courtesy of Naxos of America
This past Friday Delos released its fourth recording of Cappella SF, the a cappella chamber choir based in San Francisco (as its name implies), conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. The full title of the new album is Mass Transmission: Choral Works by Mason Bates. As a resident of the Bay Area, Bates has had a long and impressive relationship with Bohlin, first involving the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Chorus and later Cappella SF.
The title of the album comes from a composition that SFS commissioned for performance during its centennial season. More specifically, it was written to be performed as part of the American Mavericks Festival held during March of 2012. The piece was scored for full chorus accompanied only by pipe organ (played by Paul Jacobs at the premiere) and electronica, which Bates himself performed at the keyboard of his laptop. The conductor at the premiere performance was Donato Cabrera.
By now Bates has established himself for his skill in integrating the “virtual” sonorities synthesized by his computer with the “physical” sounds of musical instruments sharing the stage with him. However, just as important has been the way in which he has built up a repertoire in a new and unlikely genre: the history of technology. The best example of this genre is probably “Alternative Energy,” which has been recorded by both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and SFS. “Mass Transmission” is basically about an elaborate wireless radio link that the Dutch built early in the twentieth century to enable communication between Dutch youth working as pages for government officials in Java and their parents back in the Netherlands. The libretto includes a transcript of one of those conversations, along with personal memories of that time and place.
Considering the technical infrastructure, the performance is expressively lush. However, it captures the spirit of nostalgia for those pioneering times with a clear-sighted account of how a new technology established the vanguard of a series of changes that have had (and continue to have) lasting effect. Bates never tries to romanticize, but he also knows how to tap into listening as an emotional experience.
The new album begins with a composition strictly for a cappella chorus without any electronic supplements. Sirens is a six-movement tone poem that presents reflections on those tempting figures from mythology drawn from five different sources. Homer’s Odyssey provides the framework with an excerpt sung in Homeric Greek at the beginning and in English at the end. Other sources come from literature (including the New Testament) and Quechua folklore. Bates is clearly comfortable setting texts in a variety of different languages, and Sirens makes for a fascinating mood piece. The album also concludes with a “bonus track” dedicated to Bohlin entitled “Rag of Ragnar.”