The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Nolan Eley
May 18, 2013

Generation X is a term used by demographers to describe the group of people born after the post-World War II baby boom. For much of the term’s history it has tended to be a little pejorative. There are many cultural events that have shaped their identity including the rise of internet culture as well as the emergence of many musical styles and sub genres including electronic and hip hop. The three composers, all in their early to mid 30s, who were featured in last night’s Gen OrcXstrated concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Jordan Hall, had three contrasting takes on how to find places within evolving concert traditions. Any of the pieces from last night could dispel the disparaging stereotypes which might still adhere to Gen X.

Mason Bates may be best known for his piece Mothership which had its premiere by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. He is not only a composer of concert music, but also a DJ who makes regular appearances spinning tunes at clubs in San Francisco. Last night’s Sea-Blue Circuitry was an exploration of applying ideas common to electronic music to the acoustic orchestral medium. The piece sounded a bit like an urban Aaron Copland, but instead of cowboys and Indians, we have goths and skaters. The off-kilter rhythms were the kind that Copland made famous—rhythms that beg the foot to tap but always defy it from doing so. Occasionally, however, Bates would slip in harmonic extensions or rhythmic gestures that could be just at home on a sweaty dance floor. Another impressive compositional element was Bates’ ability to induce the blue calmness of the sea in serene string passages while also reflecting the sparks of a short circuit by snaps in the percussion. The amalgamation of electronic-like maneuvers and cerebral orchestration was that of a composer as steeped in the music of Stravinsky as he is in the catalog of the influential electronic record label, Warp. Not to give the impression that Bates’ piece might be confused for techno—it was clearly part of the concert tradition—but there were undoubtedly intrusions by so-called “low-culture influences”.

Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo explained in the pre-concert talk that his inspiration for Path of Echoes: Symphony No. 1 came while he was hiking in the mountains. He enjoyed making loud sounds and trying to follow the many echoes that ensued. His Symphony opened with glissandi in the brass followed by glissandi in the strings then finally from the woodwinds. There was a lot of this in the composition—recurring gestures transformed slightly each time. This idea of enhanced repetition is a way Gen X composers have incorporated the previous generation’s minimalism. Ruo’s piece ended up sounding more closely linked to the New York school rather than the minimalists however. There were moments where one could’ve mistaken it for one of Cage’s orchestral pieces, until an infrequent burst of tonality would appear in the low brass. Ruo even made use of the water gong—an invention of Cage’s. The composer’s use of extended techniques always added to the piece, however, and never sounded showy. He was able to craft intensely beautiful timbres before abandoning them to randomness, the way echoes gradually dissipate into the natural sounds of the world.

After the intermission Andrew Norman appeared on the stage with the orchestra and gave a few remarks about Play, mentioning most interestingly, that he was exploring video game culture in his three movements, titled Levels 1-3. First, Norman gives us a crash course overview of Play with much going on at once. It resembled an Ivesian overextension in orchestration; every musician played full-out in a frenzy resembling the sensory overload of video games. A loud smack would be heard in the percussion followed by an instant change in the orchestra, like someone hitting the pause button. These intense sensations never got old. Every time it felt like it was about to be too much, an immense beauty would unfold from a section in the orchestra and floor you for just a few seconds before surrendering its foothold and falling back into chaos. These moments of beauty were brilliantly set off by their juxtaposition with constant dissonance.

As Norman’s wish to explore the extremes of control and autonomy, Level 2 started without the conductor, as a smattering of half-finished phrases played by individuals. Gradually, as more players entered, the perspective would shift to the entire orchestra. Many times I was searching to try to find the source of a sound before it was gone forever—a transience often missing in a culture where everything is immortalized in the digital domain. The movement ended with a repeated harmonic phrase in the strings. With each repetition, more members of the section would drag their bow over muted strings. In each recurrence of the phrase there would be more noise and fewer tones until there was just a sheen of disoriented sound.

Level 3 finally emancipated the orchestra from the control of the percussion. There was a constantly increasing level of chaos as the orchestra grew more intense. A descending chord progression was introduced that built to the climax as the double basses dwelled on a low subdominant C while the orchestra played a diatonic frenzy in the key of G. The surge of energy slowly subsided while retaining this repeated descending line. The piece thinned out gradually before ending on the same subdominant, only this time with a whimper, not a bang.

Norman’s piece succeeded beyond what even his most ardent supporters could have anticipated. Combining everything from Bach to Reich in beautiful form, he channeled the modern human condition in which technology dominates ever more of our lives. The program of the piece was abstract enough that it wasn’t confining, yet it remained as an enhancing guide.

Gil Rose and BMOP planned and executed with the precision and passion we’ve come to expect.