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Mason BATES (b. 1977)
The B-Sides (2009) [21:43]
Liquid Interface (2007) [23:24]
Alternative Energy (2011) [25:57]
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
Mason Bates (electronica)
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, 2014.
SFS MEDIA 821936-0065-2 SACD [71:23]

Having a performance and recording event like this is every composer’s dream, and Mason Bates can be well pleased with the results on this magnificently produced CD. The booklet sums up Bates’s music, describing him as “a symphonist … [who] employs a huge stylistic canvas to tell big stories, an approach he appreciates in Beethoven, in concept albums of the 1960s and 1970s (such as Pink Floyd), and at 1990s Detroit warehouse parties …” His compositional language integrates “the symphonic palette with sounds of the digital age.” You can catch a video with the composer talking about this recording here.

The B-Sides eases us in gently, with its loose-limbed pizzicato cadences, bustling sweeps from the percussion section and sprinkling of electronic magic of Broom of the System, the first of five pieces forming a suite that comments on the “open canvas” of the B-side genre, a musical space that “is the dark matter where an alternative narrative happens.” These are elegantly crafted and often highly atmospheric pieces, Bates’s distinctively American sound lending character to scores in which one can pick out little hints of Holst and others, the electronics enhancing the spaces these moments create. Gemini in the Solar Wind uses the recorded voices of astronauts to set our imaginations alight with images of the precarious remoteness of an existence in space. Syncopation and swing rhythms emerge in the following Temescal Noir, while the grand finale, Warehouse Medicine throws down a heavy beat over which the orchestra is turned into “a giant analogue synthesizer.”

Bates considers Liquid Interface as his first symphony, and he sees it as “running with the programmatic idea of the symphony that you could say begins with Beethoven’s ninth.” This “desire to explore larger human issues” results in a ‘grand concept’ which is cinematic in its scope, opening with the fracturing of Antarctic glaciers, and perhaps furthering a theme of global warming with “plops and drops of water in the playful Scherzo.” The third movement, Crescent City opens with an air of mystery but breaks out into big-band jazz which must be great fun to play, the whole thing culminating in a Malcolm Arnold-a-like film score passage that presages a jazz intro into a computer-generated Hurricane Katrina. The final movement is titled On the Wannsee, the “balmy greenhouse paradise” of that famous lake punctuated by odd sounds of nature and a slowly swinging beat.

Alternative Energy makes the most of the SACD recorded layer, with its spatial effects created by speakers arranged around the orchestra. The narrative of this “energy symphony” is one that takes us from the hands-on Henry Ford sounds of early technology, through today’s particle-colliders in an orgy of spinning electronics that breaks down into an almost cartoonish picture of switches and throbbing machinery. Xinjang Province, 2112 is “a dark nuclear plant in the near future” that builds with a kind of jolly menace, and the final movement sets us up for a Reykjavik, 2222 that has become a steamy jungle, though perhaps one through which the spirit of Björk still stalks.

My ears have been more tuned to the edgier world of European new music over the years, though this has always also been informed by a diet of John Adams, Steve Reich and others from across the Atlantic. Bates’s harmonic world is one that has grown out of the likes of Aaron Copland, and if you like John Adams then you are sure to appreciate Mason Bates. This is however a rather safe enclosure which only teases the boundaries of orchestral music rather than pushing at them hard as if they are about to tear and unleash worlds of which you never dreamt. Bates has certain tricks which pop up from time to time – those cadential pizzicati for one, and you’ll have to be a fan of perky jazz-inflected orchestral sounds and at times fairly stereotypical add-ons both in terms of musical idioms and special effects. This is all great fun however and I hate to be critical in such a subjective arena. If you are looking for something that breaks out of the perceived fustiness of the dead composers society then this will have great appeal. There is perhaps a problem with music which is intended to “address major issues of our time” but which turns them into a kind of James Bond entertainment, but at least we are set thinking about such things – not always a given in the good-old and grand-old of the USA, or quite a few other places for that matter.

Dominy Clements



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