Fall arrives with its shimmering mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. We look both forward and backward. Shorter days with brisk temperatures & distant wood-smoke stir up sepia-toned memories, while the exciting rollout of a new season brings out a chipper game-face on everyone. For me right now, this past/future dichotomy is set in relief: while I end my five-year tenure at the Chicago Symphony, I look ahead to a bustling 2015-16 season heralding a new artistic base for me at the Kennedy Center. There are also debut symphonic CD releases, the SFS premiere of work about ancient music, and several iterations of my classical/club project Mercury Soul. So let’s set nostalgia aside and take a quick flyover of what’s to come:
Embarking on a three-year post as the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, I return to a part of the country I love and to an institution that loomed large in my musical upbringing across the Potomac in Virginia. President Deborah Rutter has breathed new life into the center and has reasserted the artist’s role in its mission, creating a new position that extends across the constellation of arts institutions – from symphony to opera to ballet to jazz to theater. A composer is one of the few life-forms capable of first-hand encounters with all of those fields, so making connections between the constituents will be a top priority.
Over the next three years, I will be composing, curating, and DJing in a giant building with so many wonderful spaces. My curatorial work will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways. One example of that is KC Jukebox, a new series focusing on new music in new formats. Our kickoff event on November 9, Lounge Regime, inhabits different lounges spread out across the top floor of the Center that explore the history of ambient music. Grab a cocktail and check out 21st downtempo electronica, 1970’s California minimalism, 1930’s Parisian furniture music, and a few surprises. Ambient music is unique in its shifting from background to foreground, and the ways it has been explored in different eras is fascinating. We’re putting word out to local DJ’s to send us their IDM / ambient mixes for possible inclusion in this concert and others throughout the season, so hit me up with some abstract DJ mixes if you have them.
The Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra will be playing several works this season, from Mothership in early December to the Violin Concerto in April. The latter concerts include a special night of the newly-inaugurated NSO DeClassified series in which I’ll participate as both composer and DJ. It’s very cool to be working again with the orchestra that commissioned and premiered my first symphony, Liquid Interface. That’s the piece which Riccardo Muti used as the basis of my appointment at the Chicago Symphony – so, it all comes full circle. The National Symphony has a robust commitment to new music and I look forward to hearing a ton of concerts.
While I’ll be dropping into my new artistic home in D.C. on a monthly basis, I’ll still be living, composing, and surfing (or trying) in San Francisco. After fifteen years here, I’ve found Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony to be amazing artistic partners, so it’s especially exciting to look to the April premiere of Auditorium conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. Imagine a modern orchestra haunted by memories of its former self, coming in the form of imaginatively-processed recordings of ancient instruments that flicker throughout the orchestra. Like Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, this work will be programmed alongside 18th Century works. I’m currently having a ball colliding two different tuning systems – and dance music across the centuries (is tech-house the new bourée?).
Also on the West Coast is the premiere of Gramophone Depot for the Eugene Symphony’s 50th Anniversary. My first exposure to American music came through my father’s perpetually-spinning swing and jazz records. The warm vinyl crackle that emanated from his taxidermy-filled mancave carried the sounds of Gershwin, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and many others, and to this day those are still some of my favorite harmonists (along with the French). Gramophone Depot collides those memories with lively rhythms of electronica (acoustically conjured) that have informed my music.
The European Premiere of my Violin Concerto this month under Leonard Slatkin features the stunning Anne Akiko Meyers, who has graciously performed the work dozens of times over the past three years. She will be performing in Lyon, the homeof Berlioz’s former orchestra. I loved performing with them last season and am so thrilled they are giving the European premiere of this work because, well, I am a Berlioz fanatic. Another premiere just happened this summer: Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony brought to life Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a kind of concerto for orchestra in which each instrument conjures different mythological creatures. Shortly thereafter Marin Alsop followed with the West Coast premiere in a stunning, Technicolor performance.
Symphonic CDs – finally!
