Ever since the extravaganza of the YouTube Symphony’s premiere of Mason Bates’ Mothership at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, the piece has taken off (sorry), popping up in the programs of major orchestras across the US and abroad. Mothership is perhaps the most direct and largest-scale representation of Bates’ style as an ensemble composer, which blends contemporary American classical composition with jazz and electronic sounds. Its driving, grooving feel is positively addictive, like Short Ride in a Fast Machine seen through a smoky jazz/electronic kaleidoscope. A slightly more introspective middle section relies on the talents of improvisers, making no two performances the same – and some borderline EDMstyle beats and electronics provided by a laptop-driven synth setup or the keypadoperating composer himself drive the pace of the music. It’s totally fun, and totally infectious.
I was already hooked after seeing the YouTube performance of Mothership, but after witnessing excellent performances by the Pittsburgh Symphony of this work and others such as Desert Transport during Mason’s time as PSO Composer in Residence, I was a full-blown addict. Where’s the recording??, I muttered to myself through sleepless nights. So, a very heartfelt thank-you goes out to Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for satisfying (and abetting) my addiction with a full album of Mason’s orchestral music.
For the listener, this release pulls no punches. We are first launched into space with Mothership, then glide along the gossamer textures of Sea-Blue Circuitry, are blasted by the orchestral fanfares of Attack Decay Sustain Release, and are then enchanted by the humid, electronic-cicada-filled ambience of Rusty Air in Carolina before being flung across the desert in a helicopter in Desert Transport. Modern classical albums that feature only one composer are rarely listenable all the way through; not so with this one. It’s unmistakably Bates throughout, but the deep variety of orchestral sounds, augmented with electronic wizardry from the composer’s club DJ side, never succeed in exhausting the ear.
As for the performance, BMOP is in their usual excellent form, with ensemble playing that is tightly coordinated in the midst of rapid-fire passages and a brass section that is strikingly powerful in its attacks and beautifully in tune. In the midst of synthesized textures, the orchestral layers come through crystal-clear. In Mothership, we even get an improvisation from Su Chang, the virtuoso guzheng player from the work’s premiere performance, together with Jason Moran on FM Rhodes synth. Rose’s highly accurate treatment of dynamics takes the ensemble to a beautifully evocative place in Rusty Air in Carolina, and adds appropriate shaping and punch in the other works. We should be very relieved that Rose and BMOP aren’t afraid to really let it rip in this music’s most powerful moments.
Part of what makes this music great is its versatility: it’s at home in so many different settings, from the venerated orchestral concert hall, to the sweaty dance club, to your living room on a Tuesday night. This album is a keeper, then, but not without a major drawback: The B-Sides, Bates’ moody set of orchestral vignettes, is disappointingly absent. Did they run out of room? Is there a follow-up? It’s ok, I’ll wait.