Mu­sic by Ma­son Bates and Mor­ton Feld­man

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Lit­tle of Ma­son Bates’ mu­sic had been per­formed in Santa Fe prior to this sum­mer’s pre­miere of his first opera, The (R)evo­lu­tion of Steve Jobs. On the af­ter­noon of July 16, a week be­fore the first per­for­mance, lis­ten­ers had an op­por­tu­nity to fill in some blanks when Santa Fe Opera part­nered with Al­bu­querque’s Chat­ter en­sem­ble and the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum to present some of Bates’ cham­ber mu­sic in the mu­seum’s au­di­to­rium. The pro­gram of three works cov­ered a decade of his de­vel­op­ment. The Del Sol String Quar­tet, an in­trepid four­some from the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, per­formed his From Frozen Am­ber, from 2002; two of its mem­bers (vi­o­lin­ist Ben­jamin Kre­ith and cel­list Kathryn Bates — no re­la­tion to the com­poser) joined with mem­bers of Chat­ter (clar­inetist Ti­mothy Skin­ner and pi­anist Michael Spassov) and Bates him­self (play­ing elec­tron­ica) for the 2007 piece Red River (based on trav­els in the south­west); and the Del Sols, now as­sisted by Bates and his elec­tron­ica, re­turned for his Ba­gatelles, from 2011.

All three pieces re­ceived per­sua­sive per­for­mances from play­ers ex­pe­ri­enced in con­tem­po­rary styles. In 2002, when he wrote From Frozen Am­ber, Bates had just set­tled in the Bay Area, hav­ing com­pleted “proper” East Coast stud­ies with Schoen­berg’s pupil Dika Newlin and with John Corigliano at The Juil­liard School (and hav­ing grad­u­ated as an English ma­jor from Columbia). Ac­tive as a club-scene DJ in New York, he con­tin­ued that pur­suit in the Bay Area while work­ing at the Cen­ter for New Mu­sic and Au­dio Tech­nolo­gies at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, which awarded him a PhD in 2008 — the year af­ter he fin­ished Red River. By the time of his Ba­gatelles, he had re­ceived mul­ti­ple per­for­mances from the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and was serv­ing as com­poserin-res­i­dence at the Chicago Sym­phony.

The take­away from the con­cert was how much the com­poser had de­vel­oped through that decade.

From Frozen Am­ber seemed an al­most quaint tour of ex­tended string-play­ing tech­nique. The imagery be­hind the piece in­volved in­sects pre­served in, and emerg­ing from, am­ber. The work had self-con­tained episodes, some of them of a buzzy, snap-crack­le­and-pop char­ac­ter, some more leisurely, all of it draw­ing mag­net­i­cally to­ward con­so­nance even if its mo­ments were wildly dis­so­nant. A leap for­ward came in Red River, whose five move­ments oc­cu­pied 17 min­utes. It was pleas­ant and pic­turesque, each move­ment be­ing a brief tone poem de­scrib­ing a site along the Colorado River — say, “In­ter­state 70” (with perky rhyth­mic drive, tail­gat­ing John Adams) or “Zuni Vi­sions From the Canyon Walls” (vast, with an over­lay of bird­song).

The real break­through ar­rived with the Ba­gatelles, which came alive in a way the ear­lier works had not. Here we en­coun­tered a ba­sic lan­guage that we would hear in the opera. The elec­tronic sounds, many of which Bates ma­nip­u­lated from tones pre­re­corded by the Del Sols, merged seam­lessly with the live acous­tic play­ing. The piece syn­the­sized the more in­tel­lec­tu­al­ized sounds of the ear­lier com­po­si­tions with the moods of dif­fer­ent pop­u­lar styles. The first bagatelle, “Rough Math,” in­cluded hoe-down licks; “Scrap­yard Ex­ot­ica” lazily evoked the blues; “Mat­ing Dance” loped along with a stu­diously cool at­ti­tude; and “Vis­cera” proved … well, vis­ceral. Though each of the move­ments stood as a firmly fo­cused bit of ephemera, they built with com­pelling mo­men­tum as a set. There, in 2011, it seemed that Bates was en­tirely com­fort­able in his skin, which is where he needed to be as a point of de­par­ture to­ward his opera.

