Composers are social extremophiles. Whether working in classical, film, rock, or jazz, all composers alternate between long solitary stretches and sudden bursts of interaction. We need spend vast amounts of time inside our heads to create the music that, at some point, will be played and heard by lots of other humans. I’ve come to enjoy this alternation, as it gives a kind of sun-up/sun-down rhythm to life.
Just now I’m emerging from a cave-dwelling period, during which time I have been finishing Auditorium for an April premiere with the San Francisco Symphony. Now I venture into the sunlight for performances with the Baltimore Symphony and at the Kennedy Center, two great institutions only an hour apart but unique in their own ways.
The cave I’m peering out from is haunted by the sounds of ancient instruments. Auditorium begins with the premise that an orchestra, like a person, can be possessed. This piece haunts the San Francisco Symphony with ghostly processed recordings of a baroque ensemble, with the electronic part comprise entirely of original neo-baroque music I’m composing and recording with the San Francisco Conservatory’s period instrument ensemble under Corey Jamason. Essentially it is a work for two orchestras – one live, one dead – and it has been challenging me and fascinating me for me the past nine months.
There are lots of stunning works in the repertoire that approach old music, from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This piece turns the idea on its head by using actual period instruments in an electronically-processed manner – having the baroque group swoosh onstage, play a beautiful chord, then reverse backwards and whip offstage like an apparition. The goal of the work is to explore not only the musical mannerisms of the baroque and classical periods, but also the unique sound of the actual instruments of that period, and it happens April 27-29.
So, trailed by the sounds of harpsichord, traverso, natural horn, and theorbo, I head to Washington D.C. and Baltimore for bright lights and loud noises.
Up first is the 100th Anniversary of the Baltimore Symphony with Marin Alsop, who I’ve had the good fortune to work with in California for many years at the Cabrillo Festival. Mothership with Baltimore is especially exciting for a couple of reasons. It’s nice to work with Marin on her home turf and see how vibrant her orchestra is. The musicians seem fully behind her and the community has very much embraced the orchestra (a particularly stunning moment occurred last year when the BSO offered a free public concert in the midst of the Freddie Gray riot). It’s also cool to encounter two stunning improvisers from the Baltimore music scene, Tim Grey and Chris Jacobs, who will solo in the work’s improvisatory sections.
Both with its electro-acoustic soundworld and its optional inclusion of improvisors, Mothership has allowed orchestras to push beyond the perceived boundaries of the medium, and it was exciting to hear from BSO resident journalist Rick O’Bannon about the work’s status in the repertoire. My goal has always been to evolve the orchestral palette, so it’s nice to see that a piece involving several new elements can join the other fine works on O’Bannon’s list.
After Baltimore, I head through the Beltway to my artistic home base, the Kennedy Center, for the next KC Jukebox concert, “Of Land & Sea.” This “new music in new formats” series got off to great start in November, when a sellout crowd turned out for our opening concert that explored ambient music through the ages (from Satie to Eno, and everything in between). Seeing five hundred Washingtonians turn out for a very left-field event inspired me and many of my colleagues at the Center. There seems to be more of an appetite for imaginative new experiences in Washington than anyone might think, and we’re looking to explore that in the Jukebox series and other cool endeavors happening there.
“Of Land & Sea” is example of the kind ‘through-curated’ experience that the Kennedy Center is uniquely equipped to create. The program features music inspired by geography, from the Alaska tundra (John Luther Adams) to the jungles of Peru (Gabriela Frank), from the Colorado Rockies (my Red River) to Hawaii and the ocean (Rouse and Puts). Around this, we are creating social platforms that integrate into this eco thematic: a pre-party hang with jungly set set design and lighting, and a more involved post-party featuring DJ Moose (Daniel Ssebowa Musisi) spinning world beats amidst an evolving backdrop of environmental imagery related to the works on the concert. Like all of the Jukebox events, projections run throughout the event, including the cinematic program notes floating in and out during the concert.
If you are in DC on February 22, please join us – you’ll catch me out of my cave for a moment, and you’ll catch a cool show!
