When I was a student at the conservatory, I used to go to the symphony almost every week. I would get free tickets through various educational outreach programs, volunteer to usher at concerts, and occasionally even buy tickets. Now that I live in the south bay, slogging through rush hour into the city after a long day of teaching music lessons, I rarely make it out to Davies anymore. But when I found out that the San Francisco Symphony is premiering a Mason Bates piece, I had to go. For most of the symphony’s clientele, a brand new piece is a reason to avoid a concert. For me, it is the main reason to come. In past few years I have grown disenchanted by traditional classical’s same old line up of dead composers. It doesn’t quite do it for me anymore. Instead I’ve been drawn to the wide open world of electronically synthesized or transformed acoustic sounds– a growing genre known as electro-acoustic music.
In the past couple of seasons Bates and the SF Symphony have partnered up on several occasions and recently released a CD with a rather stodgy title: Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra. The cover features an orb that is half moon, half dandelion seed head, representing Bates’ signature fusion of the traditional human orchestra with electronic sounds. The CD walks a fine line between delicate impressionistic orchestral sounds and a straight up club beat. Bates is careful not to overindulge in either and weaves a dramatic narrative using a limitless vocabulary of sounds.
In the concert, Bates was not only the distant composer– he was on stage with the rest of the performers, standing right next to the timpanist, directly facing conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Face illuminated by the glow of two macbooks, he was perched above the orchestra like a magician, triggering pre-recorded samples and manipulating sound effects. The blend of sounds coming from the stereo speakers with the orchestral instruments was as seamless as I’ve ever heard in orchestral electro-acoustic music
The new piece, entitled Auditorium, starts with the orchestra tuning to the oboe’s A, which is then interrupted by Baroque tuning, about a half step lower. The overlap created a dissonant clash that tickled my ears. The classical music world seems obsessed with the past and afraid of the future, and that’s what Auditorium is all about. Bates has been teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so of course he was exposed to a lot of music carefully conserved from the past.
Pre-recorded harpsichord riffs stuck out from the texture. Usually the quiet tinkling of the harpsichord is only heard in Baroque music. But here it was amplified to match up to modern instruments’ volume. (Why not have the amplified harpsichord on stage?) The disparate tunings also helped it stick out. It was answered by on-stage piano in a stimulating dialogue.
Throughout the piece the orchestra imitated the oscillating effects of the electronics — true to Baroque tradition of imitative counterpoint. As the piece wound down strings seemed to breathe in long swells on unmoving held tones, while the speakers emitted swirling filter sweeps. There was never a dull moment in the whole composition. It was wondrous, beautiful, and full of surprises.
With computers infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives, the concert hall has been one of the last bastions of the old world– where audience members are expected to turn off their cell phones and the musicians play unamplified. But even that’s starting to change. There was still plenty of old music for those who come to the concert to escape to the past. Yet with electronic sounds in the media and in our pocket notifications, it is only natural for them to be used in the concert hall as well. And lets face it– electronic music music can do things that human instrumentalists will never be able to do in terms of speed, sound colors, and volume. It’s both sad and exciting; and on a bionic level, maybe even terrifying.
The rest of the concert, by comparison, was boring to me. Sure, the orchestra sounded technically flawless as always. But the Bartok felt like a counting exercise with the irregular accents only half-assedly punctuated. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (neo-Baroque, 1919; post WW1) and Shostakovitch’s 9th Symphony (neoclassical, 1945, post WW2) were a logical pairing with Bates’ Auditorium in that they also hark back to influences from earlier centuries but make it a point to ironically blend it with their contemporary idioms (i.e. you don’t expect to hear huge brass fanfares in the middle of a Haydnesque texture but it’s Shostakovitch and the soviets want a victory march).