Bay Area composer Mason Bates used to inhabit two worlds: One was the concert hall, where the 37-year-old rolled out lush, melodic orchestral and vocal works for large and small troupes like Chanticleer, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony. The other required a turntable, an alias (DJ Masonic), a nightclub setting, and a varied playlist including jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. Inevitably, his 21st-century persona careened into his 19th-century identity, causing a sonic whirlwind that today makes him one of the busiest composers of his generation. The 2011 YouTube Symphony performance of his piece "Mothership," which featured an acoustic orchestra and Bates on laptop and was viewed by 1.8 million people online, caused a firestorm of enthusiasm. Interest in Bates has continued, unabated, as his electro-symphonic work winds its way into the varied repertoires of orchestras, ballet companies, and large-scale, new-music presenters.
Because Bates' compositions rely equally on deeply understood classical music, enlightened electronics, and rich conceptual narratives, his music is both nostalgic and revolutionary. And because his concerts attract thousands of new music fans without alienating longtime classical music patrons, Bates has become the go-to guy for organizations yearning to expand their audience base. But it hasn't always been easy for the traditional music industry or the media to comprehend and accept Bates' hybrid identity.
On his way to becoming a Guggenheim fellow, Heinz Award winner, recipient of an extended residency at the San Francisco Symphony and, currently, the Mead Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony, Bates has found himself fighting perception. "Classical musicians initially struggled with the psychological element of a foreign sound palette," he said in an interview. "It's completely different to have electronic sounds. The challenge is to get past that first rehearsal. After that, the musicians know that I respect their position and I'm not trying to hardware their production."
Bates called on his years of studying orchestration — an undergraduate degree from Juilliard and a Ph.D from UC Berkeley, both in composition — in order to avoid obvious pitfalls like dropping low acoustic sounds on top of a techno bass line or creating competing textures that cancel each other out. Laptops have been a crucial component of his development as a composer. He spends an enormous amount of time in his studio, designing and processing an original sound world. He said that when conductors and musicians see the careful but familiar notation and the rhythmic flexibility he writes into his electronic scores, any remaining resistance evaporates. "At the end of the day, I'm a symphonic composer," said Bates. "DJing is important and creative, but what I'm doing is bringing the orchestra into the current age imaginatively."
Bates loves the drama of the symphony experience and sees electronics as "simply a fresh approach to achieve a diverse sound." His compositions share the conceptual approach of 19th-century masters, who frequently developed programmatic works based on themes like heroism, evil, war, and love. "Narrative was common until the 20th century, when music became about systems," he said. "I think you have to have ideas beyond just notes and instruments." He said he wishes academic programs didn't emphasize electronics as a way to have ultimate control. Instead, electronic instruments should enhance sonic quality, add tonal variety, and support an aesthetic grounded in formal structures. A question about integrating digitally reproduced sounds from the real world — like earthquake rumbles or motor engines starting up — sends him into rhapsodic praise for expanding the sound palette, followed by a cautionary note: "My goals aren't crossover," he insisted. "The means I choose are different, but the orchestra has always been evolving, and it's time the digital age is a part of that."
An Oakland East Bay Symphony performance on November 8 at the Paramount Theatre, as part of the symphony's opening-night celebration, will provide an opportunity for local audiences to hear the nine-minute "Mothership." Program notes for the piece describe the orchestra as a mothership that is "docked" by cyberspace soloists. The work contains the propulsive energy of techno music and is set free with jazz-worthy improvisations while holding fast to its orchestral lifeline. Bates anticipates something new each time the work is performed.
"The notes haven't changed, but having a new group perform it will change it significantly," he said. "OEBS plays my work instinctively. This piece is my only true symphonic opener. I've tried to write that kind of piece before, but it always came out dreamy and ambient. This piece, I cracked the nut on dramatic and narrative right away."
In Chicago, where he will spend approximately seven weeks during the 2013-14 season, Bates will resume his split life. While writing large-scale works for the orchestra, he'll also be developing a new-music concert series. His reimagined concert experience will involve increased technology, including digital imagery and lighting, with the end goal of turning the performances into social platforms. But it's not as experimental as it sounds: Already, his concert chamber new-music performances have attracted 1,000-member audiences.
The San Francisco Symphony is also continuing its association, pairing Bates' three largest works with three pieces by Beethoven. The three concerts will be performed and recordings will be released in 2014.