MASON BATES: “Stereo is King” = Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax – Mason Bates, electronica /Chanticleer/ Musicians from the Chicago Sym. Orch./The Claremont Trio/Tania Stavreva, p. – Innova Records 882, 66:16 (4/25/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Mason Bates is one of a small group of young American composers who, by all accounts, is a name to watch over the next many years. Born in Virginia, he studied with John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, among others. Recently awarded the Heinz Medal in the Humanities, Bates writes music that fuses innovative orchestral writing, imaginative narrative forms, the harmonies of jazz and the rhythms of “techno.” Usually writing for large orchestras, his work has been championed by such conductors as Riccardo Muti, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Leonard Slatkin. Bates is a visible advocate for bringing new music to new spaces, whether through institutional partnerships such as his residency with the Chicago Symphony, or through his classical/DJ project Mercury Soul, which has transformed spaces ranging from commercial clubs to Frank Gehry-designed concert halls into exciting, hybrid musical events drawing over a thousand people. In awarding Bates the Heinz Medal, Teresa Heinz remarked that “his music has moved the orchestra into the digital age and dissolved the boundaries of classical music.”
This new and fascinating collection of some of his smaller scale works illustrates his eclectic approach quite well. Stereo Is King is his first release since his 2009 debut, Digital Loom. The title track features a combination of electronics and an array of percussion. As Bates describes his work, Stereo Is King “embodies a new electro-acoustic approach. This piece juxtaposes the indigenous and the electronica, two visceral worlds that have surprising similarities and differences.” The different worlds of electronically produced sound and traditional sound sources such as Thai gongs and Tibetan prayer bowls does seem to work. The piece itself has a feel of ceremonial or ritual music that I liked.
Observer in the Magellanic Cloud is an ethereal vocal work performed here by Chanticleer and is based on a Maori chant to the Magellanic clouds, a group of nebulae within are distant galaxies that are fairly visible in the vast New Zealand skies at certain times of the year. The work seems to drift aloft with some rich and beautiful harmonies and, here too, one gets a genuine feel of tribal or ethnic ceremony. I thought, sonically, it reminded me of some of Berio’s vocal works and it is a truly attractive work.
Difficult Bamboo is a chamber work for violin, cello, clarinet, flute, piano and percussion and it feels, initially, like a pseudo-minimalist work with some decidedly pentatonic-influenced harmonies. As the composer says it gradually “grows wildly out of control” like the bamboo plant which is known to invade and completely overgrow a formerly benign garden.
Terrycloth Troposphere is a catchy ode to Terry Riley for electronics and ensemble that uses motifs from his Riley’s seminal In C. I actually liked this work a lot. It sounds like some crazy “DJ mix” of Terry Riley as heard through a sort of techno/hip-hop haze. It is very difficult to describe but makes for some fun listening.
String Band, for violin, cello and piano, is based on bluegrass and old-time string band music but as reimagined by Bates and given a semi-minimalist treatment that I found quite attractive. (It actually reminded me of some of the similarly-inspired orchestral music of Kentucky composer Gerald Plain.) With its pitch bends and repeated cells, the work leads us on a ride that suggests bluegrass and eventually sounds almost familiar.
Lastly, there is the strangely angular piano work, White Lies for Lomax. Bates wrote this in homage to the early, anonymous blues musicians in the deep South recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The work does have ghostly bits of blues and bar music that seem like sonic images of a nearly forgotten time and place.
Mason concentrates mostly on larger forms. In fact this collection is an outgrowth of his residency with the Chicago Symphony. As he says about this disc, “Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. While I’ve embraced the symphony as my primary medium — even expanding it with electronic sounds when I want to turn it up to 11 — I always enjoy returning to chamber music.” Bates considers this collection one of the “more surprising things” that came out of the residency.
He is still a young man but one who has an amazing grasp on the music of various disparate cultures from many points on the globe. He also clearly believes in the capacity of music to unite or to create commonality. I look forward – a lot – to an upcoming release of Mason’s Alternative Energy with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. What else I have heard of his music I like and I do suggest that this album is a very good way to get to know a composer about whom I suspect we will be hearing much over the next many years.