Review: Mason Bates-Stereo Is King

Mason Bates

By Jayson Greene

Mason Bates, a DJ and composer, never quite manages to escape an interview—and he's given many—without being asked how it is he manages to work in both fields. Orchestral composers are presumed to be so sealed off from popular pursuits, it seems, that he may as well be a Catholic priest that skydives, or a Supreme Court Justice with a sideline in mixed martial arts. A line he often feeds journalists is that the orchestra is like "the world's greatest synthesizer," an analogy so head-patting in its patronizing simplicity I imagine he's rolling his eyes inwardly as he says it.

But the analogy nonetheless points to the way Bates works—he's fascinated by sounds, and it doesn't matter where they come from. His imagination for tone colors and textures is obvious on Stereo Is King, and they unfold across a spectrum. Like the composer Daniel Wohl, Bates' recorded music explores a rich nexus where organic sounds blur into digital ones, and Stereo Is King basically eradicates your need, while it is playing, to even make such distinctions. When he performs his pieces live with an orchestra, he pointedly underlines this approach, standing all the way in the back of the massed forces, hunched over a laptop and sending little glitches and ripples out over the seething field of sound around him.

On Stereo Is King's title track, Bates paints a landscape of a thousand noises on an equal playing field. The first minute of the title piece has marimba, glockenspiel, bells, possibly some sampled chirping crickets—all in the first minute. Some light smudges of digital activity crackle in the corners and in the foreground. These graceful intrusions hit the surface of his orchestral writing like a skipping rock. They remind us forcefully that in our headphones, the separation of "real" and "fake" sounds is a trick we play on ourselves.

There are many different kinds of pieces on Stereo—"Observer in the Magellanic Cloud" pairs choral chanting with rolled "r"s and a metronome beep. The choral writing fans out into grunts and exclamations before assembling again, like a gas cloud, into a reverent hum. The metronome beep fades, imperceptibly, into the choral writing, and back out again—a tagged tracer for Bates' ideas about the mutability of sounds. "White Lies for  Lomax", meanwhile, dreams up new field recordings that Lomax never happened across, the piano wandering airily in and out of concrete blues language. Six minutes in, an actual field recording floats in, but so quietly that it seems to be intruding into your headphone space from outside. (The first time I listened, I actually took my headphones off to make sure it was part of the music.)

What unites all of these pieces is, simply, Bates' roving mind. "Terrycloth Troposphere" lovingly disassembles some of the key parts in  Terry Riley's "In C". "String Band" re-imagines classic string band music as a bunch of straining tendons, strings that moan and approach snapping. All of them travel from their origin point into Bates' world, a place where sounds exist, if not independent of their makers, then attached to them by a remarkably loose tether, gathering overhead like helium balloons ready to slip.