Desert Transport

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        Ready for a helicopter ride over the desert? That’s what this imaginative composition is all about. Mason Bates is a young American composer known for his adroit blending of electronic resources into the traditional symphony orchestra medium. His highly acclaimed compositions for orchestra and “electronica” bear evocative titles such as Omnivorous Furniture, Rusty Air in Carolina, and Music from Underground Spaces. But, in Desert Transport, the composer has elected to stay with the still-impressive resources of the traditional instruments of the symphony orchestra. Bates was graduated from both the Juilliard School and the University of California at Berkeley, and has served as the Composer in Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

        The genesis of our “helicopter ride” stems from Bates’ association with the Arizona Music Festival. Apparently, the Festival hoped to introduce Bates to the incredible beauty of the locale, and perhaps inspire him, as well. They obviously succeeded. While the intended focus of the hosts was clearly on the grand scenery, they didn’t—and couldn’t—have taken into consideration the impressionable mind of the young composer. The helicopter ride—and if you’ve ridden in one, you’ll understand—was so vivid in its torrent of unusual sounds, that they became an integral part of the sensations of flying over the desert. In Bates’ words, the composition “contemplates this amazing desert landscape from [the] perspective of this whizzing helicopter.” In it, he imagined a journey that literally “transports” one from the banal, modern aircraft hanger—dominated by a crescendo of mechanistic modern sounds—through a takeoff into the sky—and ends in a totally different world. After the mechanistic accelerandi of the first movement, and the takeoff in the second, we arrive at the spectacular scenery of Montezuma Castle National Monument in the red rocks near Sedona, Arizona. You’ve seen it in innumerable movies: Stagecoach, 3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, and dozens upon dozens of others. Finally, the ride ends at the historic cliff dwellings, abandoned around 1400.

        While there are no electronics to facilitate our imagination in this beautiful landscape, Bates uses not only the full resources of the traditional symphony orchestra, but brings in some unusual sounds, as well. Over a century ago Gustav Mahler called for “ruthe,” more or less a bundle of switches, and Bates uses them drawn over the bass drum. Col legno is heard in the “helicopter music,” an old technique going back to Mahler and Berlioz, wherein the bass players draw the wood of their bow over the strings. Sand paper blocks are scraped rhythmically in the same music. And finally, in the third movement, the inhabitants of the cliff dwellings are evoked through an actual recording of contemporary Pima Indians singing a native song, “Mountains by the Sea,” along with rattles.

        After all of this, one may legitimately wonder what may the music really sounds like. But as unusual as description may suggest the work to be, Bates has composed a delightful and appealing reflection of a most enjoyable experience of sound and sight. His mastery of attractive orchestral sounds comes with a comfortable familiarity wrapped in an ever-changing orchestral soundscape. 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan