Sending a satellite into space takes vision, madness, collaboration, and patience. These are also important elements, too, in the less celestial field of classical music – for this is a world of long gestations and late payoffs. Much time is required to compose a new piece, and years may pass before it enjoys widespread appreciation or is released on CD. And then one day, many years after the work’s conception, some happy news might come beaming back: for me last month, this came in the form of two Grammy nominations.
One of the nominated recordings, the San Francisco Symphony’s Bates: Works for Orchestra, includes two works that are almost ten years old. When I started Liquid Interface, I was living on Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in 2006, a less seasoned composer and human than I am today. But the piece nonetheless demonstrates many topics of ongoing fascination for me.
The most obvious is the addition of electronics, and my approach to this new element has evolved significantly over the span the pieces on these recordings. Certainly the influence of downtempo electronica can be heard in Liquid Interface’s opening movement, which conjures the calving of glaciers by shattering huge blocks of symphonic textures over massive trip-hop beats; but the more important element of the electronics is the theatricality it brings to the symphony’s form. That was an early revelation for me.
Actual recordings of glaciers hitting the Antarctic open the work; samples of water droplets become a quicksilver beat track; and processed recordings of a hurricane explode in the climax. This is where it becomes impossible to separate form and content – ie, the narrative of a work, and the sounds used to articulate that narrative – and where an expanded soundworld enables more imaginative forms. In Liquid Interface, I pushed the electronic sounds to behave with the richness of orchestral sounds, to carry not only rhythm and harmony, but place and context.
That approach underlies both of the other works on the SFS CD in different ways. The B-Sides uses a completely different form: five brief touchdowns on surreal planets, from the north shore of Kauai to the outer atmosphere of Earth. Each movement uses specific musical techniques to realize a mini drama.
For example, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)” imagines a melody that evaporates at cadence points. The woodwinds sing a bending melody that, at each pause in the phrase, is enveloped in a cloud of string harmonics that float upwards. The central movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” sets an actual NASA spacewalk to music, and I found it to be the most challenging but also the most rewarding movement to compose. The human ear behaves peculiarly when it hears speech; it kind of relegates everything else to deep background. At first I was a bit distressed at moving the orchestra from being the primary focus, but I eventually realized that this created a magnificent opportunity to surprise the listener by having the orchestral reassert itself. In this movement, you hear the astronaut exit the spacecraft – and then the orchestra takes over. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a key mentor in my exploration of form and content, and his commissioning of The B-Sides gave me a big opportunity to try a new approach.
The final work on the SFS CD, Alternative Energy, exploded this narrative approach to the orchestra. The piece is an ‘energy symphony’ that moves one hundred years ahead with each of the four movements, from Henry Ford’s scrapyard to a post-energy future in Iceland. The key in the great programmatic music of history, from Tchaikovsky to Berlioz to Corigliano, is to make the musical materials as vivid and memorable as the narrative. This requires highly distinctive musical materials that push the orchestra into new territory. Alternative Energy requires a small junkyard to be assembled in the percussion section, haunting the concertmaster who plays a bluesy fiddle concerto. As the piece unfolds into the present day and then an imagined future, you can hear the idée fixe melody and the junkyard rhythmic motif transform into larger and more extreme versions.
Both in its theatrical use of orchestral sounds to articulate extra-musical narrative, and its connection the Chicago Symphony that commissioned it, Alternative Eenrgy is worth considering alongside the other Grammy nominated recording, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.
Riccardo Muti premiered both works, and his highly attuned approach to musical drama certainly informed both works. Having led the opera house at La Scala for several decades, Muti knows how to wring the most dramatic sounds out of an orchestra. I wrote him a purely acoustic piece that was highly informed by my years working with the power and drama of electronics.
Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is a setting of the book by Luis-Jorge Borges, a master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, who created a marvelous compendium of mythological creatures. My 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.
