Mason Bates’ KC Jukebox 2: Music, visuals ‘Of Land & Sea’

Second stanza of KenCen’s composer-in-residence is wide-ranging, more focused than last November’s first edition. But KenCen tech needs some help.

Projected, immersive jungle scene, part of Mason Bates' latest edition of "KC Jukebox" at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Terry Ponick)

WASHINGTON, February 27, 2016 – This Monday past, Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates presented the second edition of his free-range musical series. Edition 2 of “KC Jukebox” was subtitled “Of Land and Sea,” and the program encompassed a freeform musical view of the planet’s endlessly varied terrains and environments.

Staged this time in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab—pretty much the permanent home of the facility’s long-running cash cow, “Shear Madness,” this program as well as its indoor environment carried through on Mason’s promise to introduce classical music-style programs to unaccustomed spaces throughout the building.

While Jukebox 2 was less freeform than last fall’s inaugural edition, it was a more intimate-feeling environment, placing the audience closer to the musicians, the music and the continually morphing visuals.

Instead of offering conventional KenCen programs with all the customary text, membership listings and adverts, audience members were simply presented with a small “passport” for the musical journey, listing the compositions, the composers, the performing artists and little else.

Program notes were still provided, but via projections centered above the performance floor and encompassing the projected visual landscapes that wrapped around the performance space. The steeply-raked seating in the Theater Lab provided easy and unobstructed views of the performers in this program, which progressed without an intermission. The format was clearly intended to provide a dreamlike, immersive experience, although technically, the scheme didn’t always work out.

Although it was initially clear, the opening work of the evening consisted of excerpts from John Luther Adams’ electronic composition “At the Still Point,” which was described as a contemporary, repurposed remix of an earlier Adams audio composition that had been stored on reel-to-real tape. “Still Point” was actually used as background as the audience filed in, a bit late as it turns out due to some traffic issues out in the real world.

Running about 10 minutes beyond the official 8 p.m. “curtain,” it wasn’t exactly clear what we all were listening to (or whether the late start was intentional) until the Last Stand Quartet (violins, viola and cello) filed in, taking their seats to perform excerpts from Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Milagros,” a series of dances and dance like movements.

Frank’s early movements were essentially standard-issue bits and squiggles of modernism with standard atonal nastiness that was occasionally punctuated by some interesting quarter-tone excursions, well-executed by the strings. As things progressed, more listenable western harmonies began to emerge as successive dance forms unfolded with increasing urgency. A mixed bag, really, although marvelously performed by the quartet.

Next up was a performance of “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku,” the first of a pair of Christopher Rouse percussion pieces on the program. In all honesty, I tend to dislike this kind of thing, but Rouse’s highly inventive and well-choreographed rolling percussive thunder took on a life of its own as energetically interpreted by a quartet of virtuoso percussionists.

As its title already hints, “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku” is an extended riff on Hawaiian ritual war dances. Working with a monstrous battery of assorted drums, wood blocks, cymbals, gourds, rattles and other unusual noisemakers, the percussionists rolled through a louder and ever-more-threatening rhythmic escalations that vividly called to mind the ritual way that Polynesian warriors once not so long ago would psyche themselves up for battle.

The effect of the performance was visceral. Whatever one’s initial impressions might have been, Rouse’s composition as well as the increasingly impassioned efforts of the performers swept everyone into the battle prep in spite of themselves—an interesting experience during a nominally “classical” evening.

The drummers later returned for another exotic Rouse percussion festival, this one entitled “Ogoun Badagris,” a composition based on Haitian voodoo rituals. Like “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku,” this composition, too, relentlessly built up to a manic frenzy, an effect occasionally egged on through the use of weird percussive effects. This second piece proved once again to be irresistible and compelling. In many ways, this pair of compositions proved to be the most novel and compelling performances of the evening.

Separating this pair of ritual drumming pieces was a lovely and at times serene performance of Kevin Puts’ “Seven Seascapes,” a suite of brief, landscape tone poems for seven instruments; namely, a quartet of strings—violin, viola, cello and bass—joined by flute, horn and piano. Ranging from the mildly dissonant to the unashamedly romantic, Puts’ sound sculpture was modeled on a series of literary and poetic observations of the sea, its vastness and, at times, its strange intimacy and its exotic creatures. Each episode was presented with great skill by the musicians in what was the most recognizably “classical” portion of the evening.

In many ways, this interesting and inventive suite reminded me of American Romantic composer Edward MacDowell’s somewhat forgotten “Sea Pieces” for solo piano, carefully etched and often spare miniatures that wander languidly but sometimes flitter across the keys as waves and sea creatures roll in, only to disappear again with tides and time.

The only thing that broke the mood of Puts’ seductive composition was the bizarre scrambling about by the KenCen’s tech staff, who collectively seemed unable to get the music stands and lighting functioning in a satisfactory manner for the performers. As the audience waited… and waited… and waited in the darkened hall, the techies struggled to wire up and plug in the musicians’ individual music stand lights.

Alas, having done so, it turned out that at least two of the lights didn’t work, handicapping the musicians involved and causing more delays. Granted, the tech staff were forced to fumble around in the near dark to set everything up, something obviously intended for effect, but also something that didn’t work and ruined the effect.

Making matters worse, once they had a second go at the setup for the final piece, Mason Bates’ own “Red River,” the problematic lights still seemed to defy the laws of electricity. One wonders if this equipment had actually been tested out before hand.

The fumbling didn’t really ruin any of the music. But it seemed less than professional and broke the mood that the other works on the program had set.

In the end, after the enjoyable Puts suite, we arrived at “Red River,” another suite/tone poem—this one by Bates—scored for violin, cello, clarinet, piano and electronic instrumentation that was brought in at intervals via the speaker system.

As the rolling program notes explained, “Red River” evokes both the original name and the muddy, red-brown color of what’s arguably the most important river and river system in the American Southwest—the Colorado River.

Upon the conclusion of this work, this writer’s esteemed spouse declared it should have been entitled “Mason’s Moldau” instead. It was a funny comment. But it also made a good point, in that the “Red River”—like Smetana’s famous musical tribute to the famous Czech river—“The Moldau,” charts the relentless journey of the Colorado as it snakes its way from its Rocky Mountain source, through the barren Southwestern deserts and occasional impoundments, across the Mexican-American border and beyond.

In “Red River,” Mason is attempting to synthesize his electronic soundscape into a somewhat more conventional instrumental quartet, an attempt that’s largely successful since the composer doesn’t overdo it, which could run the risk of overwhelming the purely acoustic sounds of the instrumentalists.

As the each musical movement evoked a given landscape, the ever-changing visual projections moved along, adding evocative visuals to Mason’s musical palette. Like Puts’ nature-based suite, Mason’s “Red River” merges classical and Romantic elements with newer inputs, a direction that what we currently know as “classical music” is increasingly likely to adopt in coming years.

As such, Mason’s KC Jukebox series marks an experiment and perhaps an evolution. Like the first, this second edition drew a fairly diverse audience of older classical fans (including this viewer) who are still open to checking out where things might be going; as well as some of the younger set who are open-minded enough to see where classical composers their own age might be interested in recalibrating non-rock musical traditions.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four)

(There were no repeat performances of this special concert event.)

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17