Working as a symphonist has its ups and downs. The huge palette, the varieties of interpretation, the interaction with so many different communities – that’s great. Getting your music recorded – that’s like continental drift. Orchestras aren’t as limber as garage bands. So it is one of the biggest moments in my life to have a debut orchestral CD from the San Francisco Symphony appear this Spring. It will include my three largest electro-acoustic works: Alternative Energy, The B-Sides, and Liquid Interface, drawn from Michael Tilson Thomas’s performances of the work during last year’s Beethoven & Bates Festival. Complementing this is a CD of some of my most-performed works, from Mothership to Desert Transport and Rusty Air in Carolina, by the stunning Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Expect to see that next month.
Mercury Soul: post-classical rave
Curating has become a significant focus for me over the years, with the residencies at the Chicago Symphony and the Kennedy Center being great opportunities to explore new presentations of new art. The beginning of my curating life was Mercury Soul, an “classical music rave” that has happened at clubs throughout the country. Interspersing classical sets between thumping DJ sets, Mercury Soul brings the deep experience of classical music to a new generation with powerful stagecraft and production.
Next month, on October 2, we present not one but two shows at the famed Ruby Skye in San Francisco. A general-audience show at 9pm will be preceded by a late-afternoon show for public high school students. Teenagers are often left out of classical music outreach, yet they are first in line to be the next generation of listeners. We’ll follow this teenage show with a general-audience event, when we hope to draw out the Mercury Soul sleeper-cells who have supported us in the past.
All My Children
Many of my grown ‘children’ – ie, older pieces – continue to live their lives in the symphonic circuit. Joshua Roman performs my Cello Concerto in Fort Worth, and he is such an impossibly gifted yet down-to-earth dude that everyone should drop what they’re doing to see him. Mothership appears on special events in a couple of places, from the Louisville Orchestra’s Festival of American Music series to the Baltimore Symphony’s 50th Anniversary gala. Garages of the Valley is continuing its European walkabout with performances by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under the direction of longtime supporter (and master maestro) Robert Moody, who also performs Rusty Air in Carolina in (of all places), North Carolina. In many ways, the continued performances of older works by regional orchestras are more important to me than anything else, and I am very grateful for the vast grassroots network of American orchestras.
What fascinates me about the story of Steve Jobs is that it exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication – and I think that can make for thrilling opera.
I’ve been working at the nexus of creativity and technology as a symphonist, having a grand time pushing orchestras into the sounds of the 21st century with works that conjure large, often narrative forms with an expanded electronic palette. After years of bringing ‘theater to the concert hall,’ I’m excited to turn to the opera house.
Opera is perhaps the perfect medium for a massive soundworld. The bigger your palette, the more dramatic you can be. Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs – an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how eerily beautiful those sounds can sound when supporting the mystical textures of a low bass voice.
Or imagine the music of Steve Jobs himself : quicksilver textures in both orchestra and electronics, with the latter being built by samples of early Mac gear. His expanded soundworld also includes an acoustic guitar – an instrument whose predecessors appeared quite often in early opera, but one that has scarcely been heard in opera houses since. Jobs loved the guitar, and the energy of a finger-picked steel-string will illuminate the busy inner world a restless man.
In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera – which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant. Laurene is a soulful and strong woman who convinces Jobs of the importance of true human connection, the person who reminds him that people don’t have one button, that they are beautifully complicated. Imagine her slow-moving, oceanic harmonies colliding with the frenetic music of Steve. How does one music impact the other? How do they merge? How can Laurene slow down the busy inner world of Steve?
In an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication, this technique of “musical worlds colliding” will be key. The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – will be associated with highly distinct music. As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig. I’ve always looked to exotic forms to pull new sounds out of me when writing symphonic music – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a new piece about mythological creatures – and for me in opera, that will happen on the level of character.
The telling of this tale, at the hands of the master librettist Mark Campbell, is quite different from a see-Spot-run biopic. Because the subject is so well known, we’ve taken a poetic and non-linear approach. Anchoring this imaginative, non-chronological telling are numbers – real musical numbers – and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices – when people are so messy? We’ll travel with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection. In Santa Fe in July 2017, you can take that journey with us.