Each narrative puzzle prompted novel musical solutions. In “Sprite,” the riffs hop from stand to stand, shattering the normally monolithic string section into several dozen soloists; a musical palindrome conjures a serpentine creature that slithers up and down a tower; and “Sirens” are evoked by two offstage violins who seduce their colleagues one by one.
The trick of the piece is that all of the animals fuse together at the end, when the preceding 25 minutes collapses in a thunderous 10-minute finale that occurs at the witching-hour moment between midnight and dawn. 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.
Heard together, the works on these two CDs show a decade of exploration of symphonic sounds and form, and as much as I appreciate the Grammy nominations, the biggest honor was simply having these pieces recorded to begin with. Recording new symphonic music is a very big leap for any orchestra, and it’s nice when their efforts can bring some recognition. These two orchestras, the SF Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have been essential partners in my musical development, as have their maestros.
If you want to take a listen to either CD, you can find both here. Enjoy!
Always interesting to emerge from my dark composing cave and encounter the bright flashing lights at a DJ gig. Last week I stumbled blinking from my studio, where I’ve been editing and orchestrating The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and dropped into a pumping club-meets-classical show on the Kennedy Center’s Jukebox series called Mercury Soul. Here’s an overview of those two projects:
My opera is in its final stages after two years and two workshops. The primary things I learned from the workshops were simple on the surface: where to tighten, and where to give more space.
Tightening is almost always needed in new opera. Often I love the arias of new works, but the oversetting of plot-driven passages always makes me impatient. I like to move rapidly and naturalistically through these sections to create a huge contrast with the big singing moments, which are usually when a character dwells upon one idea while the plot takes a pause. This opera is driven by an Information Age kineticism, so the scenes were already fast-paced and less needing of cuts. But we did find a few places to tighten. There are a few Tarantino-esque scene reprises that, on the second time through, needed less of a literal repeat. It’s amazing what a few nips and tucks can do.
On the other end of the spectrum, more space was needed on a micro-level around key words and phrases. This was primarily because I kept the scenes moving so quickly, and also because of my aforementioned aversion to over-setting of plot text. Conductor Michael Christie and librettist Mark Campbell suggested a bit more air here and there around a meaningful word or two. Just a beat or so significantly helps the singers be better actors, and it helps the audience understand what they’re singing. The accumulation of these details can make a big difference over the course of 90 minutes.
With the workshops behind me, I set about the herculean task of orchestration. These days it’s my version of cave-painting: whatever you’re doing, you can be sure that I’m deep in my hole orchestrating this piece. An opera is something like a concerto in its orchestration approach, since you always need to hear the soloist. I’m doing the best I can to imbue the orchestra with visceral punch without overpowering the singers.
Interestingly, the most important element in opera orchestration is how you handle the one thing not in the orchestra: the singers. The better a composer understands the tessitura of each singer, the higher likelihood they’ll project no matter what’s happening in the pit. I think of vocal writing as kite-surfing in micro-climates: each voice becomes a different instrument with every interval of a third (whereas instruments tend to change by the octave). I’ve gotten to know all the wonderful things about Ed Parks and Sasha Cooke’s voices over the past year, hopefully I’ll do them justice.
I emerged from my studio and headed to the Kennedy Center to mount Mercury Soul there, a refreshing change from the minutia-obsessive world of opera orchestration. Mercury Soul show intersperses DJing and club production with sets of classical music, and it primarily occurs in commercial clubs out in San Francisco where the non-profit is based. But we’ve done many institutional events over the years with groups as far-flung as the Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New World Symphonies, and bringing this hybrid musical event to my current artistic home was exhilarating.
The Kennedy Center can go big like few other organizations. I’ve seen in my position as composer-in-residence that the place has the ability to create large, immersive experiences in stunning ways. My new music series KC Jukebox takes format exploration as a key ingredient of every concert, using projected information and fluid environments to reimagine the concert experience. So I knew our crackerjack production team could turn the top floor of the Kennedy Center into a club and set about finding the repertoire.
