Electric Influence

Electric Influence

The music of Mason Bates fuses innovative orchestral writing, the rhythms of electronica and techno, and imaginative narrative forms brought to life by cutting edge sound design. A composer of symphonic music who often includes live electronica in his orchestral music, he has become known as an artist who moves fluidly between those two worlds. Awarded both a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome and an American Academy in Berlin Prize, he is a member of the New York-based Young Concert Artists. Upcoming concerts include performances of Liquid Interface (Pittsburgh Symphony; Arizona Music Fest), “Warehouse Medicine” from The B-Sides (Carnegie Hall), Music From Underground Spaces (Chicago Symphony), and the New York premiere of his horn trio (Baryshnikov Arts Center). In September 2010 Mason will assume his position as composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Riccardo Muti.

Mouse On Mars

Music of the Province of the Blue Nile
Berta & Ingessana Tribes

In the world of contemporary music, San Francisco–based composer Mason Bates (a.k.a. DJ Masonic) can be considered a pioneer in the successful integration of classical music, electronic music, and club culture. In addition to performances of his works by most of the major US orchestras and his recent appointment as composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bates (performing under the moniker Masonic) also maintains a vibrant career as a DJ and electronica artist, and has spun trip-hop, jazzy trip-hop, funk, and French house in venues throughout San Francisco, Berlin, and Rome. The ability to combine the seemingly opposing worlds of underground electronic music with contemporary classical composition requires a deep understanding of both genres. Bates refers to the process as cross-pollination. “The integration has to be musically substantive or it is not sustainable,” he points out, but he has found a good match in what at first might seem an unlikely genre pairing. “The textures, intricate rhythms, and beautiful harmonies of electronica make it well suited for orchestral exploration.”

Bates’s passion for synthesizing electronica with contemporary classical music is showcased in many of his large-scale orchestral works. Whereas some attempts to marry symphonic music with electronic beats are mediocre at best and hopelessly gimmicky at worst (William Orbit’s trance version of Adagio for Strings comes to mind), Bates manages to fuse the two worlds with innovation and creativity. His Liquid Interface, a “water symphony” that opens with sample recordings of glaciers breaking in the Antarctic, takes the listener on a journey through the metamorphism of water, from massive, solid ice-winter to eventual transformation into “a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise.” Using electronics to drive the orchestral narrative—the supporting beats evolve “from slow trip-hop into energetic drum ‘n bass”—Bates explains that this augments the aural picture presented by the symphony. In the “Scherzo Liquido,” for instance, “droplets splash from the speakers in the form of a variety of nimble electronica beats, with the orchestra swirling around them.”

In The B-Sides, a five-movement orchestral/electronica work premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, Bates (with the encouragement of Michael Tilson Thomas) set about composing technologically infused symphonic miniatures, using Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra as structural inspiration. Searching for unique ways to explore and portray “surreal musical territory,” Bates envisioned the first movement, “Broom of the System” as “a fairy-like chimney sweep dusting the silicon innards of the computer, driven by ticking of a future clock, a ghost in a very large machine.” In addition to the electronic elements, The B-Sides also explores sounds and instruments not commonly found in traditional symphonic works (sandpaper blocks, a broom, a djembe, a typewriter, and an oil drum), and even uses archival NASA recordings in the third movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind.” In the final movement, “Warehouse Medicine,” the orchestra is driven with percussive, bass-heavy electronics, which Bates intended as “an homage to techno’s birthplace—the empty warehouses of Detroit.” In addition to a performance by the YouTube Symphony, the piece also had an unintended outreach effect: NASA invited him to tour the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. This was a connection with technology and audience well beyond his initial creative impulse, but it was a welcome one, he says. “In order for NASA to do its work, the space program needs to stay in the lives of all Americans. When a composer incorporates sounds from Gemini IV into a piece for the San Francisco Symphony, it means a lot to NASA. I wish other non-musical institutions would foster bonds with the artistic community.”

The effort to conjoin ostensibly disparate musical genres has evolved into an American movement of sorts. In San Francisco, Bates is the driving force (in collaboration with Anne Patterson and Benjamin Shwartz) behind the widely successful “Mercury Soul: An Electro–Acoustic Evening” events, an innovative project that integrates contemporary classical music and funky electronica with elaborate visuals and lighting. In Bates’s words, “Mercury Soul” is “an elaborate, freeform party that integrates classical music and electronica, a hybrid musical event [that] superimposes a techno party onto a new music concert…Our goal is not simply changing the context—after all, the novelty of playing Bach in a club eventually wears off — but to blow the minds of both classical and electronica fans.” This is achieved by careful, concise planning; the acoustic and electronic sets are transitioned with musical interludes that bridge the two worlds. Bates explains that the interludes “gradually morph out of a DJ set, slowly incorporating the classical ensemble that will soon be featured, and begin to shift the audience’s attention away from beats and more towards acoustic instruments. Composing these interludes for each show is time-consuming, but it is one of the things that folks really respond to—and it makes the whole enterprise far more cohesive.”