It’s such a rare and cherished opportunity to write for orchestra, and rarer still to have the pieces make it onto a CD. The infinite variety of sounds and the real-time collaboration of so many people distinguish the medium from any other, but it also makes recordings so hard to pull off.
Over the past two decades, I’ve been very fortunate to have so many orchestras join me in an exploration of new symphonic sounds, whether enhanced by electronics or unplugged—yet until this moment, very few pieces could be heard outside the concert hall. So the release of a new album from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is an incredibly special moment for me, a moment when folks can finally listen to my symphonic music in their own home. The CD includes several of my most-performed works in addition to ones that marked artistic breakthroughs for me:
The entrance of swells of cicadas drives the work to a midnight blues section, where an insectoid beat grooves along with the orchestra. The lush melody that appears at the climax links all the ambient clouds of the opening, and in fact it was the first thing written in the piece. I knew the clouds would be more meaningful if they could be linked by an invisible tune that we don’t hear until later. That’s an architectural approach that owes much to my mentor John Corigliano, though the work’s soundworld is as much informed by the atmospheres of Ligeti as the blues of Gershwin.
The epiphany for me in this piece was imbuing the electronic sounds not only with rhythm, but with drama: they could take you to a place, they could introduce content into a work that a traditional symphony could not. That dramatic touch can also be heard in the snippet of Pima Indians that emerges in Desert Transport, which conjures a helicopter ride across the Arizona landscape.
Desert Transport collides a “machine” piece and a “pastoral” piece. Music about nature has existed for centuries, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 to Debussy’s La Mer, but music about machines also has a robust history. Honegger’s Pacific 231 evokes a steam locomotive, and pieces from Adams’ Short Ride to Rouse’s Infernal Machine are familiar to audiences.
The idea to collide these natural and technological motifs occurred to me at the Arizona Music Festival, where a local helicopter pilot took me on a tour of the stunning desert landscape. The journey begins with a two-minute orchestral accelerando that evokes a helicopter liftoff, and the continually quickening tempo proved quite an enticing compositional challenge. But the ultimate destination of the work is the mystical heights of Montezuma’s Castle, a Native American cliff-dwelling thousands of feet over the desert floor. To capture the true essence of the desert, I felt the work needed to pay homage to the Pima Indians who inhabited it. I found a beautiful field recording of them singing and, after gratefully receiving permission, I wove it into the mystical Sedona section of the piece. Even in a brief appearance, electronics can take the orchestra to a magical space. The field recording features a soulful singer and the gentle rhythm of an accompanying rattle.
The album’s title work, Mothership, occupies a special place in my life not only because of the exposure it gave my music, but because it was the first time I wrote a real concert opener. Works such as Rusty Air were written almost as anti-openers, a young composer pushing back against the notion of a quick-footed overture. It turns out it’s hard to write an original opener – a short, energetic work that occupies its own soundworld. Looming behind Motherhsip’s composition was Michael Tilson Thomas, who commissioned the piece as director of the YouTube Symphony. YouTube had given me only one parameter – to include improvisation – so I designed the piece around the idea of a mothership being ‘docked’ by virtuosos. One of the soloists from the premiere, Su Cheng, returns in this recording, playing an array of guzhengs (a Chinese zither) in the second half of the piece. In the beginning we hear Jason Moran, the amazing jazz pianist who runs Kennedy Center Jazz, on FM Rhodes. Having two improvisers from outside classical music on Mothership is in keeping with the spirit of its premiere, and I am very honored to have both of these gifted musicians on the disc.
Two completely unplugged works are included, the brief and energetic Attack Decay Sustain Release and the longer Sea-Blue Circuitry. The latter shatters the jazz harmonies and rhythms that I absorbed from such an early age (thanks to my father’s records), with grooves hiccupping from measure to measure as rapidly as data quietly flashing on the silicon innards of a computer. I have always admired jazz harmony as the most complex music we can still feel, and this work pixelates jazz harmonies in a pointillistic way.