For this show we complemented Bach, Stravinsky, and Adams with composer and hip-hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose energetic string quartets were a perfect fit for the club-meets-classical collision. A big added bonus was Daniel’s improvisational abilities. This guy not only has stunning chops on the fiddle, but he understands the nuances of grooving over electronica. Whenever he would sense a mix from me, he’d start evolving his jam accordingly, so that we both transitioned together. This may sound obvious but, in fact, playing an instrument over a DJ set can be punishingly difficult. The harmonies migrates so quickly; the tracks vary greatly in their density level; and, at the end of the day, records cannot react to the live player as in a jazz trio. Daniel mastered all of these challenges with the confidence of someone who truly understands both worlds.
A strong turnout for the event confirmed that DC is hungry for immersive and challenging artistic experiences, and the Kennedy Center is uniquely positioned to make those happen. Maybe some critics and bloggers may not want to hear classical music presented this way, I passionately believe that creative formats are the next frontier in our field, and our audiences have encountered a lot of challenging music in the most entertaining social platform. And anyway, I kind of like the experiment of moving from Stravinsky to Prince to techno within ten minutes (they play well together).
Now I return to my California composing cave, grateful for the time in the sun but ready to take a fresh look at the opera. If you have any interest in seeing The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs lift off next summer, tickets just went on sale here.
It’s been a nice summer composing and performing in beautiful places. I began with Liquid Interface and Mothership in Rio, continued with The B-Sides under Marin Alsop in Santa Cruz, and ended with several visits to Santa Fe to work at the opera house. Otherwise, I was at home chipping away at the silence around the opera itself, as well as preparing for a full season of visits to the Kennedy Center, my artistic home. Here is an overview of 2016-17, including performances of works new and old; info about my coming opera debut; and info about the debut of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, a film starring Matthew McConaughey for which I scored the music. Enjoy! Mason
Kennedy Center: National Symphony
My duties as composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center touch on the wide variety of artistic endeavors there, from chamber music to jazz to opera to theater. The most natural fit is with the renown National Symphony Orchestra, which is performing three works these season: Liquid Interface, Garages of the Valley, and a new work celebrating the life of John F. Kennedy. Scored for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronica, the work will set the poetry of longtime JFK confidant Robert Frost. The premiere occurs on a star-studded concert on May 24, 2017 – the centennial of JFK’s birth.
Kennedy Center: KC Jukebox
A primary focus for me at the Center is the KC Jukebox series, which presents new music in new formats, with immersive production, imaginative stagecraft, and integrated social platforms. Last season took us from a walk-through of a century of ambient music to a “geographical concert” ending with an eco-themed post-party. This season is even bigger and wilder, including the choral superstars Chanticleer, who will be premiering a work of mine in May, and the Thievery Corporation – famed pioneers of electronic-jazz fusion. We begin next month with Mercury Soul, my classical-club project that intersperses classical sets throughout an evening of DJing. Also on the Jukebox are two large works of John Adams, who turns 70 this year.
Philadelphia Orchestra and beyond
Equally as important to me as the premiere of a new work is the life of older pieces, and it is always exciting to forge a new relationship with a great orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances of Alternative Energy under Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will bring the visceral soundworld of my ‘energy symphony’ to the Kimmel Center, and it will be thrilling to hear those sounds brought to life by such a storied ensemble. Other big happenings this season: the New Zealand Symphony touring my Violin Concerto with the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers; Forth Worth Symphony’s performances of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, which was just heard at the Britt Festival under Maestro Teddy Abrams; and the Cello Concerto at Memphis Symphony under my longtime collaborator Robert Moody.
Opera and film
Last week marked a new step for me with the premiere of a film that I scored. Legendary filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees starts Matthew McConaughey Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe in a mystery-drama set in Japan, and it tells the beautiful and haunting story of marriage and memory. The symphonic score was recorded at Skywalker Studios outside of San Francisco and features some new sounds from me, including an elaborate solo for shakuhachi (bamboo flute). Click here for info.http://theseaoftrees-movie.com.
