Songbooks Vol. 1

Mason’s Songbooks for string quartet, arrangements of songs from Mongolia and Sardinia, need not be shamefaced in this company. The source material, whether Asian or Mediterranean, makes much of overtones, encouraging Mason to skid off on more explorations of natural tuning. Rhythmic excitement, too, is rampant. And there is distance – not only in how the music arcs across the globe but also in the increasing separation of the players as they go from one Sardinian song (recordings by the Tenores di Bitti provided the models) to the next. The Ligeti Quartet swing into everything with high-precision vim, not least – but certainly not only – when given the chance to take part vocally.

“Mason has also explored the very different musical consequences of making and sharing sounds that represent potentially harmonious relationships between nature and humanity. His two sets of Songbooks for string quartet, in magnificently vivid performances by the Ligeti Quartet, offer boldly sculpted interpretations of vocal music – by Tuvan throat singers and the Sardinian ‘tenores di Bitti’ – that replace the troubling mysteries of outer space with the earthy embrace of vibrant communal celebration. As Mason writes in the booklet notes, these musics seem ‘pure and rough’ at the same time, and his rethinkings acknowledge such polarities, yet the predominant characteristic – unmistakable in these high-powered, closely focused recordings – is sheer, unadulterated exuberance.”

“Mason’s insight into these traditions, as well as his deep knowledge of Western classical string techniques, has given rise to a remarkable exploration of these sounds in string quartet form. Doing more than merely transcribing existing repertoire from within the two traditions, the ten pieces mimic vocal overtones by employing certain extended string techniques that could be said to be their string equivalents… [The] quartet’s virtuosic interpretations of Mason’s experiments are quite unique and worth a listen for classical aficionados and connoisseurs of overtone singing alike.”

Mason’s music is astonishingly inventive and powerful, generating a searing, hypnotic intensity among the four-piece Sardinian Songbook and its sudden eruptions of euphoric noise. The Ligeti players deliver remarkably committed, focused performances, thrillingly responsive to the subtle fluctuations in tone and attack needed to bring this music alive…It’s a potent, persuasive disc, delivered in a close, authentic recording.

This CD demonstrates how overtones can be exploited on stringed instruments. Mason’s Tuvan Songbook is based on four numbers recorded in Central Asia, each propulsive dance making reference to the importance of the horse in Tuvan culture. Mason brilliantly assimilates the various ingredients: the quartet’s players reproduce the folk dance of “Kuda Yry”, singing along at several points. And then, a few minutes in, we’re treated to a startling, eerie display of harmonics and overtones. It’s enchanting, and these players never sound as if they’re going through the motions; the sense of intent is a constant.

The Sardinian Songbook is earthier, prompted by Mason’s discovery of the Tenores di Bitti as a student. These four numbers are earthier, and as with the Tuvan songs, it’s the moments where the overtones emerge which really take flight, as in the “Ballate a Ballu Tundu”. Listen carefully and you can hear the musicians standing further apart from each other as the work progresses, the sound becoming lighter and airier. Wonderful… You’ll be hooked, I promise, and a second volume is in preparation.

Zwischen den Sternen

“The almost forty-minute “Zwischen den Sternen” by English composer Christian Mason projected a rich, microtonal sound into the room – a highlight of the festival.”

“Mason’s work is characterised by light structures. The piece also tells of beauty. In the temporal spread of the work there is something that sounds symphonic. What Mason is doing is often provocatively simple, whether dealing with traditional melodies or “spherical” sound patterns. Similar to the late Ligeti, the scordatura leads to an enraptured sound. […] Much applause.”

