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Mason BATES (b. 1977)
Sirens (2009) [28:30]
Mass Transmission (2012) [22:24]
Rag of Ragnar [3:29]
Isabelle Demers (organ), Mason Bates (electronica)
Cappella SF/Ragnar Bohlin
rec. 2018, St Ignatius Church and Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Sung texts and translations included
DELOS DE3573 [54:24]

While Mason Bates has made a name for himself with his imaginative fusions of orchestral and instrumental music with electronica, Pentatone’s recording of his opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” deservedly took the 2019 Grammy Award for best opera recording (review) and demonstrated an equally impressive gift for dramatic vocal writing. This new Delos disc reinforces this view by coupling two extended works for choir. The first, for twelve part a cappella chorus, explores the idea of sirens as forces of irresistible temptation using texts from five very different cultural traditions. The second work adapts the choir to incorporate Bates’ signature use of colourful electronica to investigate a largely forgotten application of technology from some nine decades ago.

In the first and last movements of Sirens Bates has set part of the earliest known reference to them, from Book XII if Homer’s Odyssey; one is struck immediately by the fluency and confidence of Bates’ choral writing. The gentle oscillations and pulses that recur in these movements amount to far more than minimalism-by-numbers; there is an abundance of rhythmic and harmonic interest while Homer’s original Greek provides opportunities for colour which Bates merrily exploits. The slower, lyrical section at its heart is suffused with warm, languorous glissandi. In the second piece Heine’s Die Lorelei provides a more conventional German text for which the composer provides a rapturous, beautifully structured setting. By this point listeners will certainly be aware of the sumptuous sound made by the twelve perfectly blended voices of Cappella SF. Their flexibility in singing in different languages is further magnified in the two following sections; Pietro Aretino’s delicate poem Stelle, vostra mercè l´eccelse sfere links the sirens to the stars – here Bates’ harmonies effortlessly project a hazy, Mediterranean warmth while hints of ritual hover above the surface of Sirinu nuqa rikunia, a Quechua (South American Indian) text whose exotic sounds provide opportunity for greater rhythmic fluidity and ecstatic vocalisation. There are hints of gentle percussion (maracas?) accompanying the singers’ assured but sensuous tones. The penultimate movement, before the Homeric reprise, struck me as the sober core of Sirens. The English text is taken from St Matthew’s account of Christ’s first encounter with the fishermen Simon and Andrew. Bates identifies an apt parallel between Jesus’ powers of persuasion and the sirens’ call and provides music of quiet certainty for these words. The harmonic language is at times rather tart, but otherwise in stylistic terms at least this movement seems somewhat akin to a church anthem. The words “(I will make you) fishers of men” feels gravid with significance. The final line “at once they left their nets” is delivered with even greater solemnity, almost parlando. The effect is stark and affecting.

Sirens actually dates from 2009, and certain fingerprints of what might be deemed as Bates’ mature language (he is still only 42) are present and correct. It’s a fine sequence, luxuriantly performed by Cappella SF under their founding conductor Ragnar Bohlin. However, to my ears the coupling, Mass Transmission is a more rounded, representative example of Bates’ art; his selection of convincing texts builds considerable narrative tension, and beautifully illustrates his choice of a largely forgotten story about innovative adaptive technology which mirrors his own creative practices.

During the 1920s Dutch control over its long-established colonies was inevitably declining. Despite this, colonial administrators in the Netherlands often sent their own offspring to places like Java to act as pages for important local government officials. This was perceived as a considerable honour by many of the families concerned, but over time it created great emotional distress among parents and children alike. By the end of the decade the invention of radio enabled families to communicate in real time and a telegraph office was thus established in the small town of Kootwijk in central Holland to facilitate this (an image of this building adorns the cover of this disc). In his booklet note, Bates likens this technology to Skype, and in Mass Transmission he has adapted texts from contemporary personal diaries and government information publications to create a compelling account of one (real-life) mother and daughter faced with this separation.

In the first of three linked sections, we hear electronic whoops and crackles, a snatch of light music and radio interference. An intensifying chord for female voices emerges over an organ pedal before the text materialises over scratchy electronica and chugging bass beats. The mother describes her experience of the Kootwijk telegraph office; she is awed by the technology, and deeply affected by the miracle of being able to speak to her daughter in real time. It’s a text which cleverly combines obscure social history, technology and personal drama and this coheres most convincingly in Bates’ expressive, yet deft music. Much of it is driven by an agreeably virtuosic toccata-like passage for the organ, excitingly realised by Isabelle Demers. A whiff of gamelan leads us directly into the second part, which summarises the daughter’s account of her life in Java. The colourful, propulsive music absorbs jungle sounds and the frequent references to gamelan reinforce the local colour. The choral writing is fresh and remarkably cliché free – at one point male voices convey a spontaneous primitivism which would not have seemed out of place in Ecuatorial, one of Edgard Varèse’s least celebrated works. At the end of this section the daughter lies in bed and reflects on missing her mum – there is a tiny, touching allusion to a catch or nursery rhyme, before the concluding panel addresses the brief, time-pressured dialogue between the protagonists, and the mother’s remembrance of it. Bates’ representation of the conversation conveys an almost operatic quality, with the words of each character portrayed by solo voices from the choir, and after another organ passage the mother muses upon technology’s power to bring people closer together, and upon the mystery of real-time conversation with the physically absent. Organ, choir and electronica coalesce into a moving conclusion, magnified by the addition of a gently consoling gamelan tone over the final words “Hello, oh, my child….”. Bates’ electronica thus illuminates a gently cavernous music of the spheres which concludes Mass Transmission with profound simplicity. Like so much of the music of this composer, his use of technology is ultimately humanising rather than alienating. Again, the choir put in a phenomenal shift, and the Delos engineers have performed wonders in fusing such disparate sonic elements so convincingly.

By way of a tribute to the conductor Ragnar Bohlin, Bates has morphed into his DJ alter ego to add a ‘bonus track’ called Rag of Ragnar, effectively a single-length mash-up of elements drawn from Mass Transmission. It’s very clever – in the most positive sense of the word. The voices are ‘treated’ most imaginatively. While the composer manages to wrongfoot the listener at every turn, the result is quirky, catchy and danceable. If readers are less than convinced that DJ-ing is an art, they should hear this terrific re-mix. I was most taken with it. It concludes a fine portrait of a composer whose increasing popularity owes little to empty commerciality.

Richard Hanlon

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