“If Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina is any indication, this 30-year-old composer (who is based in the East Bay and has a parallel career as a DJ) also has a voice…A Virginia native who summered as a teenager in South Carolina, his new work recalls sticky Southern nights, filled with the chatter and buzz of katydids and cicadas. …You could feel the humidity, while luxuriating in Bates’ exquisite, almost Impressionistic, atmospherics.” -Richard Scheinin
“Contemporary composers can integrate high-definition recordings of sounds they want to evoke, as Mason Bates does in his cleverly constructed Liquid Interface. The first movement, “Glaciers Calving,” begins with an ominous recording of glaciers crashing into the Antarctic Ocean, soon followed by dense, haunting swirls from the strings and electronic beats that accelerate to lively drum and bass rhythms. Mr. Bates’s colorful four-movement tone poem, which uses a vast orchestra and electronics to evoke water in both soothing and menacing forms, received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall -Vivian Schweitzer
“Mason Bates’s Digital Loom, for organ and electronics…transformed the hall into something between a decaying cathedral and an East Berlin club.” -Alex Ross
“Take Mason Bates’s Digital Loom for organ and electronics, a centennial commission. Definitely a voice from the younger generation, Bates reimagines the king of instruments as a surreal creature inventing its own space, the illuminated stops flashing like an enormous pinball machine and presided over by the organist as D.J. who programs wild sequences of hip-hop, funk, and ambient electronica” -Peter Davis
“Mason Bates, 30 years old…knows how to command an orchestra just as well as he does his touchpad. Bates’s Liquid Interface, a National Symphony commission that received its world premiere last night, surpassed in sheer sonic beauty even the works by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky that rounded out the program.”
“Be it mixing trip-hop and funk at a club or writing a symphonic or chamber work, composer Mason Bates is getting noticed for his straddling of classical music and electronica. … Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he’s become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well. … At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets – the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers – Bates just might have that bait. ”
Concerto for Two Universes, Donna Perlmutter
A violin section that richochets like dominos; a movement that is an exact palindrome; a symphony that collapses upon itself: welcome to my zoo.
The largest piece I’ve ever written comes to life this month at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti – and unlike my other large works, this half-hour work involves no electricity. But in this vivid setting of Jorge Luis Borges’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, the psychedelic bestiary is so teeming with strange creatures and wild sonic effects that you might half-imagine you heard electronic sounds. Underpinning this is a sprawling form unlike anything I’ve composed.
A master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, Borges was the perfect writer to create a compendium of mythological creatures (several are of his own invention). The musical realization of this is eleven interlocking movements, an expansive form inspired by French and Russian ballet scores. In between evocations of creatures familiar (sprite, nymph) and unknown (an animal that is an island), brief “forest interludes” take us deeper into the night, and deeper into the forest itself. The trick of the piece is that all of the animals fuse together at the end, when the preceding 25 minutes collapses in an epic finale in which all the animals fuse together.
I’ve often been drawn to exotic forms that challenge me to create new sounds. One of the intriguing things about ballet scores is the highly colorful, distinctive nature of each movement. Even if you hadn’t heard The Nutcracker a thousand times before the age of six, you’d still be recognize the music of each toy – from the Sugar Plums to the Russian Dolls. Addictive melodies, surprising harmonies, fluorescent orchestration: it is very hard to create memorable and original music like that. The CSO’s Gerard McBurney guided me to the Russian concept of jarkos, which loosely translates as “etched.” A musical idea that is ‘etched’ has a highly distinctive melody and harmony, and it’s brought to life by Technicolor orchestration. In the Anthology, I wanted to combine that bright, etched sound with a surreal approach.
Spatial possibilities are a bracing new element I encountered in this piece, with the opening “Sprite” hopping from music stand to music stand, even bouncing offstage. For a few years, I’ve looked at the violins and wondered whether I could shoot music across them, stand by stand. I imagined a motif spinning from the concertmaster outwards, something like a miniature relay race at high speeds. The sprite would become the perfect vehicle for this onstage spatial effect.