Sometimes the Big Break airdrops into your life like a helicopter kill squad. In mid November 2014, I had never written a feature length film score; three months later, I’d scored 50 minutes of swirling symphonic textures for a film from director Gus Van Sant, the visionary behind Goodwill Hunting, Milk and many other films. Coming out today in select theaters and on Amazon, The Sea of Trees marks the exploration of a new medium for me.
Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe star in this mystery drama about a man searching for meaning in Japan’s Suicide Forest, known locally as “Aokigahara” because of the many people who go there to end their lives. Here’s the backstory on the score for this film.
The movie opens with McConaughey booking a one-way flight to Japan, then being driven to the edge of a vast forest. In a strangely detached state, he walks past eerie personal memorials and human remains – and almost ends his life. But out of the trees emerges a man muttering in Japanese, with blood dripping from his wrists. McConaughey’s death mission gets interrupted as a he leaps to help the man, and the two go on a mystical journey through the sprawling wood.
With many beautiful, dialogue-free forest scenes, The Sea of Trees presented intriguing challenges to me as a composer. This began with my tryout for the job itself, the scoring of the 7-minute climactic scene of McConaughey searching the forest for Watanabe. The assignment came from Gus, who had become interested in my music and wanted to see how I would respond to a huge, visually-driven scene. Gus was mum when I asked what temp music he’d been working with; he wanted me to start from scratch.
I responded not with the ambient pads that might have too literally matched the picture, but with kinetic symphonic music that mirrored the inner emotional energy of the main character. There is a burning, quiet intensity to Matthew McConaughey, and the way he was seemingly pushed along by the forest itself suggested swirling, almost liquid textures. You can hear the energy of the strings subside as McConaughey approaches each clue in the forest – an old package, a piece of string, a coat – and then rekindle as he moves again. I sent in the demo.
A few days later, the phone rang. Gus was all in – and I had to be in LA the next morning. And so it began.
The experience was captivating from the start because, like the narrative forms my music animates, film focuses on imaginative storytelling. Turns of dialogue, a slow tumble shot, even a subtle focus change can suggest a musical response. You have to think about what is perceptible, what is working in the background, what the expectation is – and how to play with it.
One of the most interesting things I learned about was the role of the editor. Working with Gus Van Sant and legendary editor Pietro Scalia, I had a front row seat on the dynamic duo behind many stunning films. Gus has a disarming quietness; he rarely speaks, and when does, everyone listens. He has a powerful faith in his instincts. Pietro has an expert way of sensing where Gus is going and gently pointing others in that direction.
One example concerned the Japanese setting. How to set the scene without, well, becoming too kitschy?
I started exploring a soundworld of symphonic strings, percussion, and woodwinds, with a special focus on the shakuhachi. I’d never written for this Japanese instrument, and my experience over the next few months a revelation. While the shakuhachi has an earthy and haunting tone, it can’t really play chromatic notes (black notes on the piano) without a lot of effort (finger or lip bends). So I made a kind of hybrid ‘super flute’ consisting of shakuhachi and alto flute. Being able to bend reality in the studio is one of the interesting things about film work that a composer misses in the world of live performance, as much as I love the classical space.
Working with such a legendary director on a film starring so many captivating actors was one of the most exciting and daunting experiences of my life. The composer is the absolute last piece of any film, and everyone is sitting in a den of offices in LA, eagerly waiting for your music. You have to deliver. New vocabulary, new techniques, and (yes) new software is required – as well as the important realization that the composer is serving the film.
In my primary world of the orchestra, the composer has such strong creative input – the musical equivalent of “final cut” on everything from the piece to its performance – so it’s nice to change your creative method sometimes. In not only film but in opera, one draws real power from working with others. From editor Pietro Scalia to music editor Ryan Rubin, the team was incredibly inspirational. I’m very grateful to Gus for his vision and for his faith in me. I am so grateful to be part of this beautiful film.
I’m astonished to say it: my largest piece is being released on recording almost year to the day from its premiere. Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a psychedelic bestiary teeming with strange creatures and wild sonic effects, is out now on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Resound label, just short of the work’s one-year birthday (click here for purchase info).