Classical music and club culture exist perfectly well without each other—I too enjoy a Schubert Mass on its own, or an Autechre show. I don’t think a confluence of the two is some kind of hipness quotient that need be present everywhere. But when it does happen—and, in particular, when it happens with substance and purpose—it can shine a new light.

Mason Bates

This hybridization of music is not new—DJ’s and hip-hop producers have been splicing and sampling music of all genres for decades. Yet Bates marks a clear line between drawing influence and directly utilizing another’s material. “There is a difference in being influenced by a particular music (Steve Reich and drumming from Ghana) and using a recording verbatim (sampling). Many DJs, to take an obvious example, think there is nothing wrong about grabbing any piece of music and including it without credit. As a composer, I have a far more proprietary view of intellectual property, so I rarely sample—and if so, it becomes an important, credited part of a piece.” For instance, in his orchestral work White Lies for Lomax, a piece that pays tribute to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, Bates integrates blues recordings, in his words “wisps of distant blues fragments,” and lets them slowly accumulate to the end of the work. He notes, “This short but dense homage ends with the sounds of a Lomax field recording floating in from an off-stage radio, briefly crossing paths with the cloud-like remnants of the work’s opening. The seemingly recent phenomenon of sampling—grabbing a sound-bite from a song and incorporating it into something new—is in fact a high-tech version of the very old practice of allusion or parody, and the inclusion of a field recording of early blues musicians at the end is a nod to that tradition.”

Naturally Bates cites several underground electronic artists as his influences, including Mouse on Mars and Prefuse 73 (“two of the best electronica artists alive”), as well as British composer Thomas Adès (“an unbelievably inventive composer”), and John Corigliano, his teacher at Julliard. “John Corigliano is often incorrectly described as a neo-romantic, but his approach is more eclectic than anyone,” Bates asserts. “I love his ability to incorporate diverse elements into a piece in a coherent way.” He also acknowledges his literature studies and a general fascination with the world-at-large as an important part of his artistic inspiration. “I have always been drawn to words, which resulted in me studying English at Columbia. So literature of any stripe moves me. But of course, as I have become interested in electronics, I’ve found that any sound on Earth can inspire a piece. Earthquake recordings, NASA communication clips, you name it; they all suggest musical possibilities.”

In ruminating on the future of music, Bates ponders his experience with the YouTube Symphony, an online collaborative orchestra that debuted under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas in April 2009. “I wasn’t sure what the YouTube Symphony’s mission could possibly be, since the world of Beethoven and internet video do not exactly intersect. I had my doubts, though I’ll admit: as a composer fascinated with the electronic possibilities of the orchestra, I probably had more hope for the project’s success than my more cynical brethren.” Looking back, it is clear that cross-media projects such as the YouTube Symphony are important stepping-stones in developing a new paradigm for the 21st-century listening audience. Though not yet relegated to “historical artifact,” the format of the traditional classical concert is certainly becoming less viable. In this vein, Bates holds steadfast in his belief that classical music can benefit from the opportunities inherent to the digital age, and the YouTube Symphony concert offered a glimpse of that potential future. “What I saw that evening, from my perch in the percussion playing laptop, was a beautiful vision of classical music’s future. Our field can withstand more than we think. An immersive, high-tech updating of the concert experience can work wonders—as long as there is substance.”

Bates applies a similar optimistic caution when considering how the big classical music institutions might evolve. “There are many things sacred to the classical experience that work beautifully. Good acoustics seem important, as does the general rule of staying quiet while the music playing. But many other cardinal rules, [like] no clapping between movements, just seem ridiculous. You could put a man on the moon with the amount of energy repressed when a thousand people are forced to sit on their hands at the end of the first movement of Mahler Five.” By updating the rituals surrounding the presentation—anything from simple projected movement titles to cinematic program notes presented during set changes—Bates suggests that we must be creative in developing classical music in the 21st century. He’ll have the chance to personally play a role in this experiment soon. “These are ideas I am working on at the Chicago Symphony with Anna Clyne, who will serve as composer-in-residence with me starting next year. We would really like to move the presentation into the new century in a respectful way.”

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