Sunday, April 02, 2006


I trip when sidewalk cracks run askew. I obsess over details, sometimes to a fault, and it was one detail in particular that lured me to the Paramount Theatre to hear Mason Bates' Omnivorous Furniture, a piece for electronica and orchestra. Did you trip? Electronica. Note The Addition of the Letter A. Not electronics. My brief tenure at Mills College would have prepared me for that. People at Mills compose for electronics and [insert your favorite instrument here]. They play live electronics. They play live electronics and [insert your least favorite instrument here]. We define people as electronic music composers. We celebrated on that rare occassion when the San Francisco symphony programmed Varèse's Déserts. But electronica? Oo, the word suggests beats and rhythms, and at Mills, words like "beats" and "Franz Liszt" tended to garner suspicious stares.

I enjoyed The Addition of the Letter A to the symphonic experience, though I found Bates' zips and scratches far more interesting than the sweeping strings/movie music quality of the orchestral writing. Rhythm ruled, to be sure, which may have emphasized the banality of the orchestral sound. Then again, I fully appreciated Bates' nod to Satie (omnivorous music) and accepted the boredom as part of that joke. With the orchestra held in check by a steady, pulsing rhythm, and with not much more than a slightly expanded percussion section (gongs, cymbals and mallet instruments) for exotic spice, Bates' electronica became immediately accessible. By contrast, hearing Varèse's musique concrète (er, electronics) is still a challenge for my ears, and wonderfully so. Mason Bates is obviously tapping into a different aesthetic (or audience) with his own integration of the orchestra and electronic music. Sorry, electronica.


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