Mason Bates is, in my mind, one of the best and most promising younger generation American composers. His music is always refreshingly different with its reliance on a blend of electronic sound sources and live sampling plus traditional acoustical sources. He is not afraid to be just a little coy, humorous or shocking in his aesthetic, either, but always amazing!
So, for example, the opening and title track, Mothership, is the truly “funky” offering here. Written for the also wildly innovative approach to hooking young musicians, the You Tube Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas; this ode to electronic media is propulsive and funk rock-inspired mayhem. It features some very catchy bits of melody and rhythm in the whole orchestra and joined by an electronic mix that is truly eccentric with sounds that are (or sure sound close enough!) taken from a mid-70s “beat box” to an electronic metronome to effects pedals. We also get to hear, right near the close of this masterful “mish-mosh”, a traditional Chinese guzheng. Why? No information is given and it doesn’t matter. This amazingly entertaining trip is almost like a disco abducted by aliens and going for a joyride; and I loved it!
Sea-Blue Circuitry is, in many ways, quite a bit different. The orchestra and electronics paint a nearly Romantic and very film score-like ode to both jazz and the beauty of nature. This is a single movement, threesectioned work that is actually very beautiful and – as Bates says – “aquatic” in places. Another highly entertaining work!
Attach [sic] Decay Sustain Release is a fairy [sic] short and fairly different work. Written for traditional orchestra sans electronica, this is a nice fanfarelike work written to open a recent San Francisco Symphony series, “Beethoven and Bates.” I’ve seen some of the program lists and this concept works better than you might think, thanks to the creativity of Bates and Thomas.
Rusty Air in Carolina is for live electronics (controlled by laptop; usually the composer) and orchestra. The concept is once again wonderfully creative as this work pays homage to the sound and feel of the American deep South, complete with electronically altered katydids, locusts, weather and so forth. Bates says one of the intended results is an almost electronic “humidity” and it feels just fine!
Lastly, we Arizonans appreciate greatly his Desert Transport, a four movement excursion through the landscapes and mystery of the desert southwest. Specifically, Bates went on an airborne helicopter trip with a friend and guide, Bob Dengler, to see the four points of focus here; the starting hangar, Sky Ranch (a small airport surrounded by cactus forest), the red rocks of Sedona and Montezuma’s Castle, an imposing indigenous people’s dwelling in the “four corners” area. We feel a soaring and a sense of mystery as this piece, which also includes some sampled Pima ceremonial singing, written for Bob Moody and the Arizona Music Festival, "takes off."
I am becoming a big fan of Mason Bates and his music. In addition to the progressive approach and vast creativity, he seems to be another very prominent American composer – just like John Adams, Michael Daugherty and Michael Torke – who finds inspiration in the culture and vistas and histories of the country. This puts Mason in good company and furthers his reputation as one of THE names to follow in American music. I am greatly looking forward to what I hope will be a recording of his symphony-long Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, written for the Chicago Symphony and Riccardo Muti. Highly recommended!