Club DJ and composer Mason Bates has put the American symphony scene in a spin
In his innovative, electronica-inspired compositions, Bates does much more than just take his audience on a journey. As a DJ, the hardworking Bates, 37, is as comfortable creating dance moves as he is writing for a symphony. As a composer-in-residence at several top US orchestras, he’s helped push expectations of what a symphony orchestra is capable of, what it can and should be doing. In the process, Bates’ daringly imaginative works—which weave layers of electronic sounds into the instrumental fabric of his soaring melodies and puckish solos—have nudged forward the glacial evolution of the modern concert-hall experience.
Among Bates’ most celebrated works, premiered in 2012 by the Chicago Symphony—where he is composer-in-residence—is the thrillingly ambitious Alternative Energy.
Talk about taking audiences on a journey. Part symphony and part robot Transformer, the piece conjures images of the pre-auto farm in Michigan where Henry Ford was born, leaps ahead to a second movement meshed with the sounds of a 21st-century particle accelerator, moves into a futuristic China, where a vast nuclear reactor melts down to the accompaniment of pulsing brass and plaintive violin, and finally veers into a distant future, circa 2222, where the vestiges of humanity celebrate nature in a sonic rain forest.
In March, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiered Bates’ tight, ten-minute-long “Garages of the World,” inspired by the digital-age innovations of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other Silicon Valley innovators.
Unapologetically modern, with a commitment to music that carries strong narrative ideas and vivid musical images and emotions, Bates creates pieces for symphonies that have straddled the border between tradition and experimentation, luring young audiences to the concert hall while impressing such traditionalists as the Detroit Symphony’s Leonard Slatkin—one of Bates’ many champions—and the Chicago Symphony’s Riccardo Muti, another champion.
The future of classical music and of the symphony experience is a subject Bates blogs about often on his highly readable, definitively hip website masonbates.com.
“Symphonies,” he recently posted, “can have both sonic inventiveness and narrative imagination—as long as the music drives the enterprise.”
That seems to be his personal recipe for success as well. Long associated with the electronics and sound effects he operates from a laptop during live orchestral performances, Mason has recently begun to explore something truly experimental: he’s begun writing music with no electronics in it.
“I’m really excited about this,” says Bates, calling from Chicago to describe his new Violin Concerto, composed for violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The piece has been performed, with Meyers as soloist, with symphonies in London, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Richmond, and Detroit.
“For me, it’s definitely a bit of a new step,” he adds. “Yes, a lot of my work has had electronics in it—because that’s something I love to include—but the violin concerto is, of course, all about thevioli.But even though my concerto doesn’t have electronics, it’s very much a piece informed by my workwithelectronics.”
The piece, he explains, contains an abundance of what he calls “very colorful sound,” with very intricate “electronica-inspired rhythms.”
Nashville’s ArtsNash news site, in reviewing the Nashville Symphony’s performance of the piece, noted, “Bates loads the work with interesting effects that seem both primeval and contemporary at the same time,” and went on to praise its “drop-dead gorgeous melodies,” while adding a few critiques of the concerto’s “meandering” sense of drive. Detroit’s ClassicalSource website went on to praise the concerto after its Detroit Symphony Orchestra debut, calling attention to its “exotic texture” and its “rhythmic variety, interplay, and soaring lyricism.”
On the phone, between meetings and rehearsals in Chicago, Bates is reflecting on the positive response his newer, more unplugged efforts have been building. “For me, it’s very gratifying that a new step in my career, in the form of this piece, is leading me to a lot of different performances,” he muses. “It means a lot to me that the concerto has had half a dozen subscription concerts in the first year of its existence.”
What is it about this particular composition, so far removed from Bates’ established comfort zone, that’s made it the “go-to” piece for high-profile symphonies?
Bates cites three reasons. “One is that people love Anne Akiko Meyers,” he laughs. “She’s aphenomenalviolinist. She has a very fiery kind of energy, and is so extremely lyrical in her playing.”
