MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Triumph of Mason Bates

Mason Bates; image by Ryan Schude

Mason Bates; image by Ryan Schude

I’ve been following and writing about the career of the Bay Area composer Mason Bates with great interest for years. It’s good to see him in the spotlight with San Francisco Symphony’s acclaimed recent venture, “Beethoven & Bates.” My essays for the two orchestral composition by Bates that were included in the festival (which continues in the fall) are here:

The B-Sides

Liquid Interface

San Jose Mercury News critic Richard Scheinin has a fine profile:

Classical composers often reflect the vernacular music of their times — Mahler’s Bohemian dances, Gershwin’s jazz — and Bates, as much as any composer of the new generation, reflects his….By…finding a place in orchestral music for the technology and rhythmic textures of the club scene — Bates is cajoling “the beast,” as he calls the orchestra, to “dance in a new style. … I’m fascinated by what an orchestra can do on a dramatic level, on a sonic level; there don’t seem to be any limits. And the more I’ve gotten involved with electronic music, the more I’ve come to appreciate the orchestra as the great synth that it is — the original synthesizer.”

Here’s a sampling of reviews of the Bates pieces featured on this recent two-program festival conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, a long-standing champion of the composer:

–Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle:

[The decision to devote two weeks’ worth of concerts to performing and recording music of Bates] seemed positively inspired after Wednesday night’s exhilarating revival of the composer’s 2009 opus “The B-Sides”… This is new music as you always hoped it would be – exciting, beautiful, surprising and full of a vivid sense of discovery.
[My] my favorite movement of “The B-Sides” is “Aerosol Melody,” a musical vacation postcard from Hawaii that practically redefines rhythmic laziness. The piece has a melody and some swooping glissandos produced by the orchestral instruments and Bates’ laptop in combination – but those elements struggle constantly, and hilariously, against a backsliding rhythmic beat that keeps threatening to sink the movement into sleepy torpor. The collapse at the end of the movement is a brilliant comic stroke.

–John Marcher, A Beast in a Jungle:

Kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony: while others are constantly wringing their hands over the so-called “crisis” in classical music, and others want the function of an orchestra to be little more than a performing museum, MTT and the orchestra are taking risks and taking their audience into the future.

What struck me about “Liquid Interface,” with its forays into jazz melodies that travel from New York down to New Orleans, its use of instrumentation to mimic raindrops and other updates of “water music,” its pounding full drum kit, crashing cymbals, and electronic beats, its nods to Bernstein and Hot Butter, its cries of gulls and herons, is the complete confidence with which Bates creates the mix. That’s the DJ in him at work, but the results are those of a composer’s mind.

–Niels Swinkels, San Francisco Classical Voice:

Bates’ soundscapes are extremely vivid and cinematic, in places idiomatically reminiscent of TV movie soundtracks from the ’70s, about gumshoe detectives or space ships, but never in a cliche way. The five movements of The B-Sides propel forward, toward a big final outburst. Altogether this is very appealing new music.

–Harvey Steiman. Seen and Heard International

There might be no better evidence of that than hearing his music a second time and realizing it’s even better than you thought. That was my experience…with the composer’s “The B-Sides”…Bates is no self-conscious classical composer slumming with pop music, or for that matter a pop musician dallying with classical forms. He seems at home in both worlds. The resulting music melds them, well, harmoniously.

Filed under: American music, concert programming, new music


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