Mason BATES (b. 1977)
Mothership (2010) [9:22]
Sea-Blue Circuitry (2010) [12:29]
Attack Decay Sustain Release (2013) [4:39]
Rusty Air in Carolina (2006) [13:37]
Desert Transport (2010) [14:13]
Jason Moran (FM Rhodes); Su Chang (guzheng) (Mothership)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. Jordan Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, 30 June 2014 (Mothership, Desert Transport), 24 September 2014 (Sea-Blue Circuitry, Rusty Air), 26 September 2014 (Attack) BMOP SOUND 1045 SACD [54:22]
Mason Bates, according to his brief bio in the booklet, was recently named the “second most-performed living composer.” It does not say who recently named him that, or who is the most performed one
- my guess it is John Adams. In any case, Bates’s popularity has spread nationwide, never mind the above hyperbole. He has had residences with both the San Francisco Symphony and Chicago Symphony, and is currently the first-ever composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I confess that I have not heard him in concert, even though I live in the DC area and attend concerts at Kennedy Center.
Bates’s popularity stems from his individual way of synthesizing classical, jazz, pop and electronic music into something refreshingly immediate that grabs the listener from the get-go. The problem so often with this type of composing is that it does not go very deep. There is plenty of surface appeal here, but at this stage in Bates’s career I see little staying power. He is a fine orchestrator and combines his music’s various elements with evident ease.
The first work on the disc, Mothership, has an interesting history. It was commissioned by the YouTube Symphony, whose members auditioned as soloists online from around the world. There was improvisation by four of the auditioning soloists in the performance that indeed premiered on YouTube in a recording by the London Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Of the two soloists in this recording, Su Chang, performs on the guzheng, a Chinese traditional plucked string instrument—as she did in the premiere. The other soloist, Jason Moran, “plays” a synthesizer. Mothership has an obvious ancestor in John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, as annotator Thomas May notes in the CD booklet. The machine in Mothership is the orchestra. It begins with the sound of a jet engine and includes electronic “beeps” depicting a spaceship, while the various solo musicians are passengers embarking and disembarking. Bates uses electronics convincingly here, and the insistent techno beat invokes the popular dance music of the 1980s. The piece is well constructed and would make a good concert opener.
Sea-Blue Circuitry has no electronics, but among its percussion effects there is a typewriter. This piece is divided into three sections—Circuits, Marine Snow, and Gigawatt Greyhound—not separated into individual tracks on the recording. As in Mothership, the influence of John Adams is everywhere present, as is that of big band jazz. There is a lot going on in this work, but I find it a bit tiresome. I was impressed most by the brass writing, including some chorale-like figures that reminded me of Thomas Adès in his Tevot.
The shortest and most recent selection, Attack Decay Sustain Release, also without electronics, is a brief fanfare-like work Bates composed as a tribute to honor the former San Francisco Symphony president, John Goldman. Again one thinks of John Adams here in the brass writing and jazz harmony, but also of Aaron Copland who naturally has been an influential figure in so much modern American music.
It is quite a contrast with Rusty Air in Carolina where Bates recalls a teenage summer spent at a music festival in North Carolina. He has created a soundscape which utilizes electronics as well as the symphony orchestra to evoke the work’s four interconnected sections: “Nan’s Porch”, “Katydid Country”, “Southern Midnight” and “Locusts Singing in the Heat of Dawn”. The composition begins with the sounds of night-time insects, including locusts and katydids. The sound samples are controlled by a player from a laptop and drift over “ambient symphonic textures and dense harmonic clouds that recall Ligeti’s Atmosphères”, according to May. The music then turns jazzy in the manner of Adams before settling into a songlike theme. The last section has early-morning birdcalls and more insects as the piece ends. Rusty Air succeeds in what Bates apparently sets out to do, even if by the end the electronics can seem rather gimmicky.
The final work depicts another landscape, the red rock desert of Sedona in Arizona. The vehicle in Desert Transport is a helicopter, but—as the music begins with loud, brassy chords—it sounds more like a locomotive gathering speed. As with Rusty Air, Desert Transport is in four interlinked sections: “Dengler’s Hangar”, “Sky Ranch”, “Sedona” and “Montezuma’s Castle.” After the first section the strings play a melodious theme with brass and percussion accompanying. This picturesque music would be especially effective while viewing the desert landscape. As the themes build to a climax with brass chords and heavy percussion, one is reminded of the style of Copland’s popular ballets. The music then becomes quieter and gentle, leading to the recorded chants of the Pima Indians, as they sing “Mountain by the Sea” in what sounds like their native tongue. This is not done as a solo, but as part of the orchestral texture. The work ends with a loud and rhythmic theme. Bates has described Desert Transport as a “semi-acoustic response” to a specific place. The only thing I can tell that is not played by the orchestra is the recording of the Indians, so I do not believe that other electronics are employed in the work. By a small margin, I found this the most rewarding of the five compositions on the disc.
Overall, there is much attractive music here to entice the listener during a first hearing, though I am not so sure how it will hold up in repeated listenings. What are not in doubt are the remarkable performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose. This group is building quite a reputation for commissioning, performing and recording new music. The recorded sound is likewise as stunning as the performances.