Mason Bates' Technicolor Soundscapes
Recorded live during concerts at Davies Symphony Hall in 2014, the San Francisco Symphony's new recording, Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra, captures what makes Bates such a popular contemporary composer: his music mines the early part of the 20th Century classical music canon for inspiration and brings it forward with fresh twists. At his best, which is well represented in this collection, Bates manages the tricky feat of making music that sounds brand new while setting it within familiar frameworks. Much has been made of Bates' incorporation of electronica into his scores (which he was on hand to provide during these performances), as well as his fondness for dance club music, but part of what makes this recording soar is how manifest and organic these elements are to the whole of his musical vision.
This recording, perhaps unintentionally, makes the case that it's probably time to stop mentioning it altogether and just acknowledge that this is what music sounds like now, and accept that the boundaries of what's considered traditional instrumentation for orchestral music have changed. Shades of Stravinsky and Richard Strauss are evident in his orchestral writing, while ears more attuned to pop might be reminded of Art of Noise and Propellerheads (the big band jazz sound of Liquid Interface's third movement practically begs for a Shirley Bassey sample), and the pleasures come from Bates' ability to make his music expansive enough for all of these influences, and more, without making it about homages or gimmicks. Like so many other things in our culture, music and its audiences have become distressingly atomized over the last 15 or 20 years, but this is music successfully putting all the bits back together.
However, the real strength of this SF Symphony recording is in how these works, The B-Sides, Liquid Interface, and Alternative Energy, create what sounds like a narrative whole when experienced in sequence to the point that the entire disc sound like a concept album. Bates' work has always featured narrative elements, but inside of the concert hall, with its distractions, pauses, and intermissions, it would be hard to imagine the full scope of this music's kaleidoscopic, technicolor sound as its presented here. Other orchestras and classical music labels should take note: this is how to do it.
Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra: Michael Tilson Thomas & the San Francisco Symphony, with Mason Bates providing electronica. Total Playing Time: 71:14, available in CD for $18.98.
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