Another intriguing challenge was creating an exact palindrome. “The A Bao A Qu” is a serpentine creature that slithers up a tower; gloriously molts at the top; then slides back down – and I wanted this movement to mimic that mirrored life cycle. I’ve never heard a musical palindrome that works musically and actually sounds like a palindrome – as if the record suddenly spins backwards. I spent a vast amount of time searching for material that could be perceptively reversible on both the micro and the macro level. So there are miniature cells that work in both directions, but also big interruptions that return in the reverse. There is a ridiculous gong that announces the creature at the beginning that, in the end, swooshes backwards.
The biggest challenge of all was changing the rules as the piece unfolded. After a collection of shorter movements, including frolicking “Nymphs” and a horse-hunt in “The Gryphon,” the movements start to grow in size, the forest interludes get darker, and everything starts to run together. The sprawling finale occurs at the witching-hour moment between midnight and dawn. This movement collapses the entire work upon itself, as all of the animals fuse together in the darkest, deepest part of the forest. The sprites bounce around the stage, the palindrommic animal flashes forward and backwards, the Gryphon shoots tongues of fire – and the Zaratan, an animal that is an island — devours them all.
In the virtuosity the piece requires of soloists and sections, it resembles a concerto for orchestra, and every note was written with specific players in mind. Many of the players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have become dear friends, as has Maestro Riccardo Muti – whose unique abilities as a musical dramatist inspired the piece from beginning to end. If you are in Chicago, please come and hear my swan song for this great orchestra.
What if you looked, forever, the way you did the day you were born? If so, I’d look like an angry red worm with a hairpiece. We grow up. In most cases, the same could be true for many pieces of music: after the blinding reality of the premiere performance, most new works evolve.
Alternative Energy’s appearance this month in several disparate places – Pittsburgh, Poland, and Sweden – has me thinking about the evolution of a piece over its performance history.
Shorter pieces like Mothership or Garages of the Valley appear much more regularly, but with my ‘energy symphony’ being so much bigger on all fronts, a week of simultaneous performances provokes a moment of reflection. In this case, it not only makes me think about the way a piece changes over its life, but also two of the wonderful groups playing the piece. This marks my final concert as Composer of the Year with the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra I’ve come to cherish as one of the most vibrant in the country. And across the pond in Poland, one of my dearest friends and collaborators, Benjamin Shwartz, is conducting the piece in Breslau. Both the PSO and Beni Shwartz have done much to bring my music to wide audiences – with many an adjustment on my part.
Large-scale formal changes are not what I’m talking about. You don’t want to finish painting a picture and realize the house is in the wrong place. That’s what pencil sketches are for (in my world, pre-compositional planning). But orchestration tweaks – the musical equivalent of brushstrokes – are always necessary. The accumulation of these details adds up to a significantly better-realized piece, so I always go through the score right after the premiere performances and ask myself hard questions. If there are no adjustments, there weren’t enough risks.
Often the first changes are solo passages, since solo instruments are very vulnerable to delicate balance issues. For example, the concertmaster in Alternative Energy acts as a phantom concerto soloist, conjuring the farm-and-junkyard days of Henry Ford on a fiddle (when not replacing the horse, Ford apparently played bluegrass). Myriad small but important changes in dynamics and doubling have helped clarify every riff and bent-note of the concertmaster. One favorite solution is to reduce to solo principal strings for a moment. When you have the principal bass suddenly pop out in a string bass solo, it not only improves the dynamics, but it creates a vibrant change in scale. This might be called the “suddenly chamber solution.”
Equally tricky was the percussion battery, which in this piece is a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from a scrapyard. In the highly regulated world of orchestral music, where music meets so much well-meaning but annoying regulation, the percussion section stands as a monument to composer freedom. In various works over the years, I’ve called for oil drum; broom; Indian rattles; and pump shotgun (not a problem in gun-loving Phoenix; definitely a problem with the LA Phil). Finding novel instruments is part of the job description of the percussionist, and I have never met a single one who didn’t approach this with the most positive attitude.
