Back to the Future

Composer Mason Bates combines the old and new to create something utterly unique.

New Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates.

Photo by Ryan Schude

Time travel, giant alien saucers, astronauts walking in the void of outer space: welcome to a Mason Bates concert.

To find the 48-year-old symphonic composer at a performance, don’t look for a figure out front waving a baton. Instead, you’ll find the thin Richmond native with dark ruffled hair and boyish looks standing behind two laptops onstage, usually to one side of the percussion section. Why? Bates’ calling card is the combination of traditional orchestral music with synthesized electronic music and recorded soundscapes (including marine life and space walks), which he controls during performances via computer. The result is a sound unmistakably his own.

In May, Bates was named the first ever composer in residence at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. He has been awarded the Rome Prize, Berlin Prize and Heinz Award, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008. And his music isn’t just innovative—it’s popular. The YouTube symphony orchestra (formed from worldwide musicians who auditioned on the video site) chose Bates’ “Mothership” as its featured performance piece when it played at the Sydney Opera House in 2011. According to a survey conducted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his compositions are the second-most performed of any living composer in the world.

After graduating from St. Christopher’s School in 1995, Bates attended Columbia University and the Julliard School in New York City, and later earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008 (where he performed in clubs as DJ Masonic). Before coming to the Kennedy Center, he served as the composer in residence for the California and Chicago Symphonies. Although the digital elements of his music may seem unfamiliar to the traditional concertgoer, he stresses that, like older classical music, his creations center on a strong narrative theme—each piece tells it own story to the listener.

St. Christopher’s really is the reason that I got into music, and specifically Hope Armstrong Erb, who conducted the choir there and taught me piano and theory. I was bringing in pieces that I was working on, composing pieces when I was about 13, 14. And she made a deal with me, she said, “You know, if you will practice the piano more, I will coach you in your composing.”

I found that there was this world of creativity in music. You could do anything you wanted with instruments. Ever since then I’ve more and more become the person who uses a narrative approach with music and creates large free-flowing structures out of symphonies. I guess the idea of creating worlds really got me from an early age.

I encountered electronic music when I went to college in New York and I found it transfixing, not only the intricate and complex rhythms, but also the kind of magic and beautiful electronic textures that you hear in electronic music. And it seemed to me that electronica and classical music, even though they’re so far apart in terms of culture, actually share a lot of musical similarities.

Very soon I got interested in the idea of electronics being part of storytelling. Hearing the buzzing of southern insects [“Rusty Air in Carolina”], and using recordings of glaciers calving [“Liquid Interface”]. I’ve used recordings of a massive space walk in [“The B-Sides”]. It became a way to expand the sonic palette of the orchestra, but also the theatrical palette.

At first, orchestras were a little puzzled by me asking for speakers. It’s not an art form that’s used to amplification or electricity. What I heard a lot from musicians was, “Hey, when we heard that you’re doing a piece with electronics, I was thinking that this was going to be terrible. And, when we got into the first rehearsal, I was like: Hey! This guy actually is in love with the orchestra and wants to use it fully.”

The orchestra as a field, I think it has an image of being fairly buttoned-down, and you’ve got to clap in the right moments, and there are rules. But the truth is it’s a field that very much has been associated with technology over the centuries. The thing that has made the orchestra what it is today is technology. You know, if we didn’t have any technological developments from the beginning of the orchestra, we wouldn’t have any valves in the brass that allow us to change keys, or we wouldn’t be able to hear the strings because they’d be playing with catgut. We’d have no percussion.

I think “Alternative Energy” is seen by a lot of people as my biggest statement. Each movement goes forward 100 years in the story of energy. It starts 100 years ago on Henry Ford’s farm, and you hear car parts being played in the percussion section. And then with each movement it zaps forward 100 years, and you hear an actual particle accelerator that I recorded in Chicago. That sounds like a crazy form, this idea of a symphony that moves forward through time, but actually some of the great programmatic composers of the 19th century, Berlioz or Wagner, were all about using music to tell big stories. It’s not only a combination of old and new sounds, but also old and new forms.

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