movement of Alternative Energy draws on a recording made at the Femilab particle collider in Illinois.

The music itself is readily described as post-modern. The mixture of styles, from conventional symphonic through jazz, Dixie, hip-hop, folk-fiddle, gamelan, Debussy-like shimmerings is astonishing – they are cunningly blended with absolute assurance. Nothing outstays its welcome, and there are moments of eloquence. No-one could be bored by this.

Performances, recorded live, are terrific. Michael Tilson Thomas’ contribution to the promotion of the music of America is rightly acclaimed, and here he gives meticulously prepared and committed performances, with customary outstanding playing from the SFO.

Yet … I am not wholly convinced that mastery of resources and imagination reveal greater depth. Is the music very clever or does it reveal a deeper musical wisdom and logic? Perhaps Bates is a brilliant miniaturist, and these should be considered lushly orchestrated suites of soundscapes. Naturally, this is a personal reaction, and one that the many Bates fans would not share. On further acquaintance I could well change my mind, and the technical facility makes me hope that I might.

Whatever one’s reaction, the music could hardly be better served than in these committed performances in splendid SACD sound. This disc is worth exploring – you will not be bored.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Dominy Clements



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