COMPOSERS IN PLAY: Of Keyboards and the Blues with Mason Bates

OF GLITCHES AND MACHINES: Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019 at 8:00 PM | Doors at 7:00 PM

Scored for piano with off-stage boombox, White Lies for Lomax is a “short but dense homage” that concludes with a field recording of an Alan Lomax song.  This piece was written for the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and performed by each of the finalists. It has since been orchestrated by Bates; you may find that version HERE.

 

It is still a surprise to discover how few classical musicians are familiar with Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who ventured into the American South (and elsewhere) to record the soul of a land. Those scratchy recordings captured everyone from Muddy Waters to a whole slew of anonymous blues musicians. White Lies for Lomax dreams up wisps of distant blues fragments – more fiction than fact, since they are hardly honest recreations of the blues – and lets them slowly accumulate to an assertive climax.

Excerpt from “White Lies for Lomax” by Mason Bates:

The following is excerpted from an interview given by Lizée with critic Jeremy Reynolds:

Mason Bates, 41, has been named the most-performed composer of his generation as well as the 2018 Composer of the Year by Musical America. The San Francisco-based composer’s music is best known for its approachability and integration of electronica and orchestral music. His alter ego, DJ Masonic, regularly sells out clubs with what he calls post-classical rave music.

Mr. Bates’ newest orchestral premiere, “Resurrexit,” was performed in the Fall of 2018 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He has been named composer of the year with the orchestra twice, in the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 seasons. critic Jeremy Reynolds spoke with Mason Bates ahead fo the premiere performance:

 

Jeremy Reynolds: Is the title “Resurrexit” a spiritual nod?

MB: Yes, it was Manfred’s idea to commission a spiritual concert opener. His Catholicism is such a significant part of his life and music. I grew up in a church school, but this sort of spirituality isn’t something that’s figured into my music much since high school.

This turned out to be a challenging piece to write…. It’s a 10-minute concert opener, and those tend to be exciting, pieces like [John Adams’] “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” or my piece, “Mothership.” Combining this excitement with a spiritual energy was tricky. I think the challenge was to write music that evokes things from the story while remaining self-sustainable.

JR: What’s the piece like?

MB: I was drawn to the mysticism of the resurrection story, and I wondered if it was possible to tell the story in a hyper-compressed way. I wanted to incorporate some of the theatrical elements for Manfred. This piece is in a three-part structure. The first sounds like mourning, almost a miniature requiem. The middle section that I think of as the reanimation — flickers of light start to dart all around the orchestra. And the third is the resurrection itself.

 

JR: Any unusual tonalities?

MB: Yes, actually. I’ve been wanting to explore the scales and the exotic modes of the Middle East. I didn’t want to be too literal on that level, but I wanted to give a distinct flavor. There’s a supernatural element to the resurrection story, and in order to conjure that darkness, I wanted to go into those more mournful Middle Eastern tonalities.

The story is dark; to really experience the lightness fully you have to experience the dark. When you think of pieces that evoke the resurrection, they tend to be traditional in terms of harmonies and tonalities. I wanted [“Ressurexit”] to sound more dusty and mysterious.

 

JR: How about odd instruments? Any electronics?

MB: No electronics for this piece, but I’m using an instrument called a semantron, a sort of plank instrument used to summon monks to prayer at the start of a procession. When I first heard this I decided I had to find a way to use it. It’s part of the fabric of the piece. Bringing different sounds like this into the concert hall is a goal of mine. After all, how can you create a new piece of art? Whether it be moving or uplifting, you want to bring something fresh into the concert hall.

 

JR: What else is on your horizon?

MB: In December, I have another orchestral premiere, this one at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. That piece is called “Art of War.”

For further reading, see the full interview (posted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 2018), here:

An interview with composer Mason Bates

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