Barry Jekowsky, the music director of Walnut Creek’s California Symphony Orchestra has a plan. In every evening of music he programs, he includes one work by an American composer. In one sense, this is heretical in the classical world where dead Europeans reign supreme, but in another it’s the hippest thing imaginable–especially when that American composer is Mason Bates.
Bates has made a name for himself nationally by combing two seemingly disparate musical threads, modern classical music and the glitchy electronica of artists like Mouse on Mars and Prefuse 73, into a remarkably coherent sonic idiom that sounds equally at home at Carnegie Hall (where he performed with the YouTube Symphony) as it does when he DJs at local dance clubs like 111 Minna and Mezzanine.
This Sunday marks the world premiere of Bates’ new piece, Silicon Blues, the third and final piece he composed as part of the California Symphony Orchestra’s ground-breaking Young American Composer-in-Residence program.
What is “Silicon Blues”?
I’ve written a fair amount of orchestral music that incorporates electronics and this is not one of those–it’s a completely unplugged piece. While it emulates some of the electronic influences I’ve used in other works, they’re encountered here in a completely acoustic way. It takes this idea of data quietly flashing on a silicon chip and makes a textural version of that in the orchestra using everything from a trumpet to a typewriter to a piano prepared with machine screws and erasers. It’s kind of an off-kilter, jazzy exploration of some of the rhythmic and sonic influences of electrionica but in a purely acoustic way.
What is the key in getting that electronic feel using acoustic instruments?
With an orchestra it’s always a combination of so many different things. To conjure this sound up, you ultimately need to move beyond one instrument and think about synthesizing a whole lot of different sounds together. For example, in the beginning of the piece there’s an overblown flute that’s paired with a typewriter along with a muted trumpet. All those sounds all together make something that’s really different from what any one of them can do by themselves. In a way it is really like synthesizing sound; orchestration really is the world’s oldest way to synthesize music.
Where did the idea of making music that sounds electronic using acoustic instruments come from?
I guess it came from the fact that I’ve listened to a lot of electronic music and incorporated actual electronics into my orchestral pieces. I just got to the point where it had been a while since I had taken on the orchestra without that electronic element present and I thought it would be really interesting to try. I don’t always have to have electronics in a piece–even if it’s involved in a conceptual way. This particular piece does have this concept that I mentioned in emulating the kind of dry clicks and off-kilter rhythms that you find in some kinds of obscure electrionica. I love having that kind of conceptual framework for a piece.
What was your experience in the Young American Composer In Residence (YCAR) project like?
It’s such an unusual program. Barry Jekowsky, the conductor, has made it California Symphony’s mission to have an American piece in every concert. That’s not the easiest thing to do–seeing as how classical music was originally a European art form–but it’s possible because of all the great music that’s being written in America. This YACR position is a big part of that. You work with the orchestra for three years, writing one piece each year. You can spend about three or four times per year working with the orchestra in a kind of laboratory where you can go in and take something you dreamed up in the middle of the night and actually show it in the light of day. Usually you have to wait until the first rehearsal of a piece before you hear anything. Because of the way the program is structured, by giving composers direct access to the orchestra in a long-term relationship, I think it makes it one of the most successful artist residency programs in the country.
When you’re composing, does the genesis of your musical ideas come from a timbre or texture as opposed to a melodic idea?
I’m a pianist and, when I was a kid, I got into composing by sitting at the piano and thinking with my fingers. But as I’ve grown up as a composer, more and more I’ve started to get inspirited by large-scare formal ideas. The first piece I wrote for the California Symphony, “Music from Underground Spaces,” is about a journey underground. You start in a subway tunnel and you finally go lower and lower until you reach these tectonic plates and it uses actual recordings of earthquakes.
Even in a purely acoustic piece, that architectural approach is really helpful. I wrote a piece last year, “White Lies for Lomax,” which was a homage to this ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax, who went into the deep south and recorded all these early, anonymous blues musicians before they all disappeared. That piece was a really dreamy, bluesy work that’s what it would sound like if someone work up from sleeping and had a bunch of blues fragments bouncing around in their head. I usually start from the outside and work in, only then do I start to say “what melody, harmony or texture would realize this form?” I try to find the material to fit the piece, not the other way around. These things, melodies, harmonies, are the things you fall in love with as a young composer and I think the challenge is making them serve a larger form.
Does “Silicon Blues” have a similar narrative to those other pieces?
Not on the same level as “Music for Underground Spaces”. That’s an abstract narrative but it’s still something of a story where you’re journeying deeper into the Earth. “Silicon Blues” is more about this hiccupping, computer-type groove ultimately transforming into something warmer and more organic. The general concept is moving from something dry and almost kind of sardonic in at the beginning to something that’s much warmer and lush in the end. You could say moving from a digital sound to an analog sound. If you go from one kind of music to another and you really try to transform the first music into the next one, then you end up with three things: you have the starting point, the ending point and you have this interesting place in between where it’s not quite one and not quite the other.