For a symphonic composer, that’s a very special birthday present. Consider that my most-performed work, Mothership, took almost six years to find its way onto anyone’s iPod. Or that the beautiful recent San Francisco Symphony disc includes what I consider to be my first symphony, the almost ten-year Liquid Interface. Working with orchestras, a composer feels like a tiny version of a film studio: from conception to premiere to recording can take an eternity, owing to the complexities of such a human-heavy medium. So the quick release of Anthology marks a rare moment when a wide audience can check out the latest monster I’ve created (six of them actually).
Anthology is a setting of the book by Jorge Luis Borges, a master of magical realism and narrative puzzles, who created a marvelous compendium of mythological creatures. My 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 collapse in a thunderous 10-minute finale.
In its colorful evocation of different creatures, the work resembles a concerto for orchestra in its focus on different soloists and sections to conjure the various animals. This became quite a valentine to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony with whom I worked for five years as composer-in-residence, and especially to Maestro Riccardo Muti.
Muti is a master musical dramatist, a man with an innate understanding of the relationship between music and theater and, by extension, the human condition. At so many rehearsals over the past half-decade, I sat with fellow composer Anna Clyne and watched him draw surprising textures from the orchestra with just a few words or gestures. A seemingly light-hearted comment about the beach completely transformed Strauss’s Aus Italien; a remark about the strange cello-bassoon melody in Verdi’s Macbeth turned the soundworld several shades darker. Rarely-heard works such as Berlioz’s Lélio, which included not only singers but actor Gerard Depardieu, showed the maestro at the helm of a massive musical-theatrical steamboat. Many of symphonic music’s most audacious ideas have come out of opera and theater, and I’ve found a similar inspiration in setting unusual forms to music.
So I gave the maestro a copy of Borges’ book and started running ideas by him: could the sprite hop from stand to stand, shattering the normally monolithic string section into several dozen soloists? Could a serpentine creature that slithers up and down a tower be conjured by an exact musical palindrome? Could the sirens be evoked by two offstage violins who seduce their colleagues one by one? Sometimes the maestro would just smile; sometimes his face would slightly change, and he’d offer very specific advice (avoid over-precision in the siren movement, which attains a fuzziness due to the offstage players).
The biggest challenge was changing the rules as the piece unfolded. After a collection of shorter movements, including some 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. Engineering that finale required that I create a half-dozen interlocking themes at the outset, and a heavy lift of musical planning made possible by the teaching of my mentor John Corigliano.
With the release of this work, I’m hit with a rush of nostalgia for my friends and colleagues at the Chicago Symphony. Timpanist David Herbert takes a starring role as the Gryphon on thirteen drums. Clarinetists Stephen Williamson and John Yeh frolic as nymphs. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh conjures the A Bao a Qu on all manner of percussion. Chris Martin gets us all high with his piccolo trumpet, with the rest of the brass section soaring underneath him. Cellists Ken Olsen and Brant Taylor get seduced by the sirens, along with everyone else in their section.
An orchestra is, at its most basic, a vehicle of many human personalities. I’m deeply grateful to this one.
To purchase a copy of the album, visit iTunes here:
To stream the album on Apple Music:
That hermit crab that pops out its hole and peers at the world? That’s me this month.
After a few quiet months focused on composing, I now scurry out from my studio-cocoon and interact with the rest of the world. It’s an exciting month featuring the premiere of a neo-baroque work for the San Francisco Symphony; the London debut of a large new ballet based on my Anthology of Fantastic Zoology; a multi-media National Symphony concert under dynamo maestro Hugh Wolff; and an appearance on the inaugural Festival of American Music with the storied Lousiville Orchestra. This crab will be scurrying indeed.
