Little of Mason Bates’ music had been performed in Santa Fe prior to this summer’s premiere of his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. On the afternoon of July 16, a week before the first performance, listeners had an opportunity to fill in some blanks when Santa Fe Opera partnered with Albuquerque’s Chatter ensemble and the New Mexico History Museum to present some of Bates’ chamber music in the museum’s auditorium. The program of three works covered a decade of his development. The Del Sol String Quartet, an intrepid foursome from the San Francisco Bay Area, performed his From Frozen Amber, from 2002; two of its members (violinist Benjamin Kreith and cellist Kathryn Bates — no relation to the composer) joined with members of Chatter (clarinetist Timothy Skinner and pianist Michael Spassov) and Bates himself (playing electronica) for the 2007 piece Red River (based on travels in the southwest); and the Del Sols, now assisted by Bates and his electronica, returned for his Bagatelles, from 2011.
All three pieces received persuasive performances from players experienced in contemporary styles. In 2002, when he wrote From Frozen Amber, Bates had just settled in the Bay Area, having completed “proper” East Coast studies with Schoenberg’s pupil Dika Newlin and with John Corigliano at The Juilliard School (and having graduated as an English major from Columbia). Active as a club-scene DJ in New York, he continued that pursuit in the Bay Area while working at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at the University of California, Berkeley, which awarded him a PhD in 2008 — the year after he finished Red River. By the time of his Bagatelles, he had received multiple performances from the San Francisco Symphony and was serving as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony.
The takeaway from the concert was how much the composer had developed through that decade. From Frozen Amber seemed an almost quaint tour of extended string-playing technique. The imagery behind the piece involved insects preserved in, and emerging from, amber. The work had self-contained episodes, some of them of a buzzy, snap-crackle-and-pop character, some more leisurely, all of it drawing magnetically toward consonance even if its moments were wildly dissonant. A leap forward came in Red River, whose five movements occupied 17 minutes. It was pleasant and picturesque, each movement being a brief tone poem describing a site along the Colorado River — say, “Interstate 70” (with perky rhythmic drive, tailgating John Adams) or “Zuni Visions From the Canyon Walls” (vast, with an overlay of birdsong).
The real breakthrough arrived with the Bagatelles, which came alive in a way the earlier works had not. Here we encountered a basic language that we would hear in the opera. The electronic sounds, many of which Bates manipulated from tones prerecorded by the Del Sols, merged seamlessly with the live acoustic playing. The piece synthesized the more intellectualized sounds of the earlier compositions with the moods of different popular styles. The first bagatelle, “Rough Math,” included hoe-down licks; “Scrapyard Exotica” lazily evoked the blues; “Mating Dance” loped along with a studiously cool attitude; and “Viscera” proved … well, visceral. Though each of the movements stood as a firmly focused bit of ephemera, they built with compelling momentum as a set. There, in 2011, it seemed that Bates was entirely comfortable in his skin, which is where he needed to be as a point of departure toward his opera.
A major musical event of the summer was the FLUX Quartet’s rendition of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, presented by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on July 28. The piece is an Everest that hasn’t been scaled very frequently since it was introduced in 1983, although Tom Chiu, the group’s first violinist, said that by now he has ascended it 15 times. Several quartets have it in their repertoire, and the FLUX has recorded it for the Mode label, where their performance runs six hours, seven minutes, and seven seconds. It is widely considered the longest piece of chamber music. The work’s title page says that it should run between three and a half and five and a half hours — with no breaks. In his notes to FLUX’s recording, composer Christian Wolff writes: “Feldman’s estimate appears to be casual and subjective. … Listening to some of the five-hour version and then the six-hour one, I cannot really hear any difference in the feeling of the time. … The timing of the performance is determined at least in large part by the kind of attention the players want to give to the making of the sound, especially, at the very low dynamic levels, to the causing of the sounds to speak clearly.” In the event, the live concert ran shorter than expected, at just five hours and 11 minutes. That’s roughly analogous to a flight from Los Angeles to New York but without the snacks, or Götterdämmerung without the jokes.
The audience at St. Francis Auditorium was encouraged to sit close to the musicians, either in the front rows or on stage seats. Listeners were allowed to come and go, and they did so as quietly as possible in the creaky auditorium, many of them dropping in for perhaps an hour. I estimated that 55 people were there when I checked the population at a couple of points. It seemed as if about 15 people hunkered down for the entire duration.
The work unrolls through many cells, some relatively short (perhaps 40 seconds), some quite long (maybe seven or eight minutes). Each works out the musical implications of its own musical gesture. For example, Feldman might build up and repeat a single chord through the four instruments from bottom to top, or in some different order, with the instruments overlapping asynchronously, sounding rather like Tibetan singing bowls. By chord I don’t mean your basic C-major triad or your Tristanesque half-diminished seventh, but rather a group of notes that would be considered dissonant in traditional harmony — and, in Feldman’s case, not just the pitches but also the combination of carefully defined timbres that give them voice. The cell gets worked out, the players take a breath, and the next segment begins. A few episodes buzz energetically, but most are quiet, serene, and contemplative. Some meld together to suggest an extended movement of sorts. Some recur to add glue to the construction, but here those recurrences may be separated by hours rather than minutes. In any case, reiterations seem somewhat irrelevant to the structure. Feldman wrote of the piece’s design that a “crucial difference is in making the distinction between constructing a ‘composition’ and that of assemblage, which is more what this quartet is about. A ‘composition’ for me forms sentence structures within a scenario of beginning, middle, and end. … With assemblage there is no continuity of fitting the parts together as words in a sentence or paragraph.” It was never possible to anticipate what would happen next.
The playing was of a high order, all the more admirable given the exhausting exigencies of an uninterrupted five-hour performance. Although the players used no vibrato and played often with shortish bow strokes, their timbral breadth was remarkable, sometimes suggesting birds, insects, a twanging autoharp, a whining mouth organ, or a distant European police siren. Most (but not all) of the material was quiet, and it generally unspooled slowly. The experience could resemble watching a long work of video art by Bill Viola, although those don’t usually last beyond an hour or so — so maybe it was like watching five of them in a row. Many of these slow expanses unrolled at “breathing tempo,” which made it easy for listeners to meld with the music. There were no encores.