Concerto for two universes
Spinning. It’s what politicos do, particularly these days. Also fitness fanatics. And in dance clubs the world over, DJs.
And then there’s composer Mason Bates. Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he’s become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well.
“By day, I use the hours as ‘blockbuster’ time for writing music,” Bates says. “By night, I go to these incredible clubs and spin trip-hop, techno beats, funk.” In between, he says, he strives to be as “creative” at finding audiences for his scores -- which often incorporate influences from clubland -- as he is when composing them.
The success of both those efforts can be measured next at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group will premiere Bates’ “Omnivorous Furniture for sinfonietta and electronica,” commissioned for the orchestra’s Green Umbrella series.
In the 18-minute piece, 15 Philharmonic musicians will share the Disney stage with two electronic speakers and Bates. He’ll be in the percussion section, performing on an electronic drum pad.
At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets -- the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers -- Bates just might have that bait.
“A few others have attempted to bring club music into an orchestral setting before,” he says. “But not with a substantive approach, because they don’t have a deep understanding of electronica.”
Half-reclining in a Disney Hall lounge chair while in town for a day from Berkeley -- where, in addition to carrying on a full-time career, he’s pursuing a doctorate in composition -- the slightly built, hazel-eyed Bates, now 27, speaks softly, with the slightest Southern drawl. He talks about his background, his Virginia roots, attending haah school in Richmond, studying with an influential piano teacher.
Nothing about him, however, suggests self-importance. He takes in stride the trunkload of honors that have already come his way -- the American Academy’s Rome prize and its Berlin prize, two ASCAP awards, a Charles Ives Award and a “very generous” Young Concert Artists fellowship, to name a few.
He’s written 20 commissioned works that have been played by major ensembles. His output has included symphonic pieces, chamber works, music for the theater and music for the turntable. In 2003, he played his synthesizer concerto with the Phoenix and Atlanta symphonies. Monica Felko, his manager at Young Concert Artists, says she “was amazed at how he brought his two musical universes together.” In Georgia, she says, “even the gray-haired ladies at the Friday matinee loved it.”
“The applications for grants and fellowships, et cetera, are around,” he says offhandedly. “All it takes is to file them. Like throwing out a fishing line, sometimes you get a bite, sometimes not. As for so-called success, often things don’t work out, so it’s important for me not to take that roller-coaster ride or I’ll get distracted from what I really want to do -- have the freedom to write music that is what I intend it to be.
“I’m an uncomfortable fit with academia,” he adds before noting warily that he intends no offense to colleagues at Berkeley or other institutions. “It seems that people there often write music just for each other. Nor was I ever attracted to all the thorny, cerebral stuff. Music, for me, is not a mental exercise, not an abstract construction. It’s intuitional. It needs to have the power to viscerally move people and to communicate strongly, across a broad reach.”
That’s why George Gershwin is a hero of his, he says. “Coming out of jazz and Tin Pan Alley, he did amazing things with that material in the concert hall.”
A surprising gift
Bates is the product of an old Richmond family of no particular musical distinction, but one entirely supportive of his career. The Bateses operate a farm that also has a hunt club. Young Mason grew up in what he calls “a very conservative area.” His father is a urologist, his mother a grade-school teacher and his older brother a Marine captain, recently back from six months in Iraq.
“It was a place where no one was to any degree on the left,” he says. “In my home, Reagan was a god, and when Clinton was elected, I was told it was the end of the world.”
Yet Bates says that he, his parents and his sibling lived in perfect harmony, “and even now we don’t talk about politics, not even my brother and I.” Both sons took piano lessons. Then the older one moved on to drums, then football, then the Marines, while Mason focused on serious piano study and composing.
“Within minutes of sitting down to practice scales, I’d find myself noodling at the keyboard, making up my own tunes and ideas,” he says.
Still in high school, he wrote a piano sonata. Next came acceptance into a joint Columbia University/Juilliard School of Music program, from which he graduated with honors in American and medieval literature as well as a master’s in composition.
But New York’s sociopolitical climate came as a shock. “It was Yankee territory,” he admits. “Eye-opening. And a healthy experience I was ready for. After all, they’re only people. That should transcend what box they check.”
The six years he spent in the city, he says, were also an ear-opener for him, even though “it took a certain amount of masochism to pursue both degrees at once.” Not only did he have the opportunity to study by day with Kenneth Koch, some of whose poems he set to music, and, centrally, with composers David Del Tredici and John Corigliano, but by night he discovered the Lower East Side’s electronica scene. Soon he began buying records and trying his hand at the turntable.
“These two worlds were disjunct in my life,” he says, alluding to the concert music he treasured and his growing absorption in techno music. “This dual personality became even more pronounced when I moved to San Francisco to be with my girlfriend,” a biochemist living in the Bay Area. Besides all the cutting-edge clubs there -- he currently DJs at Skylark and Cloud 9 -- he discovered UC Berkeley’s highly regarded electronica program. All roads seemed to lead him there -- until, in 2003, they led him to Rome.
Bates spent a year in the Italian capital on a fellowship that allowed him to live and work. And once again, he discovered underground electronica -- so called because it can be found on neither commercial nor other mainstream radio outlets. Inside an ancient pottery dump in the city’s Testaccio district, he came upon a thriving scene where he spun his sets at Scarabocchio and Metaverso. Next year, he’ll take up residence in ultraprogressive Berlin, which promises more of the same.
But for all his focus on this part of his identity -- which finds him at a website called masonicelectronica.com -- Bates’ concert music “is the farthest thing from the simple-minded, caveman style,” says Los Angeles composer Steven Stucky, referring to the backlash output that followed the atonal vogue of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “It’s very cleverly thought out and elegant. It actually calls upon the whole cerebral infrastructure that he takes issue with. But his final result surpasses it. As for his electronica, that’s a foreign country I’ve yet to visit.”
Stucky, the New Music Group’s consulting composer, was among the judges who chose Bates two years ago to participate in the Philharmonic’s Synergy Project, which paired up-and-coming composers with up-and-coming conductors for an intensive five-day workshop at USC. “What we saw in a single week working with him at USC,” the older composer says, “was an extraordinary level of imagination in using instruments in special ways.”
Stucky was also a member of the committee that tapped Bates for the New Music Group commission. He and the other members -- Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and fellow composers Colin Matthews, Oliver Knussen and Osvaldo Golijov -- had “a sense that big things would happen to him, and we wanted to be on that rocket launch.”
When it comes to describing his own work, Bates insists on putting it in context.
“Electronica,” he says, “is the child of Minimalism” -- the slowly shifting textures and repetitive rhythmic motifs characteristic of the music of Philip Glass and others. “But it also goes back to jazz and ultimately has to do with some guy sitting on the porch in the Deep South and playing the blues.”
What “Omnivorous Furniture” does, he says, “is marry my two musical personalities -- by combining the endless textures of a chamber orchestra with the myriad beats of electronica. What we have at the end is a chemical meltdown into this ambient out-of-tune universe.”
And that’s just the sort of merger or coalescence he sees for himself in the world at large.
“The picture I started with was turned on its head,” he says, talking about his Candide-like voyage from the insular South to brash Manhattan and the other far horizons he’s reached. “Many of those values from my past I question today. But while lots of things have yet to be resolved, I haven’t totally morphed into some other creature going from one place to another.
“The bottom line is, I wouldn’t trade my life as a composer for anything. The great lesson here lies in how to deal respectfully with different points of view.
“Be polite with people. It makes the ride much easier.”
‘Green Umbrella: American Voices’
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Price: $15 to $41
Contact: (323) 850-2000
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