“Zwischen den Sternen is a view of the heavens from a position firmly on earth. Christian Mason uses as his telescope one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus…, but the words fall away to leave the musical imagery shining clear. Distance is there from the start, in how the piano maintains a slow swing from a pure fourth to a harmony that the partial use of just intonation makes delicately and deliciously strange. The gesture is arresting, even commanding, enough to initiate a forty-minute composition. Strings tease out wispy harmonics from the piano’s pronouncements; a steelpan splashes in with its own wonderfully wonky intonation, which marries happily with the piano’s. After a few minutes, the stars’ energy enlivens the wind trio, before fading into the top treble to give place to a homely scene of the piano musing on three notes, to which the other instruments gently and glowingly hum. Soon the music is spinning in circles within circles that crash and fray, the flute adding whooshes of exhilarated exhaustion as after running a race. Then the opening returns, to lead this time into a slow actualization of distance as the portable instruments depart, leaving the cellist to pick out echoes of the basic melodic elements, pizzicato. Thematically and tonally integrated, the piece floats in its own space, firmly on course.”

“The overwhelming mysteriousness of stars in space is conveyed by a small collection of instruments rich in extreme contrasts… This not so much a ‘music of the spheres’, after the model of Stockhausen’s Sternklang, more a ritual, the human contemplation of something no individual can fully understand – a state of mind encapsulated by the brief, simple cello tune heard at the end.”

Layers of Love

“…English composer Christian Mason’s Layers of Love (2015) was an exploration of the feeling of longing for the unknown. It had a searching quality as it hovered in and around the tonic, each instrument stood alone in a cacophonous sea of sound like the many “voices” in one’s head, all vying for attention. The sense of rhythmic pulse that came in by the second half of the piece felt like a welcoming familiarity after the tenuous chaos. In a short amount of time Mason created a journey from beginning to end while maximizing the limits of instrumental potential.”

“Earlier in the evening, and just as rewarding, the Philharmonia’s invaluable Music of Today series continued, the spotlight this time on Christian Mason, a Londoner born in 1984. Diverse instrumentation and placement of them (shades of Berio) informed the two works programmed… This is music of atmosphere and hallucinatory powers that grows in volume and density… music that seems extemporised yet deep-down is highly organised. “

“Mason has an individual, confident voice, here used in the service of the depiction of an unquantifiable longing for ‘something invisible unknown and (inevitably) unattainable’, in the words of the composer. Two violins, one on each side of the stage, frame the central group of players, and as the piece progresses after establishing an initial harmonic flavour of a G minor chord with added flattened ninth, it goes on to explore Balkan dance, jazzy walking basses – taking the piece into implied modern jazz territory – and what in this performance appeared to be a positively outrageous rhythmic unison. Mason’s expert ear resulted in a fascinatingly varied palette of sounds.”

Man Made

“…David Harsent (of much musical collaboration, particularly with Harrison Birtwistle) read with dignity his three poems – Ocean, Rainforest, Icefield – that Mason has set in Man Made. Anu Komsi is no stranger to cutting-edge music, or to negotiating high notes, and there are plenty in the twenty-minute Man Made, going beyond those in Berg’s Lulu to join the stratospheric demands found in Adès’s Exterminating Angel. She navigated them with aplomb; more than that she performed with poise and expression in writing of craggy stillness that initially reminded of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Stone Litany. The scoring includes ten strings, alto flute, contrabass clarinet and rather a lot of percussion, deftly handled by the athletic Stephen Burke, in these continuous settings that slowly evolve and include a tumultuous and clangourous acceleration that really accentuated that this is music of great import. Gergely Madaras conducted both works with unflappable dedication, played with equal distinction.”

Aimless Wonder

“(…) After the interval, Christian Mason sounded all kinds of nature sounds with two horns and a string trio, which was partly playing in the foyer, as if the far post horn out of an Eichendorff poem was regarded in a distorting mirror. The jerkiness of the entering and leaving musicians was a bit contrary to the calm of the music. (…)”

“(…) Christian Mason’s “Aimless Wonders” completed Ligeti with a subtle, timeless, in itself circulating and tonally fastened happening. Even from the outside one could hear the horns at the beginning together with the solo violin. At the end all string players, including the solo violin and solo alto, leave the stage, except from the cellos, the double basses and the horns. The musicians continuing to play from afar created another beautiful effect.”