And thus we see myriad principal percussionists traipsing through junkyards in the worst parts of town, searching for the most musical pickup truck gate, fender, and muffler ever built buy the Ford Motor Company. This bit of ‘musical paleontology’ happens wherever the piece is performed, and I’ve been delighted to see it work beyond the Top 7 orchestras. Lots of pieces can shine when blessed by the superb musicians and budgets, but the most honest test of a new work is how it fares on a regional orchestra concert. Plus, a musical field trip gives the players a little more involvement and ownership of the experience.
What changes occurred in the car-part drumset? For one thing, I realized (again) that metallic percussion cuts through acoustic space almost like electronic sounds, so the dynamics came down to PPP and some passages were cut. Sometimes the best approach to a wild-card – be it a junk percussion ensemble or electronic sounds – is the “play against expectation” solution. Everyone wants to wail away on junk, for instance, but far more surprising and musical is to ask for gently propulsive sounds.
And the electronics? The big change is one that happens to all my electronic works: I make a Betty Crocker version that happens without me. In Poland right now, a percussionist is triggering soundfiles on a laptop. This he does in rhythm, but with far less of a performative element than when I “cook live.” That version is in stereo (instead of 6-channel surround) and has been endlessly remixed as I’ve performed the piece over the years. Creating an easily realizable version of the electronic sounds has been a key component in the dissemination of my music. One by one, orchestras have realized how powerfully they can change their sound – without much hassle.
Almost all the post-premiere electronic adjustments fall into the “risk of the unknown” category. Who knew that extremely quiet jungle ambience in the final movement would project like a laser? As I learned (and subsequently forgot) with Rusty Air in Carolina, high-frequency insect noise has a way of being heard. How do you simulate a spinning particle accelerator without surrounding the audience with speakers? Putting the speakers in a half-moon around the orchestra created a rich, giant pan that avoided the headaches of running cables all over the hall. These are the kinds of “in the field” solutions that I love working through.
Having the Pittsburgh Symphony bring the piece to life marks a special moment for me. The group is unique for a couple of reasons, the first of which is its stunningly tight playing. Somehow the percussion and first violins are always perfectly locked together, a challenge in every orchestra because of the fifty feet between those sections. The horns are stunning and the principal winds comprise one of the finest quartets in the field. And it’s a nice group of people. The players ask deep questions and stop by to offer thoughtful comments. I always think fondly of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
This will be the ninth work of mine the PSO has played. That says quite a bit about their commitment to living composers, and it happens because of the PSO’s Composer of the Year program. There are few orchestras that devote so much space on their subscription concerts to one composer. More people in our field should be aware of what the PSO is doing.
On a more personal level, having Benjamin Shwartz conduct Alternative Energy reminds me how friendship can be so beautifully intertwined with music in our field. As the co-conspirators behind Mercury Soul, we’ve spent countless late nights fusing classical music and electronic dance music in clubs around the country, dealing with mob-type club owners, alien sound guys, and all manner of silicone-enhanced clubbers in Miami, often through a haze of psychedelic lighting (and sometimes actual haze). We’ve had the joyful adventure of watching how the deep experience of classical music can blow minds well outside the concert hall. Now serving as music director of the massive Breslau Philharmonic in Poland, he is continuing his fearless advocacy of new music while also exploring the repertoire’s masterworks.
Two great collaborators. One piece that’s endured some growing pains. Many great musicians who bring it all to life. Thanks to all.
An underage crowd turning out for Boulez? That’s Chicago.
Few new-music series in this country (or even on this planet) are visited by tour-buses filled with high school students. Teens rarely look up from their iSomethings, and when they do it’s not at a classical music concert. But there they were last week, stumbling en masse into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW concert celebrating the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez.
