Two Turntables and a Symphony

By Edward Ortiz

With a laptop, turntable, and a pair of headphones, composer Mason Bates is turning heads in the concert hall—and in the most unlikely of those, no less: the classical music hall.

By artfully bringing the groove-loving sounds of electronica and techno to classical music, Bates has become a sought-after composer. But the 32-year-old Bates, whose street moniker is “Masonic,” is no classical music neophyte sprung from the hipster scene. He’s Juilliard trained and has wanted to be a classical music composer since high school.

To date, his classical works have been performed by such celebrated groups as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and at the Aspen Music Festival. In February 2008, Bates made his Carnegie Hall debut, performing live electronica for his piece Liquid Interface with the National Symphony Orchestra. The work, written for large orchestra and electronica, premiered in 2007 at the Kennedy Center under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Bates’s newest orchestral/electronica piece, The B-Sides, will premiere May 20–23 with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.

Bates has a rare, seemingly effortless ability to transit from the prim and proper world of classical music to the streetwise world of electronica. Though not actually breaking new ground (composers have pushed the electronic-classical horizon since at least the 1930s), he is the first composer to make the duality a calling card. “It’s a special kind of musical schizophrenia,” said Bates via telephone from his home in Oakland.

Bates earned his Ph.D. in music composition from Berkeley’s Department of Music in 2008. He said his dual musical approach first bloomed in 2004 when his synthesizer-laden work Omnivorous Furniture for sinfonietta and electronica was commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. “That piece became kind of a meeting point between the symphonic world and this beast of electronica,” he explained.

Before he tackled that work, electronica and classical were mutually exclusive pursuits for him. Although excelling in either would be a challenge for most, now Bates thrives on moving between the dissimilar worlds.

Bates, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, entered a joint degree program offered by Columbia University and The Juilliard School. He earned a master’s degree in music at Juilliard under the mentorship of composer John Corigliano while pursuing a bachelor’s in English at Columbia with the likes of the late poet Kenneth Koch.

During his time in New York, Bates added a third component to his education when he began exploring the city’s techno music club scene. “Until then, electronica was totally outside of my field of interest,” he said. Before long, Bates was in the market for a turntable. “I started deejaying at modest parties, not really knowing exactly what I was doing.”

But his career as a deejay did not gain traction until he moved to San Francisco in 2001, where he encountered a robust techno scene. Soon he was performing in a more public vein at the city’s techno hotspots, such as 111 Minna and Cloud 9. As his deejay chops grew more sophisticated, Bates became drawn to the idea of music study at Berkeley, where his wife was pursuing a doctorate in microbiology. Later that year, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, where he drew the attention and mentorship of co-director Edmund Campion.

“It’s a very challenging endeavor to merge electro-acoustic space with that of the acoustic orchestra,” said Campion via telephone from his campus office. “It requires a vision for understanding how the various sounds function and are diffused in space,” he explained. “These things don’t come together naturally, and it’s to Mason’s credit that he’s able to hear how the contrasting worlds can merge and form a meaningful sonic whole.”

Lately, Bates has returned to his musical roots, writing choral music for the esteemed San Francisco–based vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The group will premiere his Sirens in a series of concerts March 17–22. “I first encountered music through singing in a church choir,” recalled Bates. “So it’s really nice to be writing for a chorus again.”

And he’s also looking forward to new musical horizons. Bates is currently developing his first opera, California Fictions, a dramatic musical tale of the dot-com boom.

From the March April 2009 The Soul of Wit issue of California.
Image source: Guru Khalsa
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