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Classical Notes | David Weininger

Will Mason mixes composition and improvisation, decorum and din

Zenith Richards

The trail of a musician’s influences can seem eclectic, even random, to an outsider. But to the musician in question it makes perfect, if inchoate, sense.

Take the drummer and composer Will Mason. Working his way through his father’s classical CD collection during high school, he gravitated toward the 20th century, especially Bartok. At the same time, he was getting into Miles Davis’s murky electric masterpiece “Bitches Brew,” jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch,” Radiohead’s “Kid A,” and the Swedish metal band Meshuggah's “Catch Thirtythree.”

As a collection, it may seem oddly discontinuous. But “it all seemed to me to be speaking a similar language, or addressing the same kind of musical experience, this very personal and intense and visceral affective intensity that all of that music shared,” Mason said from New York during a recent phone conversation.


Those words serve as a fair description of the music Mason writes for and plays with his septet, the Will Mason Ensemble, which makes its Boston debut on Monday at the Lily Pad in Cambridge’s Inman Square. Inspired by the landscape of his native Maine, the works on the Ensemble’s 2015 album, “Beams of the Huge Night,” balance improvisation and composition, and are shot through with asymmetrical melodies and grooves, grinding harmonies, and atmospheric bouts of stillness.

Mason followed his own fairly unconventional path. He gave up piano lessons after discovering he was “a pretty bad student on an instrument,” and took up the drums as “this rebellious act, teaching myself.” His teacher at Oberlin Conservatory of Music was the famed jazz drummer Billy Hart, whose playing, Mason discovered, was an instructive counterpoint to the softer, impressionistic timbres then in favor. Hart’s playing, by contrast, was “loud as hell, everything’s bright, and the beat placement is like, bam, right there. It’s really nice to be plugged into that, because you start to realize, what are you trying to play that fashion is dictating, and what are you trying to play that’s accomplishing some aesthetic ideal that’s important to you?”


Having designed his own major to focus on contemporary music, Mason decided to pursue a PhD in music theory at Columbia University, and began assembling a band from both old friends and new contacts in New York’s thriving new music-improv space. His composing method favors specific individuals over abstractly determined ensembles: “I tend to imagine who write for, then I write a whole bunch of music for them, and then put the group together to learn it. I had a clear idea for the band and a clear idea of who I wanted to be playing the music.”

So in the summer of 2012, he holed up in a tiny cabin in central Maine and composed. Mason, who’s always counted himself a rural rather than a city person, still had Bartok’s famous instances of “night music” in his head. “I’m here in the woods — what would an attempt to write night music, given this eclecticism that characterizes my compositional style . . . what would that sort of look like?”

Some of the resulting pieces bore the names of surrounding towns, such as Dixfield and Strong. But his intent was less a cinematic depiction of his surroundings than to capture something more evocative and elusive. “The big impact for nature on me,” he explained, “is just that I feel a certain way. You have this sense of awe in your surroundings, there’s maybe a danger of being truly isolated in the woods. Which is not something that we deal with much anymore, but it still kind of activates this instinctual level. I was thinking, how can we transmit these feeling-states that arise in nature through music, rather than something that maps more literally?”


With both the Ensemble and his other group — a noise-rock quartet called Happy Place — Mason often finds himself playing in DIY rock and art spaces like Cake Shop and Spectrum in New York. “We’re slightly too buttoned up for some of the rock venues, but a little bit too wild and crazy for classical venues,” he said. “We’ll be down in this dingy basement, everyone’s got their beers and whatever. But then we also have our music stands and our pages and pages of music. Which is actually awesome, I really like it, but it’s definitely incongruous.”

Mason plans to go the academic route after finishing his PhD, but he’s unlikely to give up the other two legs of the stool, composing and performing. “To some extent, I was writing music just because I can’t stop. And I think that’ll always be true. So hopefully I can be in situation where I can still be putting these bands together and finding people who are willing to play this strange and really difficult music.”

Will Mason Ensemble


At Lily Pad, Cambridge, May 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $10.

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.