I’m sure few of them were aware of Boulez’s über-modernist music or his long history conducting the CSO. But when the Avon High School band passed through Chicago on tour, MusicNOW appeared on their must-do list. It’s not the first time we’ve seen busloads of kids at one of our shows (wistful memories rushing in of another ‘teen bus’ from Wisconsin at our Victor Gama show). In fact, we’ve had enough kids show up at our new-music series that the free beer at the post-party briefly became a topic of discussion.
Anyway: how? why? really?
A confluence of factors has put MusicNOW on the radar of non-classical folk. Most fundamentally, the cultural curiosity of the Upper Midwest has created an audience with a higher tolerance for new experiences than I’ve encountered anywhere. Whether it be symphonic music, contemporary chamber music, or underground DJ events, Chicagoans turn out. There was the show when 1500 folks turned out in 8° weather to hear German electronica duo Mouse on Mars perform with CSO musicians. There was the Freakeasy party last winter, held next to a lightbulb factory in the snowy middle of nowhere, exactly the place you’d dump a body – yet the place was thronged with a devoted arm of Burning Man electronic music fans. That kind of energy and curiosity reminds me of Berlin, where I lived long enough to experience enough innovative music in creatively designed spaces to last a lifetime. Northern climes: same latitude, same attitude?
Another reason for the diverse audience is MusicNOW’s eclectic programming. The music we ranges from the starkly minimal to the extravagantly maximal, from purely acoustic to surround-sound electronic – a vast stylistic palette unattached to any particular ideology. For some reason it’s truly rare to find that kind of catholic approach elsewhere. These days Chicago is more and more populated by great new-music groups embracing that approach – from Fifth House Ensemble to Third Coast Percussion – but five years ago it was harder to find. The modernist leanings of Chicago have much to do with Barenboim and Boulez’s tenures at the CSO, and also with the vision of former head of artistic planning Martha Gilmer. After a couple of decades of this, the audience grew to appreciate gritty modernism. While my iPod is none too filled with post-serial music, I think that compositional approach should be represented when the piece is right and the concert can support it. So we’ll have a beautifully ambient work by Paola Prestini coexisting with an explosively chromatic piece by George Friedrich Haas, and that contrast puts everything in greater relief.
And last but not least, MusicNOW has positioned itself as an immersive, fun event with ambient information and seamless production. Over the past five years, Anna Clyne and I have worked to transform the program book into a miniature piece of cinematography. All the dead spaces on the program are filled with projected information, video interviews, and engaging imagery. It’s not Spielberg, but it’s more imaginative than PowerPoint, and our audience shows up without the anxiety of being clueless. Developing the digital program book has taken years of trial and error, and thankfully the CSO supported us even while the critics railed against the lack of printed material (they do love ink on paper). That component has been perhaps most crucial.
As we come around to the final MusicNOW concert of our 5-year residency, Anna and I have been so happy to see the audience grow and diversify. Sure, there was some squirming in Row Z during Boule’z 45-minute Dérive 2 – but in the end, those kids give a standing ovation.
I still remember the Beltway traffic that seemed hell-bent on keeping us from Gershwin. This was a decade before California pulled me westward, and several years before New York pulled me north – the beginning of the end of my Virginia childhood. Clinton was president. CDs were the medium. I had something of a Southern accent. And Peter Nero was performing at the Kennedy Center.
Since I’d been hammering away on the Gershwin Piano Études for way too long, my mom got us tickets to check out a real master. Unfortunately, between the two of us there is exactly zero directional ability, so we were late and lost. But somehow my mom managed to claw us out of the defense contractors and CIA agents commuting home, and we made it just in time. It may not be the hippest memory of my teenage years, but it sure stuck with me.
The Kennedy Center still looms large in my formative education, so it is especially poignant to be named its first composer-in-residence. Over the next three years, my work there will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways. Think of a new-music series that inhabits different lounges that explore the history of ambient music; or a digital program book that appears on the walls of the concert hall during set changes; or jazz musicians colliding with a DJ during a dance festival. In a place with so many artforms – and so many sleek public spaces – the possibilities are myriad.
