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Composer Mason Bates talks Mass Transmission

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The San Francisco Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas its music director, has been celebrating its centennial throughout the 2011-12 season in a special, generous, and, for music-lovers, innovative fashion: first, it invited six of the leading U.S. orchestras to perform before San Francisco audiences, and, now this week (March 27-30) in New York's Carnegie Hall, the SFS brings a festival entitled American Mavericks, which features the music of pioneers of the ever evolving American sound from the 20th and young 21st century: Charles Ives to Meredith Monk, Aaron Copland to Steve Reich, Aaron Copland to John Adams.  Among four premieres is Mass Transmission by 35-year-old composer Mason Bates. T+L talks with Bates about the score, which features electronics, the sonic possibilities of which he has become expert, both as a composer and as DJ Masonic, his alter-ego. See the interview after the jump.

1.  What is Mass Transmission about?
Essentially, it is about 1920's skype. It is a true story about a Dutch mother and her daughter speaking over some of the first long-distance radio transmissions. The daughter had been sent by the Dutch government to the Dutch East Indies—today, Indonesia—as a page to work in the office of the colonial government in Java. At one end of the transmission is the daughter and at the other in Europe is the mother in a Dutch telegraph office. The Dutch government subsequently published text that documented recollections and transcriptions from these historic radio transmissions.  At the core, the story is a very beautiful window into the human mind because it represents the profound and basic human need for daughter to hear the voice of the mother and the mother to hear the voice of the daughter. It is about the need for connection, here, processed through this new technology.

2.  What is the work scored for?
It is for full chorus, organ, and electronica or electronic instruments. The chorus represents the mother and daughter.

3.  And orchestra?
No, I felt the piece needed a musical entity to support the chorus, which is the organ, but not an orchestra.  Also, the topic is intimate and the organ seemed best suited, but at the same time, it could take a featured role and represent the busyness of the Dutch office.  It contrasts with the ethereal quality of the chorus's "transmission" music.  The electronics or electronica as I call it represents a kind of musical scrim of static, a sort of gentle frequency surfing that you hear that comes from electronics. Paul Jacobs is the organist.

4.  And the electronica?
One of my interests is the blend of sounds, of the the acoustic, voice or instruments, with the electronic, and the resulting expressive possibilities. Here, I found there was this really interesting possibility of classical music and electronica meeting up. Sometimes there are actual beats but sometimes there is ambiance or ambient sound. Quite a few of the sounds are drawn from short-wave radio. 

5.  How was the idea for Mass Transmission born?
I was interested in the effect of radio technology being left in the village somewhere or reacting in an indigenous setting. Sometimes you reverse engineer because you have a musical goal. Sometimes you look, but you don't find. But after a lot of research I found this text of someone in Java communicating with her mother in Holland.  I was blown away. And once I found that story, the story shaped the music. At first, it seems like an esoteric topic but if anybody has ever tried to communicate with a loved one over any kind of distance, you know what it is like to have this medium between you and your loved one. It is both helping and getting in the way, at the same time.

Mario Mercado is the arts editor at Travel + Leisure

Image courtesty of Christian Schroth

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