Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Crossing boundaries is nothing new for composer and electronica artist Mason Bates. As comfortable with staff paper as he is DJing (under the name Masonic), Bates has already garnered acclaim for works commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony (where he serves as composer-in-residence) and others. Here on Stereo Is King - his first release since his 2009 debut, Digital Loom - he takes his listeners on a wild ride through chamber music, choral music, and electronica, featuring performances by Tania Stavreva, Claremont Trio, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) New Music Ensemble, Chanticleer and musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From the title track's combination of electronics and an array of percussion to the angular syncopation of 'White Lies for Lomax' - an homage to the early, anonymous blues musicians recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax - Stereo Is King explores the possibilities of a broad range of sonorities, refusing to exclude any genre by fiat and instead embracing whole the wide world of music. 'Observer in the Magellanic Cloud,' performed by Chanticleer, drifts high above in a place where distant future meets ancient past. 'Difficult Bamboo' begins minimally and grows wildly out of control. Bill Ryan and the GVSU New Music Ensemble deftly navigate 'Terrycloth Troposhere,' an ode to Terry Riley that repurposes motifs from his seminal 'In C,' while 'String Band' is grounded in bluegrass and old-time string band music. Throughout, Bates' voice comes clear from within the diversity of approaches, ensembles and styles. It is his balance as a writer and envisioner of modern music that envelops the past while moving confidently into the future that ties Stereo Is King together into a comprehensive statement by a talented young composer.
Personnel: Tania Stavreva (piano).
Unknown Performer Roles: Claremont Trio; Chanticleer; Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra .
Stereo Is King collects a group of pieces by the young American composer Mason Bates, many of them written during a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From the evidence of these works, Bates is a composer to watch. His music, with its overall emphasis on rhythm and percussion, seems distantly rooted in the minimalist movement, but it's neither pan-tonal nor rhythmically repetitive. In two works here, Bates seems to have found strong, productive principles for the use of electronics in (at least) two ways. First, he manages to evoke popular styles from blues to funk without entering "crossover" territory; rhythms are developed rather than forming the structural basis of a piece. And second, he incorporates electronics into acoustic ensembles effectively in the title track, where the contrast between electronics and conventional instruments forms a basic contrast in what the Baroque would have called a concertante structure. The title is ironic; Bates uses electronics to set off the sound of Thai and Tibetan traditional instruments that produce stereo-like reverberations, and it's both an entertaining and a challenging work. "Observer in the Magellanic Cloud," commissioned and performed by the a cappella group Chanticleer in the Maori language, similarly mixes elements of traditional culture with Bates' post-minimalist language. What's most impressive is that Bates' style remains recognizable across various ensembles (four of the six pieces do not use electronics at all) and across a great variety of themes, from references to vernacular music to futuristic conceits. This is novel music, not in the least retro, but it never leaves the audience behind. ~ James Manheim
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