Sep 2016And So It Begins: 2016-17

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.

frost jfk

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.

Sea of Trees

Aug 2016Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees

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.

Sea of Trees

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.

Jun 2016Out Now: Anthology of Fantastic Zoology

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:

May 2016April Showers

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!

May 2016Anthology of Fantastic Zoology

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.

Feb 2016Composer Caveman

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!

Jan 2016Please Try This At Home

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:

Rusty Air in Carolina – the oldest work on the album – was the first time I pushed the electronics beyond the beat-driven realm of techno. The conceit of Rusty Air is to have the concert hall visited by the humid ambience of North Carolina, where I attended Brevard Music Center as a teenager, and pair those sonorities with fluorescent orchestral textures: bright metallic percussion with the high-frequency crickets at the high end of the spectrum; fluttertongue flutes and trumpets chirps with katydids in the middle; and a humid brass chorale drifting through the low end.

BMOP CD cover

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).


New record with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! or

Anne Akiko Meyers takes Mason's Violin Concerto to New Zealand

Unparalleled violinist Anne Akiko Meyers performs the New Zealand premiere of Mason's Violin Concerto during a week-long tour in Christchurch (10/4), Auckland (10/7) & Wellington (10/8).

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