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Interview with Bassist and Composer Michael Bates

A Discussion About Bates' Album 'Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich'


Bassist Michael Bates
Courtesy of Michael Bates
Douglas Detrick talks to bassist and composer Michael Bates about his album Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich:

  • Douglas Detrick (DD): Why Shostakovich, and why now?

    Michael Bates (MB): Honestly, any of my last three records could have been called “Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich.” For whatever reason, his music has resonated with me in a way that very little other music has. It’s something about his melodies – it’s the emotion and the angularity, and the stories that these beautiful, long lines tell. It lends itself well to the way that I hear music.

    My last three records had a lot of Russian themes, a lot of counterpoint. The reason that I chose to do this record was that I had done an arrangement of the “Dance of Death” from the Piano Trio in E Minor, and I felt it was time to come clean and be honest about what I’m doing. My last record (Clockwise [Greenleaf 2008]) had a piece called “The Russian School” which was a tribute to Shostakovich and Prokofiev and the record before that had an arrangement of music from Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C. So, this music has been a long-time fascination for me. After I heard Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, I went through a five or six year period where I’ve listened to little else.

  • DD: What do you feel you have in common with Shostakovich? Why have you forged this personal connection with his music?

    MB: I’m certainly not an expert on him, but I think we were both motivated by message and emotion. He wanted to write a melody that could say several things at the same time. When I listen to him I hear serenity and anger simultaneously. I read somewhere, that this Russian music is very much about “laughing through tears.” This says so much to me. As a composer I want to confront and deal with this idea. I want to challenge and sometimes even shock the listener, but I also want them to care about the music. I try to do this inside a single piece, through an entire set, and through an entire album. I think Shostakovich did this. He would have very challenging moments in his music, and then have something so serene and elegant and when I hear that, I want to hear it over and over again. I think it is this balance in the handling of emotion that I love about his music.

  • DD: The record is called Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich so I’m wondering how much of his music did you actually use?

    MB: Since I’ve been so involved with his music over the years I actually don’t know the answer to that question. There’s only one piece that is truly his, that I got permission to use, and that’s the “Dance of Death.” There’s another piece on the record called “Yurodivy” which is an amalgam of his themes, largely from the Eighth String Quartet, written in a more Paul Motian-like style, a line that morphs into a Shostakovich theme, but it doesn’t use any of his structure.

    For the rest of the pieces, I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time transcribing his scores, going to the library and getting the symphonies and string quartets and looking at the Preludes and Fugues for piano, then studying and writing melodies in his style. So, it’s debatable how much is his and how much is mine. The big idea with the record was that I’ve developed this style in my own writing that sounds like classical music played by a jazz quintet, but then there’s also lots of stuff that sounds like (Miles Davis’) In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). So, the “For” part of the title comes from incorporating Shostakovich’s melodies and forms and then putting it through my own filter. An important part of it was to not tell the guys where it was coming from, and not telling them what I want and letting them interpret for themselves.

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