In his other life, Mason also mixes hip-hop and electronica under the dj name of Masonic. One of the focal points of his creative work has been finding ways to combine his love for the textures of electronica with the resources of acoustic instruments.
For the Winston-Salem Symphony commission, Mason came up with Rusty Carolina, a piece in which he performs live electronics from within the percussion section of the orchestra. I was fortunate to hear the piece twice: first at the premiere on Sunday, then in a seminar the composer gave on Tuesday.
Alas, the premiere didn’t go well. The opening section, featuring whirring sounds of katydids and cicadas threaded between the electronics and the orchestra, was fine, but in the middle of the piece, where the electronics provide a groove for some funky orchestra riffs, Mason’s computer shut down. He was able to get it back on track by the end, but you have to feel terrible for the guy – what a nightmare.
The good news is that this was just one of three performances, so Mason had a more representative recording to share with us on Tuesday.
In the seminar, he played recordings of three works: an excerpt from Rundfunk for live electronics and acoustic bass, Digital Loom for organ and electronics, and the dress rehearsal track of Rusty Carolina. Rundfunk showed his purely electronica side, with palpably shifting beat groupings and time-stretching textures. This is a composer for whom melody is treated as a special event – the essence of his work is in the rhythm, harmony and timbre.
Digital Loom is a terrific piece for an unlikely combination: concert pipe organ and prerecorded electronic sound. In five continuous movements, Digital Loom has enormous expressive range, from the rhythmic energy of the second movement (Fanfare with breaks) to the non-metrical haziness of the fourth movement (Geraldine’s parlor). The fifth movement, Deliver us from evil, concludes the piece with a raucous accelerando.
Although he has written a synthesizer concerto, Bates prefers to use electronics as just another section within the orchestra. Rusty Carolina exemplifies this approach, and shows the influence of one of Bates’s primary teachers, John Corigliano. (an aside: I think of Corigliano as one of those composers whose creative range extends far beyond the pigeonholes people have attempted to squeeze around him. But that’s another story.) The piece is scored beautifully – not always with the greatest of practicality, but practicality is not the most important virtue to which music can aspire.
One of the fun things about Mason’s music is his realization that electronica has a fundamental kinship with pointillism. His music careens around the color spectrum and throughout the registers of the orchestra, all in careful counterpoint to an insistent beat.
The title, incidentally, refers to the sound of the summer air in the South – Bates grew up in Richmond, Virginia – a buzzing and rhythmic chirruping that can modulate in and out of pure white noise.