Mason Bates – Mainframe Tropics (2009)

Mason Bates is the latest shiny object in the firmament of American orchestral music. He recently dethroned Jennifer Higdon from her second place on the list of most performed living Americans. (John Adams rules perennially at number one.) 2017 will see the premiere of his new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. If his experience follows form, he will soon have interviews on prime-time PBS and his fifteen minutes in mainstream culture will officially have arrived. Not bad for a composer just hitting forty.

I. Rogue DJ

Bates has all the usual credentials we expect from a “serious” composer this century: conservatory degree (Juilliard), doctorate (U.C. Berkeley), prestigious prizes, commissions, residencies, etc., etc. But his alter ego may be what provides his superpower: he is an active DJ of electronic dance music. Sometimes his guest appearances as composer include a spin party as DJ.

His bios often claim that he is famous for his “expansion of the orchestra to include electronics.” This is, of course, ballocks. Composers have been mixing electronics with orchestras for the 100-or-so years since electronic sound became a thing. But we can perhaps credit Bates for writing music that leads major orchestras to want to include electronics. That would be innovation enough, and no doubt his DJ experience has helped him devise practical solutions that make the job simple and reproducible.

Beyond technology, however, the DJ comes out in Bates’s energetic pulsating style. Many of his ideas descend directly from John Adams, especially the minimalist Adams of the eighties. But Bates differs from Adams in that his pieces are terse and often organized around simple forms like ABA. While Adams mesmerizes, Bates energizes. In these respects, Bates’s Mainframe Tropics for horn, violin, and piano is squarely representative of his oeuvre.

II. Computation Gone Wild

As if all these talents weren’t enough, Bates has a penchant for evocative titles. Sometimes they have a specific meaning. (His 2010 orchestra piece Desert Transport reenacts a helicopter ride in Arizona.) But sometimes the titles are head-scratchers, and (at least for this reviewer) Mainframe Tropics is one such. IBM boxes megaflopping on the beach?

The composer offers an explanation at the front of his score, averring that both the “digital and marine” inform the piece. Many of Bates’s other titles reference computers or technology. One could perhaps understand them as seeking to humanize the technological by juxtaposing it in absurd ways. Whatever the case may be, the title Mainframe Tropics captures an essence of the piece even if the meaning of the words is obscure.

Bates’s personal voice is rooted in electronics and percussion. While this piece contains neither, what allows it to fall in so neatly is the deployment of minor preparations on four notes of the piano. The preface to the score alludes to the creative breakthrough these preparations represent. The prepared notes become literal percussion instruments, and the piano textures must then be light to balance their delicate timbres. The result is a completely fresh sound world for this combination.

If the piano provides the groove, the violin and horn interweave with the groove or soar above by turns. All three parts require metronomic counting skills. The violin part contains a liberal sprinkling of harmonics and other effects, but it also occasionally jumps into down-and-dirty fiddling for a bar or two. In that respect it seems a bit schizophrenic, which adds to the overall energy.

III. Pitfalls

The horn part is somewhat difficult to characterize fairly. The piece must certainly be exhilarating to rehearse and perform. But preparing the horn part by itself may be a bit dull. Essentially it alternates between punched repeated notes and long tones. Its interest lies in how it fits with the other parts.

There is plenty of rest, so embouchure fatigue is not really an issue. But the part ignores the low register entirely, and it flies up into the high range with a facile frequency that makes one wonder if the composer understands what he’s asking for. At one point he expects the player to end a long phrase by sustaining a forte written C#6 for two-and-a-half bars. (But hornist Austin Sposato nailed it on the linked video.)

Ultimately, this reviewer believes the heavy use of high horn fits the piece. The high notes are lyrical and not super-loud, and they contribute to the freshness of the sound world. What is less convincing is the apparent attempt to deploy the Star Trek “stop-gliss” effect. Many composers have scant understanding how it works, and Bates seems to be one of them. The first example is correct and works beautifully, but the rest make no sense. The player is left either trying to play the glisses as written or rewrite them. Most would be more effective if Bates would take the time to work through them with a good horn player. As they are, even Sarah Willis seemed a bit stumped on her CD recording.

IV. Much More To Come

The horn world is fortunate to have such a strong, representative work from the hot commodity that Mason Bates is right now. One wonders that there are not already a dozen videos of it on Youtube. But the linked Stonybrook senior recital appears to be the first. Mainframe Tropics has been on The Contemporary Hornist’s list almost since the beginning. This spunky performance by the young Nomad Trio has made the blog post possible. Many thanks to them for presenting the piece and making the video available.

Perhaps one deterrent to performances is the preparations of the four notes on the piano. In reality, they are incredibly simple. One can see the piano player remove them at the end of the video, and it takes well under ten seconds.

Bates wrote the trio for the Ringling Arts Festival in Sarasota, Florida. It was premiered by Anne-Marie McDermott, Jennifer Frautschi, and Eric Ruske. Sarah Willis subsequently recorded it for her CD, Horn Discoveries. The sheet music is available from the composer’s publisher website. As Bates’s star reaches ever new heights, one can only imagine this piece will get much more attention in the coming years.


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