Coming on the heels of a beautifully-produced CD from the San Francisco Symphony, the April 27-29 premiere of Auditorium is especially meaningful. This work is quite different from anything I’ve done before. The piece takes the premise that an orchestra, like a person, can be haunted. Ghostly remixed recordings of period instruments trail the live orchestra, with riffs being passed across the void like on a giant Ouija board. What begins as a haunting evolves into a kind of ‘techno bourée,’ with the two musical entities reaching an ethereal resolution.
After Michael Tilson Thomas directed me to some obscure 18th Century composers (classic MTT maneuver), I conceived of a work that would approach not only the style and musical mannerisms of that period, but the actual instruments themselves. So I composed neo-baroque music for the wonderfully strange instruments of that era, then remixed that material in ways that could never be played live. Chords swoosh on, melodies flicker like poltergeists.
For a dude whose medium is symphonic, working with a baroque orchestra is something like a spoken word artist hanging with a bunch of Enlightenment poets. I loved writing for traverso (more recorder than flute), baroque bassoon (more tree than bassoon), and theorbo (harp meets Guitar Hero). The baroque oboe has beautifully earthy and vulnerable textures, while the natural horn and trumpet make every note feel like a discovery. In the same way that working with electronic sounds forever changed my outlook, so has composing for period instruments. (I just might start wearing a powdered wig.)
A few weeks before that, I’ll catch rehearsals of Aszure Barton’s new ballet based on Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a sprawling work that depicts the dark fantasy of Jorge-Luis Borges. Anthology always had ballet in its DNA, heavily informed by the colorful Russian ballet scores of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky. I wrote it for the Chicago Symphony and Maestro Riccardo Muti, kind of a swan song after five years in residence there, and the piece became an exuberant ‘concerto for orchestra’ in which various instruments depict all manner of magical creatures.
Aszure Barton, one of the world’s leading choreographers, has a rare and deep understanding of symphonic music. She has choreographed several large pieces of mine, and I thought about her work a lot as I composed this piece. She’s a leading light and I can’t wait to see her new creation.
Right after the English National Ballet performance, I head to the Kennedy Center to hear the stunning Anne Akiko Meyers perform my Violin Concerto with the National Symphony under Hugh Wolff (April 14-16). Anne has a huge following based on her superb musical skills and her creative recording projects, and this piece owes a huge debt to both. She not only performed it with orchestras all over the world, she brought it to a wide audience with an exceptional CD.
Check out the April 15 concert. The National Symphony has created a new symphonic format called Declassified which enriches a concert with imaginative production: lighting, videos, projections, and social events. This particular show features two other works of mine beyond the concerto: The B-Sides and The Rise of Exotic Computing. It’s the first time an entire program has focused on my music, and it’s very meaningful that it’s happening in my artistic home base. The Kennedy Center has proved to be an extraordinary place to work as the resident composer, with a constellation of artforms spinning under one roof. If you can make it to DC for this concert, it will have as many bells and whistles as the premiere of Mothership by the YouTube Symphony.
And last but not least, I am so excited to see what Maestro Teddy Abrams is doing with the Louisville Orchestra. A protégé of MTT, Teddy matches his brilliant programming with stellar musicianship and engaging presentation. And Louisville is a storied ensemble, with a stellar recording catalogue that did much to raise awareness of American composers. Regional orchestras provide much of the fresh thinking in the field, but they are the most underreported story in classical music. I look forward to sharing my experiences performing Mothership on the inaugural Festival of American Music … and, being in Kentucky, drinking lots of bourbon. I’ll need it this month!
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.
Mason tells the story of when Michael Tilson Thomas first asked him to compose a piece for the San Francisco Symphony, starting a long, fruitful relationship culminating in a Grammy nomination for Bates' album Works for Orchestra. Check out the album at sfsymphony.org/masonbates
No musical body possesses the power and range of the cello ensemble. Eight carbon-copy instruments present many intriguing possibilities for shattered figuration.
• SFS “Works for Orchestra” Grammy nominated
• Anthology of Fantastic Zoology Grammy nominated
• Santa Fe Opera tickets for Steve Jobs opera on sale
September 21st, 2011