CD review: Mason Bates, orchestral works

First published in Gramophone, May 2016

Mason Bates
Works for Orchestra. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media)
Mothership. Boston Modern Orchestra Project/ Gil Rose (BMOP Sound)

A jet engine revs at the start of Mothership by Mason Bates, something like a spacecraft taking off. (At least, I assume from the movies that’s what a spaceship taking off sounds like.) Soon a cheerful groove cuts in and violins and flutes are darting about in nimble loops. We’re off. “I look to the digital world as an important 21st century expansion of the orchestral sound world,” says Bates, a 39-year-old California-based DJ and composer who in recent years has become one of the most frequently performed living composers in US orchestral music. He doesn’t exactly set out to ‘reinvent’ classical music — that dubious onus has been landed on him by various promoters, grasping at a new fix to old issues around image and audience demographics — but neither is the jet engine accidental. He wants to launch orchestral music for the digital age, and sees an incorporation of electronic sounds, samples, field recordings and techno-inspired drum beats as a natural evolution, “like valves in brass instruments once were.”

What’s striking about this pair of new releases is how much of Bates’s brave new language can end up sounding pretty familiar. A piece like Sea-Blue Circuitry (2010) has the happy swagger of John Adams, the open horizons of Copland, the urban glitches of Bernstein. It’s a punchy cocktail, sweet and easy to drink, but its ingredients aren’t radical. Bates is good at writing layers and swells and sparky banter between sections of the orchestra; he’s also prone to underpinning soaring horn melodies with beefy pedal notes à la John Williams. From 1990s techno he has gleaned the art of pacing that induces a properly physical response: imagine a nightclub full of dancers throwing their arms in the air when a big beat finally lands. Maybe it’s an older trick of build-and-release channelled straight from Wagner. Either way, I think we’re supposed to feel this music as much as hear it.

Bates himself plays electronics on both recordings and on both he succeeds in making the blend feel right. Of the two discs, the plusher sounds come from Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco band while Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project give fizzier, lighter, blither performances. The differences suit the respective repertoire.

The San Francisco album contains Bates’s biggest orchestral pieces to date. The B-Sides was commissioned by Tilson Thomas as a companion suite to Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra — which seems a bit ironic considering B-sides were traditionally the platform for artists to explore arcane material and Bates’s chipper tonality is immeasurably more accessible than Schoenberg ever was. Liquid Interface is the piece Bates considers his first symphony and Tilson Thomas gives it grand space, weight and drive accordingly. The grittiest moments come in Alternative Energy, whose extra-musical references include particle colliders and climate disaster. Yet Tilson Thomas goes only so far with the dark and clangy stuff; he is quick to revert to glossy sheen.

Meanwhile the BMOP collection covers five popular concert openers and tone poems. Mothership is spry and blatant and fun. Sea-Blue Circuitry is a kind of bright, zesty pastoralism. Attack Decay Sustain Release is a blazing four-minute fanfare — here the brass struggle to keep rhythms tight — while the oldest and calmest piece is Rusty Air in Carolina (2006), its locusts and bush crickets marking the first time Bates used sampling as an orchestral instrument. Desert Transport incorporates the earthy singing of Arizona’s Pima Indians: in the end, it’s the oldest material that keeps the music rooted.