“An orchestral composer who’s also a DJ” is the kind of description that, only a decade ago, would’ve seemed like some forced, kitschy crossover experiment aimed at making classical music “relevant” to the prized under-30 demographic. To describe Mason Bates that way does him a disservice, even though both parts of the statement are true. It’s more accurate to say that Bates is in the line of composers intent on widening the orchestra’s palette in order to keep faith with its narrative possibilities. The electronic sounds and samples he uses are but one tool; others include groove-based rhythms and a fusion of recurring melodic patterns and vivid orchestration, not unlike that of a composing mentor, John Adams.
These two recent releases show the breadth and originality of Bates’s achievement as an orchestra composer. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s CD, on its own BMOP/sound label, is split between works Bates categorizes as “openers” and “tone poems.” The 2010 title track is in the first category, an exuberant curtain-raiser of sampled beats and wide-open splashes of sound. Twice, the activity slows down to make room for ruminative improvised solos, from Jason Moran on the FM Rhodes synthesizer and Su Chang on the guzheng, a Chinese zither. “Attack Decay Sustain Release” (2013) is shorter and more direct, a breathless fanfare showing that Bates’s unique palette depends not merely or even solely on electronics, but on his own wild sense of timbre.
“Rusty Air in Carolina” (2006), an evocation of a summer spent in Greenville, N.C., opens by blurring the line between the orchestra and field recordings of buzzing insects, and cycles seamlessly through an episode of shifting dance rhythms before merging back into the hazy, languid atmosphere of the opening. Two more tone poems from 2010 round out the CD: “Desert Transport,” an almost too-precise depiction of a helicopter trip above the landscape of the Sedona desert, rendered on a vast, Strauss-like scale; and “Sea-Blue Circuitry,” which Bates calls a “shattering of jazz rhythms and harmonies” that makes evident his debt to minimalism.
The San Francisco Symphony release — also on a house label, SFS Media — comprises three electroacoustic symphonies that allow Bates to trace out ideas across movements. “Liquid Interface” (2007) is the most concept-oriented, following the states of water from impassive glaciers through an electronica-infused storm to a gloriously serene evocation of Germany’s Lake Wannsee. More rooted and portrait-like is “Alternative Energy” (2011), four linked episodes offering an almost tactile sense of industrial energy. What feels charmingly ramshackle at the beginning of “Ford’s Farm, 1896” ends in the post-apocalyptic calm of “Reykjavik, 2222,” as the power that had amassed over the previous 20 minutes dissipates into a kind of primal simplicity.
But it’s “The B-Sides” (2009) that offers perhaps the best synopsis of Bates’s accomplishments. A suite of five character pieces, its portrayals are both detailed and whimsical, from ticking clocks in “Broom of the System” to the awestruck reimagining of the first American spacewalk in “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” complete with voice recordings from that 1965 landmark. “Warehouse Medicine,” the triumphant closer, salutes the birth of techno in Detroit with thudding beats and brass flourishes that all go together better than you imagined — the DJ as composer, for real.
Everything on both discs is alertly played and led with authority by the orchestras’ directors. It all demands to be heard.
MASON BATES: Mothership
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
MASON BATES: Works for Orchestra
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson ThomasDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.