Mason Bates: Mothership


Appointed the first-ever composer-In-Residence at the Kennedy Center this season (the beginning of a three-year residency), Mason Bates has rapidly joined the ranks of John Adams among the most frequently heard living American composers on the concert scene today - including prominent performances as well as a commission from the National Symphony. Along with his growing body of pioneering orchestral works, Bates recently accepted a commission from Santa Fe Opera to write an opera with librettist Mark Campbell titled The (Re)evolution of Steve Jobs, about the iconic figure of the digital era. Bates himself has been re-imagining the possibilities of traditional orchestral music and the concert experience itself for the context of our wired times. In Mothership this impulse converges with the composer's parallel career as a DJ (who goes by the moniker "Masonic"). In San Francisco and many other cities Bates has for years been curating after-hours sessions of immersive electronica, at times as late-into-the-night extensions of an orchestral concert. Compositions like Mothership fuse Bates's varied identities by incorporating electronic samplings familiar from the dance club floor into high-energy orchestral textures. Even Mothership's creation followed an unusual track. It was commissioned by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, the world's first online collaborative orchestra (which was established in 2008). The members of this ensemble were recruited on the basis of auditions they posted online (juried by professional orchestral musicians and selected according to online voting from YouTube users). Spearheaded by the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a prominent champion of both John Adams and Mason Bates, the YouTube Symphony has also performed in live concerts (which, naturally, are also available on YouTube). At their live concert debut in 2009, Tilson Thomas quipped about the way to get to Carnegie Hall (where they performed): "Upload, upload, upload!" On March 20, 2011, the YouTube Symphony unveiled Mothership, its second major commission, in a live broadcast from Sydney Opera House in Australia. As a preliminary step, the London Symphony Orchestra under Tilson Thomas recorded the orchestral score as a demonstration piece which they then uploaded during the initial call for musicians to audition. Bates hit on the image of the orchestra as a mothership on which four visiting soloists temporarily "dock" in sequence, improvising on material that generated by the larger ensemble. There's also a "chance" element: solo instruments are undetermined and can vary according to a particular orchestra's strengths. The piece can also be performed using written-out solos. Bates had been asked to write a short concert opener - the genre represented by such works as The Chairman Dances - but instead of a standard burst of energy and color to get listeners in the mood for what is to follow, he characteristically decided to enrich the context with a narrative underpinning. Mothership not only invites the energy of modern techno dance into the concert hall but rethinks the relationship between soloists and an orchestra - the core of the concerto idea. Bates recalls finding his inspiration for the piece while riding the subway in New York City: "I was watching people getting on and off the train and suddenly realized I could have one of the [four] improvisers get on for one stop and then get off. But the orchestra would be the mothership throughout, with the musicians docking on and off." In formal terms, Mothership follows the model of a scherzo with double trio. (Bates mentions Schumann's Second Symphony as an example.) Here, two of the four soloists play one after the other for each of the "trio" passages. But in place of the dance idioms that animate the traditional scherzo, Bates supplies "the rhythms of modern-day techno" as the orchestral "mothership floats high above."

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