Unseen Light

“This music is delicate, initially nearly tender, self-aware, shimmering, yet never boastful. …The young winner of the Composers‘ prize of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation stands for finest listening experiences. Rarely has the music of a young composer managed to radiate such magic”

Open to Infinity: a Grain of Sand

“The pacing of the work and the drawing out of the arc of its argument is masterly and compelling”

“…its gradual yet intensive build-up towards a regaining of initial momentum that was conveyed with no mean resourcefulness and abetted by a palpable rhythmic focus.”

“…as concentrated in sound as its inspiration from William Blake will have demanded.”

“…crystalline concision and expressive precision…”

The Years of Light

“The overall sonic mood is static, shimmering textures regarded for a block of time. But the textures are often lovely, especially at the end: Over a breeze of strings, the harmonicas, gently chirping, processed out of the hall and onto the Tanglewood lawn, a marvelously charming effect.”

“… the most immediately appealing piece on the program was the one that seemed least likely to succeed, Christian Mason’s “The Years of Light,” a TMC commission and world premiere. The English composer, a Bob Dylan fan, begins with a Dylan premise: 12 harmonica players lined up in a semi-circle behind the instrumental ensemble. (They later make a recessional from the stage.) The title is taken from a poem by David Gascoyne, which isn’t sung. Instead, a soprano and mezzo-soprano, each paired sonorously with solo instruments, vocalize as if from afar. What might be silly or pretentious turns out to be music slowly oscillating and shimmering, like sounds from deep space.”

Racing Horses

“The young composer Christian Mason, whose witty, gleaming arrangement of Huang Hai-Huai’s Racing Horses galloped home in five minutes flat, must be just the sort of musical successor that Jonathan Harvey would have hoped for.”

Learning Self-Modulation

“[Learning Self-Modulation] represents the sum of a thorough research in sound, in which the players are asked to hum and pluck the piano strings… Through this music the interpreters take the opportunity to construct a universe of sensations and invite the spirits of the listeners to wander. And if certain moments appear tense or tempestuous, both musicians complete their interpretation on floating notes, suggesting a voyage in some wild country, mythical or dreamt.”

“This week, an unusual violin tuning and the world’s oldest orchestra made for thrilling listening… The British premiere of a piece called Learning Self-Modulation, by Christian Mason (b1984), required both pianist and violinist additionally to hum, the pianist to play pizzicato and the violinist to retune her strings as she went along, before taking up a second instrument fitted with four variously tuned G-strings. There was a sort of new-age relish to this extremism, but a solid craft in evidence, too.”

In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced

“Over the past four decades the London Sinfonietta has had an enviable record in identifying and nurturing new talent, so although it’s impossible to predict whether the likes of James Olsen and Christian Mason will ultimately make the sustained impact of a Tavener or a Birtwistle, the Sinfonietta’s seal of approval gives them the best possible start. Mason (b1984) is the youngest, and his In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced belies its cumbersome title to offer a bracing exploration of a sound world which is sometimes brittle, sometimes lyrical. The spatial distribution of the players and ‘the ethereal sound of 36 handkerchief-harmonicas, placed throughout the audience’ go for less on disc than they do in the hall but the piece manages to be something more than the sum of its influences.”

“[Discs 5 and 6] are the last and best in London Sinfonietta’s Jerwood Series, which offers snapshots of young composers who otherwise might struggle to have their work properly recorded. Highlights? … On the 6 disc, it’s a toss-up between Christian Mason’s elusive In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced and Kenneth Hesketh’s Detail from the Record, a birthday bouquet to conductor Oliver Knussen.”