This position shares some surface similarities with my five-year residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After all, it grew out of it: Deborah Rutter, who led the CSO for ten years, invited me into the Kennedy Center family soon after her appointment as president. In Chicago, she has watched me and Anna Clyne move the MusicNOW series into a more eclectic and immersive realm, with music from minimalist to maximalist enhanced by imaginative stagecraft. So there will be a brand-new series focusing on new music at the Kennedy Center, something that D.C. could use. And of course, there will be newly created works, from me and others.
But many aspects of the residency are new. The big difference is that this position extends across the entire Kennedy Center, which houses everything from symphony to opera to ballet to jazz and beyond. A composer is one of the few life-forms capable of first-hand encounters with all of those fields, so making connections between the constituents will be a top priority. And the Kennedy Center has some really creative presenters to work with: I think of Alicia Adams, who mounts extraordinary international festivals across artforms; or Garth Ross, who curates the daily performances at the Millennium Stage (that’s right, 365 performances a year); or Francesca Zambello at the Washington National Opera, which presents new operas a year under its American Opera Initiative project. And a healthy commissioning fund means that new works appear each year at the National Symphony and on the Fortas Chamber Music series. Advocating for more new work, and helping coordinate the various iterations of it across the Center, will be important an important focus.
Also new for me, in many ways, will be the D.C. cultural community. Having grown up nearby, I am familiar with many of the crazy idiosyncrasies of the nation’s capital. But I need an update on the communities around it and their sprawling cultural scenes. The Kennedy Center has a gravitational pull throughout the region, drawing people from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia to experience a vast range of performing arts at the highest quality. Countless kids encounter “big art” for the first time there, just like I did eons ago. I’ve had a blast throwing myself into Chicago’s concert halls, clubs, and warehouses, getting to know the community and the key players, and I look forward to looking at D.C. with fresh eyes.
Perhaps most inspiring of all is the Kennedy Center’s national responsibility. As America’s largest arts center, and one of the few empowered by federal funding, it helps lead the national conversation about art’s place in society. And in the Kennedy Center’s vision, art occupies a central and visible place, approachable by many angles. Stumble around the vast campus, and you will see a steady stream of people coming and going at all times – there’s always something cooking. In my opinion, a key component in navigating these rich offerings will be information. In Chicago, one of my big passions has been “ambient information” – ie, projected program notes, a 21st Century update to the program book. Anna and I continue to develop this concept, which has been a crucial reason our crowds have swelled over the years. Educating audiences with projections, video, flatscreens, and even mobile devices lowers the intimidation factor for everyone. I’d like to see more institutions rethink the way they get information to their audiences. It takes time, resources, an eye for imagery and a knack for a well-timed surprise to get it right. But it’s well worth it, and the Kennedy Center is well-positioned to lead the way.
So, all I need is to reacquaint myself with a map, maybe get some pointers on traffic patterns, and with any chance I’ll make it into the building next Fall. Stay tuned.
Last month, a very special kind of homecoming happened. The stunning cellist Joshua Roman walked onto the stage of Benaroya Hall and premiered my cello concerto with the Seattle Symphony, the orchestra which he famously joined at age 21 to become principal cello. It was a homecoming primarily for him, but also for me: my wife comes from Seattle, and it’s been a second home for a decade and a half. Between Josh’s array of fans and my family, we sure had a lot of plants in the audience.
It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to premiere a piece before so many friends and family, but the event was especially poignant because it was a moment when Josh and I came full circle. Here’s how it happened.
Years ago, we were thrown together in a shotgun wedding, courtesy of the YouTube Symphony. This crazy-beautiful project assembled an entire symphony online and brought everyone together for an over-the-top show at Carnegie Hall. That quick-fire collaborative process extended to me and Josh. Asked if we wanted to perform an electro-acoustic improv at Le Poisson Rouge, we threw caution to the wind and came up with our material in a hotel room the day before. (Note of prudence: if YouTube is sponsoring something, count on it being highly visible online for ever.) It was a rough-around-the-edges little performance, but it proved to be a fantastic way of getting to know each other.