But he also cites the many relationships he’s been building over the years with different orchestras. “In the past ten years, people have gotten to know me through my electro-acoustic compositions,” he says, “which have become quite visible, a known thing. Now that I’m writing some pieces that don’t incorporate electronics, I think those same people are curious to see this different side of me.
“And the third piece of the puzzle,” he adds, “is [DSO conductor] Leonard Slatkin. He is a real living legend, and if he decides that he wants to stand behind a particular composer, then a lot of different orchestras will eventually say, ‘Okay, sure. Let’s try it.”
Until now, of course, adding a Mason Bates composition has always meant adding laptops, computers, sound effects, electronic beats, and a number of other things that seem revolutionary, and practically seismic, in their potential to change the future of classical music.
And apparently, it seems, that power of influence flows both ways.
Raised in Richmond, Virginia, Bates went on to study composition at Columbia University, earning a BA in composition and English literature before receiving a PhD in composition at UC Berkeley. Living in Oakland, California, Bates began carving out dual professions, building a huge fanbase as a club DJ and developing a professional relationship with Michael Tilson-Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, another frequent collaborator. In January, the SF Symphony presented a three-night series titled “Beethoven and Bates,” pairing a different Bates composition with a different piece by Ludwig van.
All along, Bates tirelessly pushed his craft in both of his chosen musical worlds, blending classical and electronica with the precision of a master chef dedicated to inventing a brand new form of fusion cuisine. Even with his Violin Concerto, which has no actual electronics in it—no programmed beats, no sound effects, no buzzes or beeps or ambient hums—Bates says the piece is fully informed by his work with electronics.
How in the world doesthatwork?
“Well, OK, here’s an example,” he says. “In the concerto, the celli and the basses spend a good portion of the first movement doing percussive effects with their fingers on the instruments. Now, that might sound like a terrible idea to a string player reading this article. And, in fact, it’s not the whole section, just a couple of players per section, who are doing these rhythmic effects that basically give the sensation of a percussion section.
“That,” he says, “is something that is directly coming from my work with electronica rhythms, where you have a very active rhythmic layer on top of all kinds of other morphing textures.”
So that’s one example—using the bodies of the instruments in a percussive way. But Bates also includes bent-note music in the string section. “I’ve been listening to a lot of really alluring ambient electronica that kind of bends from one pitch to another,” he explains.
“So I’ve got the strings doing thaten masse, like, with a five- or six-note chord that bends, almost like a slide guitar, from one chord to the next. But when scored with a couple of other instruments, it can really invoke that world of ambient electronica.”
Of course, while it’s one thing to listen to a piece of left-field music as a member of the audience, what’s it like for the string musicians who have to actually play this kind of music? What do they tell him? Do they enjoy it? Is it fun?
The question makes Bates laugh.
“Yeah, well, the proof is always in the pudding of how the performance goes, isn’t it?” he says. “What do the musicians say about playing it? Well, any orchestral musician knows there’s not a ton of B.S. that goes on.
When a musician comes up to a composer afterwards and says, ‘I really liked this piece,’ well, they wouldn’t be saying it if they didn’t mean it. I’ve been gratified by a lot of positive comments, particularly from string players, because I do think they are seeing that, in my writing for the solo part, I’m just completely enamored of the sonic possibilities of their instrument.”
One might wonder, when Bates is composing a piece for a particular instrument, is he consciously trying to push the sonic possibilities of that instrument, to find the edge of that instrument’s capabilities. Or is he mainly just taking advantage of what he already knows that instrument is capable of?
His answer, after a few seconds of thought, is exactly what one might expect a composer of Bates’ background to give. “Well, when you’re writing for an orchestra, it’s like you’re writing for a synthesizer,” he says. “You have all these different combinations of instruments that can bring you complex sounds, even if the individual parts are not too complicated.
“But if you’re writing a concerto,” he continues, “then you are really focusing on that solo instrument. And the biggest question I had to face when writing my violin concerto was, how do you make something fresh for the violin, something that is still going to be idiomatic of the violin? I mean, you can’t write something that is unplayable, right? But you’re not just going to write a bunch of scales and arpeggios because they are natural to the instrument, right?
