Mason Bates on Difficult Bamboo, performed at MusicNOW on June 3, 2013 (MusicNOW commission, world premiere).

Duration: 20 minutes
Instrumentation: Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, Piano, and Percussion

About the piece:

“Difficult Bamboo is a pastoral piece that kind of loses its mind,” says Mason Bates of his most recent composition. Inspired by the invasive type of bamboo—a rampant runner that has developed a bad rep for destroying wildlife habitats and disturbing ecosystems— the work seeks to emulate the voracious growth cycle of a gardener’s worst nightmare.

“Difficult Bamboo begins as a minimalist piece and then goes maximal, in a kind of psychotic way,” says Bates. “I really like stylistically dynamic works that change in a big way over the course of the piece. In recent years I’ve been searching out new kinds of forms that will allow me to do that.”

Composed for Pierrot ensemble and percussion, Difficult Bamboo begins life on spacious terrain before evolving into a highly chromatic Pierrot lunaire-inspired soundscape. “Musically, I’m trying to create something that allows me to start out in a very restricted harmonic world, which then gradually explodes over time,” Bates explains. The avaricious energy of the invasive bamboo is captured by one instrument that plays a motif, which then gets picked up by another instrument and so on— until the piece flourishes into a sprawling melee of rapid notes, detuned instruments, and the brisk percussive flutter of multiple egg shakers.

“The basic image I started with was the idea of trying to create an idyllic, pastoral setting in the midst of a vast, replicating opponent,” says Bates. “This piece has its roots in nature, but sometimes the natural world replicates very quickly and gets totally out of control. I thought a way to express that on an imagistic level was to take this idea of crazy bamboo running through a beautifully manicured landscape.”

About the composer:

The music of Mason Bates fuses innovative orchestral writing, imaginative narrative forms and the harmonies of jazz and rhythms of techno. Frequently performed by orchestras large and small, his symphonic music has been the first to receive widespread acceptance for its expanded palette of electronic sounds.

Bates was appointed by Music Director Riccardo Muti, along with Anna Clyne, as one of Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composers-in-Residence and took up the post in the 2010/11season for a term of two years. Maestro Muti extended both Bates’ and Clyne’s terms through the 2013/14 season, which enables them to develop further the collaborations he has commenced with various partners in Chicago as well as new relationships.

Bates has become a visible advocate for bringing new music to new spaces, whether through institutional partnerships or through his classical/DJ project Mercury Soul, which has transformed spaces ranging from commercial clubs to Frank Gehry-designed concert halls into exciting, hybrid musical events drawing over a thousand people. Other collaborations include works toured by Levy Dance. As a DJ, he often appears with upright bassist David Arend in spaces from San Francisco to Berlin, including Mezzanine, Temple, Volksbühne, John Colins and SFMOMA.

Carnegie Hall’s 2012/13 season opened with Riccardo Muti leading the CSO in Alternative Energy, an “energy symphony” that spans four movements and hundreds of years. Premiered by the CSO in February 2012 to rave reviews, the work subsequently toured California and New York’s Carnegie Hall; it received its Canadian premiere in February by the Toronto Symphony. A new violin concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and the Pittsburgh Symphony premiered in December under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, and the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform many of Bates’ works as he serves as Composer of the Year. Under choreographer Aszure Barton, the Houston Ballet premieres a new ballet to The B-Sides, a dance suite that drops into five surreal landscapes that has been performed around the country since its San Francisco Symphony premiere. The Phoenix Symphony presents two of his works this season: Desert Transport, which conjures a helicopter trip over the Arizona landscape, and a new song cycle for soprano and orchestra.
While Bates often performs the electronica onstage with orchestras, dozens of repeat performances of his symphonic music happen without him— demonstrating how electronics can act as a new section in the orchestra with little logistical effort. A good example is Mothership, which premiered at the Sydney Opera House by the YouTube Symphony to an online audience of 1.8 million: it will appear on symphonic programs across the country this season.

Many purely acoustic works complement his diverse catalogue, such as Sirens, an a cappella work touring with the superstar chorus Chanticleer. The solo piano work White Lies for Lomax, commissioned by Tanglewood Music Center, won the Van Cliburn Composers Invitational and is heard regularly on recitals. A new string quartet premiered by the Del Sol Quartet at the 2012 Cabrillo Festival receives its Bay Area premiere this December. A great deal of his music has been performed by the musicians of Young Concert Artists, the acclaimed New York organization where he served as composer-in-residence.

Raised in Virginia where he studied piano with Hope Armstrong Erb and composition with Dika Newlin, Bates enrolled in the Columbia-Juilliard program in New York City. Earning degrees in music composition and English literature, he studied primarily with John Corigliano and also under with David Del Tredici and Samuel Adler. He worked with Edmund Campion at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies became an important influence on his approach to electro-acoustic composition. Awards include the Heinz Award, the Rome and Berlin Prizes, a Charles Ives scholarship and fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Jacob Druckman Memorial Prize from Aspen Music Festival, ASCAP and BMI awards, and fellowships from Tanglewood, Creative Capital and the Guggenheim Foundation.

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