A ma­jor mu­si­cal event of the sum­mer was the FLUX Quar­tet’s ren­di­tion of Mor­ton Feld­man’s String Quar­tet No. 2, pre­sented by the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val on July 28. The piece is an Ever­est

that hasn’t been scaled very fre­quently since it was in­tro­duced in 1983, al­though Tom Chiu, the group’s first vi­o­lin­ist, said that by now he has as­cended it 15 times. Sev­eral quar­tets have it in their reper­toire, and the FLUX has recorded it for the Mode la­bel, where their per­for­mance runs six hours, seven min­utes, and seven sec­onds. It is widely con­sid­ered the long­est piece of cham­ber mu­sic. The work’s ti­tle page says that it should run be­tween three and a half and five and a half hours — with no breaks. In his notes to FLUX’s record­ing, com­poser Chris­tian Wolff writes: “Feld­man’s es­ti­mate ap­pears to be ca­sual and sub­jec­tive. … Lis­ten­ing to some of the five-hour ver­sion and then the six-hour one, I can­not re­ally hear any dif­fer­ence in the feel­ing of the time. … The tim­ing of the per­for­mance is de­ter­mined at least in large part by the kind of at­ten­tion the play­ers want to give to the mak­ing of the sound, es­pe­cially, at the very low dy­namic lev­els, to the caus­ing of the sounds to speak clearly.” In the event, the live con­cert ran shorter than ex­pected, at just five hours and 11 min­utes. That’s roughly anal­o­gous to a flight from Los An­ge­les to New York but without the snacks, or Göt­ter­däm­merung without the jokes.

Mor­ton Feld­man’s String Quar­tet No. 2 is an Ever­est that hasn’t been scaled very fre­quently since it was in­tro­duced in 1983.

The au­di­ence at St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium was en­cour­aged to sit close to the mu­si­cians, ei­ther in the front rows or on stage seats. Lis­ten­ers were al­lowed to come and go, and they did so as qui­etly as pos­si­ble in the creaky au­di­to­rium, many of them drop­ping in for per­haps an hour. I es­ti­mated that 55 peo­ple were there when I checked the pop­u­la­tion at a cou­ple of points. It seemed as if about 15 peo­ple hun­kered down for the en­tire du­ra­tion.

The work un­rolls through many cells, some rel­a­tively short (per­haps 40 sec­onds), some quite long (maybe seven or eight min­utes). Each works out the mu­si­cal im­pli­ca­tions of its own mu­si­cal ges­ture. For ex­am­ple, Feld­man might build up and re­peat a sin­gle chord through the four in­stru­ments from bot­tom to top, or in some dif­fer­ent or­der, with the in­stru­ments over­lap­ping asyn­chronously, sound­ing rather like Ti­betan sing­ing bowls. By chord I don’t mean your ba­sic C-ma­jor triad or your Tris­tanesque half-di­min­ished sev­enth, but rather a group of notes that would be con­sid­ered dis­so­nant in tra­di­tional har­mony — and, in Feld­man’s case, not just the pitches but also the com­bi­na­tion of care­fully de­fined tim­bres that give them voice. The cell gets worked out, the play­ers take a breath, and the next seg­ment be­gins. A few episodes buzz en­er­get­i­cally, but most are quiet, serene, and con­tem­pla­tive. Some meld to­gether to sug­gest an ex­tended move­ment of sorts. Some re­cur to add glue to the con­struc­tion, but here those re­cur­rences may be sep­a­rated by hours rather than min­utes. In any case, re­it­er­a­tions seem some­what ir­rel­e­vant to the struc­ture. Feld­man wrote of the piece’s de­sign that a “cru­cial dif­fer­ence is in mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween con­struct­ing a ‘com­po­si­tion’ and that of as­sem­blage, which is more what this quar­tet is about. A ‘com­po­si­tion’ for me forms sen­tence struc­tures within a sce­nario of be­gin­ning, mid­dle, and end. … With as­sem­blage there is no con­ti­nu­ity of fit­ting the parts to­gether as words in a sen­tence or para­graph.” It was never pos­si­ble to an­tic­i­pate what would hap­pen next.

The play­ing was of a high or­der, all the more ad­mirable given the ex­haust­ing ex­i­gen­cies of an un­in­ter­rupted five-hour per­for­mance. Al­though the play­ers used no vi­brato and played of­ten with short­ish bow strokes, their tim­bral breadth was re­mark­able, some­times sug­gest­ing birds, in­sects, a twang­ing au­to­harp, a whin­ing mouth or­gan, or a dis­tant Euro­pean po­lice siren. Most (but not all) of the ma­te­rial was quiet, and it gen­er­ally un­spooled slowly. The ex­pe­ri­ence could re­sem­ble watch­ing a long work of video art by Bill Vi­ola, al­though those don’t usu­ally last be­yond an hour or so — so maybe it was like watch­ing five of them in a row. Many of these slow ex­panses un­rolled at “breath­ing tempo,” which made it easy for lis­ten­ers to meld with the mu­sic. There were no en­cores.

Del Sol String Quar­tet, photo Matthew Wash­burn

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