Taken together, these five works provide a look into a part of my musical world that I’ve been eager to record for a long time. They are superbly brought to life by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an American treasure. This group has done an immense amount to document and disseminate new symphonic music, and they play like rockstars. Check out their other recordings, from Andrew Norman to Matthew Rosenblum. And if you want to check out this one, please order it on iTunes, Amazon, or from BMOP itself. For once, I don’t need a concert hall (only your living room).
Can an entire arts ecosystem exist in under one roof? In one building? Usually we think of an arts scene as drawing power from a broad community reaching into different pockets of a city, something like electrical outlets that artists both feed into and off of. At the Kennedy Center, both of these things are true – it’s very much a part of the city, and a city onto itself – and until I started to spend some time here, I never appreciated how much astonishing and vibrant work is happening in the nation’s arts center.
In the past two months alone, I’ve experienced remarkably fresh thinking in a place that, fairly on unfairly, maybe has the perception of possessing a certain institutional arthritis. That’s starting to change in a big way.
One program featured two genius pianists (at least by the designation of the MacArthur Foundation). Jason Moran, the gifted charismatic leader of Kennedy Center Jazz, invited classical mindfreak Jeremy Denk to share a program on his Jason+ series. Jason has a broad idea of how jazz intersects with the larger constellation of performing arts, and this series often brings outside-the-field musicians into the jazz conversation in novel ways.
In this concert, each pianist approached the other. Jeremy played selections from the classical repertoire that touch on jazzy rhythms and harmonies, with works from Hindemith to Ives to Nancarrow. Hearing them alongside Jason’s performances of Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, and others, I started to rethink some of my perceptions of all of them. The connective tissue between Ellington and Nancarrow probably runs much deeper than I’d realized. At the end of the concert, the two pianists drifted back and forth from piece to piece – and we were all mesmerized.
A few weeks later we launched the opening of KC Jukebox, a new-music series experimenting with new formats and presentations, with a show called Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music. I’ve become something of an evangelist on the topic of presenting music in new ways, with my classical/club show Mercury Soul requiring complex production and stagecraft in alternative venues. But I’ve never migrated a huge crowd through three different spaces as we did on the first KC Jukebox.
It was a true experiment for all involved. The audience embarked on a journey through a century of ambient music, walking through three period-appropriate lounges as the night progressed. The sleek 21st Century lounge featured DJ’d electronica (Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars); a trippy 1970’s space presented California minimalism (LaMonte Young and Steve Reich); and a vast hazy Parisian lounge at the end, with Satie’s ‘furniture music’ of the 1920’s. Guiding the listener was projected information, a key part of my curating projects: “ambient information” floating on walls and flatscreens about the music and the eras they inhabited. That a soldout crowd of five hundred Washingtonians turned out for KC Jukebox is an indication of D.C.’s appetite for artistic adventure. (Check out the video below for a snapshot of the event.)
That hunger could also be seen in the well-attended premieres of three mini-operas commissioned by Washington National Opera, whose American Opera Initiative brings together budding composers and librettists. The idea is to create 20-minute operas that touch on contemporary American themes. The WNO provides excellent singers, a chamber orchestra, and even a bit of costumes and staging. There is a lot of interest in new opera these days, with companies large and small commissioning new works – so it’s especially important that composers and librettists have bite-sized opportunities to learn the ropes. This is yet another way that Francesca Zambello continues to make a huge impact on new opera. After mounting the hugely successful new production of Philip Glass’ Appomatox last month, she then reminded us this month that she also nurtures young composers too.
To cap all this, I walked onto stage this week with the National Symphony to join an astonishing program of American music. The oldest piece was Copland’s Billy the Kid; the newest was my Mothership. In between those poles was the marvelous Dance Overture by Paul Creston – a mid-century American composer who should be revived more often – and the fantastic Toccata Festiva of Samuel Barber.
This is a stunning and strange tour de force for organ and orchestra. Cameron Carpenter proved once again that he is one of classical music’s most compelling emissaries, with all appendages flying as he tore through the mini-concerto. (A high point was the pedal solo in which Cameron looked like he was tap-dancing.) He followed the Barber with his own improvisations, which not only pushed the instrument’s sonic limits but also included insightful political commentary. At one point Cameron was touching all four manuals at once. Not content to have his fingers on four different keyboards simultaneously, his legs were flying around too.
This was the kind of symphonic concert that shows hidden depths of the repertoire and exhilarating surprises. I was particularly happy to come back because, in no small way, the National Symphony pushed me into an artistic breathrough. Leonard Slatkin and the NSO took a chance on me eight years ago with the commission of Liquid Interface, a symphonic-length work that travels through water’s different states with high drama (the work opens with recordings of glaciers calving and climaxes with a Katrina-like flood). The NSO gave me a big platform to push symphonic form into a narrative direction with new sounds, and it’s the piece that initiated my relationship with both Riccardo Muti and John Adams. So I’ll always have a soft spot for the NSO, and it was very touching to have so many players come up to me during rehearsal to reminisce about that premiere. It’s one of the rare orchestras that plays superbly and has a warm attitude, and I look forward to working with them again in April.
So there’s quite a lot of fresh thinking happening under this big roof, and it’s happening in a lot of different ways. Think of it as arts ecosystem, or a city on a hill. Come join us sometime.
This month marks the beginning of my new life. With five years composing and curating for the Chicago Symphony behind me, I begin work as the newly-installed composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center with the inaugural concert in my new series KC Jukebox. Over the next three years, my work at the Center will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways. And the opening of the KC Jukebox series on Novemebr 9 is the best way to see what’s in store, because it touches on so many of the diverse elements at the nation’s performing arts center.
Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music takes the audience on a journey through a century of wallpaper : that is, music designed to accompany other experiences. In many ways, ambient music is the most resilient and versatile of musics, capable of softening heavy techno beats (Aphex Twin), creating a meditative state (Eno and Reich), or adding manic festivity to a Parisian salon (Erik Satie). A clear evolutionary path can be traced from the earliest known background music – Satie’s ‘furniture music’ of the 1920’s – through John Cage, Brian Eno, and ultimately to the diverse ecosystem of today’s downtempo electronica. This show is about walking through that history (literally).
Only the Kennedy Center is capable of creating the kind of immersive, migratory experience necessary for the appreciation ambient music. You need big spaces, a crackerjack production team, and yes even a prop shop to create three period-appropriate lounges. The audience enters a sleek 21st lounge where DJs spin ambient electronica (Eno, Kraftwerk, Mouse on Mars); then progress to a 1970’s zone of California minimalism (Young and Reich); and finally into a 1920’s Parisian salon (Satie, with cameos by other members of Les Sixe).
Along the way will be a lot of projected information, a key part of my curating projects. Each lounge will have specially-designed “ambient information” floating on walls and flatscreens to help guide the audience about the music. In Chicago, one of my big passions was giving the program book a 21st Century update. Anna Clyne and I worked hard to educate audiences in new and unobtrusive ways. It takes time, resources, an eye for imagery and a knack for a well-timed surprise to get it right.
As KC Jukebox continues this year, each concert will have a special musical focus and production. There will be a concert about “place music” (from Chris Rouse’s homages to Hawaiian mythology to John Luther Adams’ odes to Alaska) and a concert featuring new music inspired by very old sources. If you’re on the East Coast, consider a visit to D.C. to check out not only this new series, but the full breadth of artistry happening at the Kennedy Center. It is a dynamic place that is filled with a lot of energy these days.
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.
Take an immersive journey back through a century of ambient music, from today's electronica to 1970s minimalism to the "furniture music" of 1930s Paris with Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center's new Composer-in-Residence.
The grooves of Sea-Blue Circuitry hiccup from measure to measure as rapidly as data quietly flashing on the silicon innards of a computer, yet the piece is entirely unplugged.
• Feb 11: Mothership with Baltimore Symphony (info)
• April: SF Symphony premieres Auditorium
September 21st, 2011