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MASON BATES (b.1977)

Alternative Energy for Orchestra & Electronica (2011)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Ford's Farm, 1896

II. Chicago, 2012

III. Xinjiang Province, 2112

IV. Reykjavik, 2222


Composed in 2011, Mason Bates's energy symphony, Alternative Energy, was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony under Riccardo Muti. This year is marked by the tragic and catastrophic collision of mother earth with manufactured energy. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 undersea megathrust earthquake occurred at 14:46 Japan Standard Time, with an epicenter 45 miles east of Tōhoku, Japan. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. Triggering tsunami waves reaching 133 feet in Tōhoku's Iwate Prefecture and Sendai area, the waves caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the meltdown of three of its reactors. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, referred to as 3.11, generated a Pacific-wide tsunami, reaching the State of Hawaiʻi, causing extensive damage to private and public property in the counties of Honolulu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island. 



Composer of the Grammy-winning opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Mason Bates, is imaginatively transforming the way classical music is created and experienced as a composer, DJ, and curator. As the first composer-in-residence appointed by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he presented a diverse array of artists on his series KC Jukebox using immersive production and stagecraft. His symphonic music is the first to receive widespread acceptance for its unique integration of electronic sounds, championed by legendary conductors from Riccardo Muti, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Marin Alsop. Named as the most-performed composer of his generation in a recent survey of American music, Bates has also composed for feature film including Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts.


Appearing on international stages this season is Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra, for animated film and live orchestra. A collaboration with multi-Oscar-winning Gary Rydstrom of Lucasfilm and Jim Capobianco of Aerial Contrivance, the work explores the connection between creativity and technology with the help of a magical Spirit, who flies through instruments as they are played. The soundtrack was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater for Sony Classical, and the film will soon be available on a major streaming platform.


Recent and upcoming premieres include Whalesong, conducted by Kwamé Ryan and commissioned by the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall London for radio and television broadcast, and a new work for period instruments for Philharmonia Baroque. In addition, acclaimed pianist Daniil Trifonov continues his worldwide tour of Bates' Piano Concerto, with performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France.


Now in its second production, his hit opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which won the 2019 Grammy for Best Opera, goes to Calgary Opera and Utah Opera this season. The concert opener, Rhapsody of Steve Jobs, based on the opera, will be heard at Atlanta Symphony after its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra. A new opera is in the works based on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for the Metropolitan Opera.


Highly informed by his work as a DJ, his curatorial approach integrates adventurous music, ambient information, and social platforms in a fluid and immersive way. Working in clubs under the name DJ Masonic, Bates has developed Mercury Soul, a show combining DJing and classical music, to packed crowds with clubs and orchestras around the country. A diverse artist exploring the ways classical music integrates into contemporary cultures, he serves on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.



"Alternative Energy is an 'energy symphony' spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity's last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.


The idée fixe that links these disparate worlds appears early in "Ford's Farm, 1896." This melody is heard on the fiddle — conjuring a figure like Henry Ford — and is accompanied by junkyard percussion and a 'phantom orchestra' that trails the fiddler like ghosts. The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever-more-powerful energy. Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement's present-day Chicago, where we encounter actual recordings from the FermiLab particle collider. Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections, and joyous voltage surges bring the movement to a clangorous finish.


Zoom a hundred years into the dark future of the "Xinjiang Province, 2112" where a great deal of the Chinese energy industry is based. On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the fiddle tune, dreaming of a forgotten natural world. But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown. As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even further into the future: a Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet. Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicato accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times." – Mason Bates


Alternative Energy runs 27 minutes and calls for three flutes, three piccolos, alto flute, three oboes and English horn, three Bb clarinets and Eb clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion instruments, laptop, piano, harp, and strings. 

© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai

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