“Christian Mason’s In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced is scored for small ensemble, in fact three trios – each consisting of one woodwind, one percussion and one string player. The music sounds somewhat more modern but never extravagantly so, and the composer’s fine ear for arresting sonorities is quite often brilliantly and tellingly displayed. It seems that “the ethereal sound of thirty-six handkerchief-harmonicas, placed throughout the audience” should be heard occasionally, but the recording does not make this quite obvious. This is a very minor reservation about an otherwise highly inventive score written for the ensemble’s fortieth anniversary.”

“The most engaging was Christian Mason’s In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced, in which the otherworldly sounds of the spheres echoed around the auditorium.”

“Christian Mason’s In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced used spatial elements to beautifully imagined effect”


“The very first sounds of the afternoon’s premiere – Noctilucence by the young British composer Christian Mason -opened a door to a very different world, gentle and subtly coloured in a way the title might lead you to expect (noctilucent clouds are those rarely seen ones that glimmer high up at dusk). Then the music seemed to turn against itself, becoming sharp-edged and fierce, though the earlier mood somehow persisted alongside. It was intriguingly ambiguous in a way that made me want to hear it again, immediately.”

“It says much for the 25-year-old Christian Mason that his new piece, Noctilucence, didn’t suffer from comparison. He draws his title and inspiration from a mysterious cloud that hovers far above where clouds ought to be, and hence shimmers in sunlight on summer nights. That is exactly what his piece conveys. The first half is audaciously hushed – very few notes, very slow, and lots of silence suggesting the Universe beyond the clouds. Then an ecstatic dance erupts, full of rude vigour, rushing scales and shuddering rhythms. Rarely can the cliché ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ have been better conveyed. A work of high imagination, in every sense. Catch this fascinating programme in Birmingham Town Hall today or Norwich Assembly House tomorrow.”

“The concert has been programmed by John Woolrich, and it consists of short Birtwistle pieces interspersed with his arrangements of Bach’s Art of Fugue, and bookended by his arrangements of works by the medieval composer Machaut and the Renaissance composer Ockeghem. Popped in among all this – by no means outclassed by the heavyweight music with which it is intimidatingly surrounded – is an exquisite new piece by young composer Christian Mason called Noctilucence.”

Clear Night

“The latest (the seventeenth) of the UBS commissions proved energised and bracing, craggy and brilliant, the title of Clear Night (from David Gascoigne’s poem ‘Tenebrae’) vividly suggested in the music, the score itself being tightly organised and imaginatively orchestrated, compelling over its seven minutes and suggesting that Christian Mason (born 1984) is a composer to watch out for.”

“Instead of the consoling intimacy that opens Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto the concert started by plunging into the glittering vortex of Christian Mason’s Clear Night. Occasional flashes of Berg and Bartok, and quite a lot of Messiaen, light up the shimmering orchestral colours, though Mason mostly manages to forge them into a sound-world of his own. At five minutes the piece did not outstay its welcome. The challenge will be whether Mason can make his ideas work as consistently for longer.”

“Christian Mason’s Clear Night! came across as the most experimental of the three works. It is complex in texture and technique, and is cast in a single span. It uses many unusual musical effects, including deliberately wide vibrato and slow glissandos from strings and woodwinds, as well as sudden accents cutting across the texture. Mason noted that he was trying to convey something of the exhilaration of the clear night sky, punctuated by points of light from bright stars. The dense textures made this perhaps the hardest work to grasp, but maybe also the one which would repay the most from additional hearings.”

Under Heaven: sometimes…

“Christian Mason succeded well in Under Heaven: sometimes…, elucidating relationships and connections between the instruments which formed his rich tapestry.”

Aspects of Radiance

“The scores came from a wide spectrum of ages… with a young York University student, Christian Mason, only just emerging from his teenage years, providing a shimmering Aspects of Radiance.”

“Christian Mason’s Aspects of Radiance had a timeless translucence, slithering bluesily towards gentle disintegration. A young talent, and one to watch.”