For one thing, I saw Josh’s unusual gifts up close. He can play just about anything with perfect technique, dead-on intonation, and the most natural yet surprising phrasing. The other advantage of starting our collaboration in a club was that we both saw each other with our hair down. Simply put, Josh can rock. Perhaps this element of his personality came from his time in Seattle, kingdom of indie rock, or maybe it extends to his Mid-American roots in Oklahoma. In any case, that breadth of ability always interests me, and it appeared in the concerto in the form of a guitar pick (more on that later).
But Seattle figures into this story in another way. Our second collaboration occurred on Josh’s Town Hall series, a hugely well-attended event that Josh has turned into an eclectic platform for his wide-ranging curating. I wrote him a fiendishly difficult solo piece that was delivered only a few months before the premiere. Not only did he nail it in front of a packed house, but he had the courage to walk out in front of 800 people and play it from memory. The piece is full of shifting meters and similar-but-different chromatic phrases. I still am put into a quiet amazement when I think about how he memorized it.
So, as this circle came to completion last month, we had two very different kinds of collaborations behind us. It was the perfect setup for a concerto.
This concerto is unusual in my output because it carries no narrative. In works ranging from Liquid Interface to Alternative Energy, I’ve enjoyed resurrecting the 19th Century programmatic approach, infusing it with wildly new sounds, and taking way further than it ever went. Even in my Violin Concerto (recently released by the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers), vivid imagery lies beneath the surface with titles such as “Archaeopteryx” (the first dinosaur/bird hybrid). That well served the Violin Concerto, which vividly conjures the Upper Jurassic with a big symphonic sound. But for Josh, I wanted a different approach, not only to differentiate the two works but also to keep the cello well heard.
After all, a huge symphonic sound would make it especially difficult to balance the cello, which is even more challenging to keep in the foreground than the violin. So the piece unfolds almost like a solo meditation from Josh with imaginative, transparent orchestral sounds hovering behind him. That’s where the kalimba came in.
You probably have played a kalimba, also known as thumb piano, at some point in your childhood. I am not aware of any occurrence in the symphonic repertoire, but the sound became ingrained in me after I got interested in West African music. So in the concerto, I ask two percussionists to play hocketing kalimbas, laying down a quietly rhythmic bed that sounds exactly like what it is : plucked metal. Josh enters over this, singing a wide-ranging melody that is answered by the orchestral in a haunting manner.
Plectrum – or, plucked sound – also figures heavily in the third movement. That’s where the guitar pick comes in. I’d once called for a guitar pick in a string quartet years ago, and I loved the “twang pizzicato” sound it produced. With Josh’s rock influences in mind, I designed an entire section of the finale around this technique. At one point he is instructed to lay down a punk-like bassline of blazing eighth-notes.
Extended techniques even appear in the ambient middle movement. Josh is asked to play a kind of “ping-pong richochet,” which sounds something like a ball bouncing on the cello strings. It is a subtle but effective technique, and it came to mind as I heard Josh doodling on his instrument once on Skype.
This month the concerto goes to the Columbus Symphony and then on to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra next season. Already it feels like a mature performance due to the amount of time Josh has spent with the work. This one has been a long time coming. It’s great to come full circle.
Mason Bates brings Mercury Soul back to the Bay Area with an evening of classical music merged with live electronica DJ sets at Ruby Skye! Get tix and info at www.mercurysoul.org/events.
An immersive chamber piece about the Colorado River. This movement conjures the river's collision with the massive Hoover Dam.
• European premiere of Violin Concerto in Lyon
• Marin Alsop conducts Anthology of Fantastic Zoology
• Munich: ballet to Violin Concerto by Aszure Barton
• 2nd most-performed living composer (O’Bannon)
September 21st, 2011
Performances by Del Sol Quartet • Thalea Quartet •
Elevate Ensemble • Maestro Christian Baldini
DJ sets by DJ Masonic • DJ Justin Reed •
& members of SF’s renown Housepitality crew