“So the challenge is how to find anew expressive languageon an old instrument, in a way that can work within the normal purview of the soloist.”
It was at times, he admits, hard work, and much of what was successful came from long hours of testing and experimentation while working with Meyers. The results were so satisfying, personally and professionally, that Bates is doing it again, writing a concerto for cellist Joshua Roman, commissioned primarily by the Seattle Symphony. The piece is scheduled to premiere in December.
“I’ve come through this experience of writing for Anne [Akiko Meyers],” Bates says, “with a new appreciation for all of the potential pitfalls and opportunities of the concerto form. First of all, there are acoustic challenges, you know? How do you make the instrument heard? Then there are technical challenges. How do you write these new ideas for an instrument in a way that fits? I’m already taking the benefit of my experience with the violin concerto and fusing it into my work for Josh and the cello.”
Just as he was often surprised by the things he discovered about the violin while writing his piece for Meyers, he is finding new ways to write for the cello.
“One of the things that’s really blown my mind about the cello is what you can do with the simple addition of a guitar pick,” he laughs. “It’s amazing how much that changes the kind of pizzicato you can get. I used a pick once before in a string quartet, a long time ago, but I never considered it as part ofthisconcerto until I was just sitting there working with Josh, and there was a big pizzicato passage I was envisioning, and suddenly we were trying it with a pick.
“It was amazing.”
Is it common for a composer to dictate whether certain passages are played with a guitar pick—or maybe a fork or a spoon, or whatever?
“Well, yes,” Bates says. “Composers have their ideas, but . . . when you’re writing for a particular soloist . . . it’s always a good idea to ask first.”
As in pushing the limits of a large orchestral piece, it helps to have an already established relationship with that orchestra, or, in this case, with the particular artist you are writing for. Bates admits that, in the case of the aforementioned string quartet, there have been performances in which the players elected to use their fingernails for the pizzicato instead of the prescribed pick.
“It’s not really what I was going for, but . . . no, you can’tforcea player to do something like that. But,” he adds, “when you are writing a concerto for a particular player, that musicianisusually pretty eager to help you realize your wishes. I think it all comes down to whether or not the musician feels like you understand what you are trying to do.
What they tend to resist is music with a sort of mid-centuryavant-gardeapproach that just has extended techniques in every bar, and doesn’t seem to be serving any purpose at all other than just being weird for weird’s sake. That’s when players start to say, ‘You know, I don’t want to do that.’
“But if they feel like there’s a clarity and purpose to the music you are writing, then let me tell you, you can go in all kinds of different directions.”Purpose, clarity—those are strong ideals for a composer. So what is Bates’ primary compositional purpose? “Hmmmmmm,” he replies, mulling it over. “More and more, I’ve been exploring very imaginative forms,” he finally says. “With Alternative Energy, in which each movement goes through a different time and place, I’m sort of telling the story of energy. I love that almost Berlioz-like, programmatic approach, tied to and articulated by the sounds of the digital age,” he says. “That’s a very imaginative, very exciting place to go, for me.”
Though he’s spent his life making sounds that are recognizably “modern,” some have noted the odd juxtaposition of fusing those sounds with soaring pastoral melodies, country-style fiddling, forest-inspired jungle rhythms, passages designed to evoke the sounds of prehistoric birds, and sweeping strings that remind an audience of the hugeness of the universe and the power of nature. It’s rapidly becoming a major, and recognizable, part of Bates’ ambitious craft.
“Music doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he says. “It doesn’t spring to life without any reference to what came before, or what’s happening currently in popular music. As an audience member, you come to a piece of music with all of the memories of music you’ve heard. I think that’s one of the most astounding things that music can do, as a sound-based medium. And this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.
“Music can take you on a journey, a journey that can play with your expectations in a very substantive way. I don’t see any problem with having a relationship with musical history or with familiar musical genres. I love to place the old side by side with the new. Writing a piece with the sounds of motors turning over woven into it? Good. Now throw in some fiddling. Why not?
“I think,” he adds, “the familiar stuff puts in greater relief the times when you get something completely from left field.”