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CSO composer Mason Bates a disc jockey by night

05.12.11
Mason Bates
Chicago Sun Times

By Andrew Patner

He listens to Poulenc piano pieces and Pink Floyd, George Gershwin and the German electronica duo Mouse on Mars.

He studied music at Juilliard with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first composer-in-residence, John Corigliano, and literature at Columbia University with the late New York School poet of exuberance, Kenneth Koch.

A composer by day and a DJ by night, Mason Bates, 34, is now one of two CSO Mead composers-in-residence and co-curator of the CSO’s MusicNOW series. In March, his piece “Mothership (Remix)” was viewed live by millions of people worldwide when Michael Tilson Thomas led it with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra from Australia’s Sydney Opera House.

This week Bates will be putting on his university-trained and techno-experienced hats for his first collaboration with music director Riccardo Muti on CSO concerts. With MusicNOW, Bates also will bring one of his “Mercury Soul” evenings to the Redmoon Theater space Friday night.

When Muti, seen by many as one of the last of the great traditionalists, took the CSO job, he wanted to use the Mead composers program to shake things up. He had never heard of Bates, or the other artist he ultimately selected, Anna Clyne, now 30, before he started examining scores they had submitted.

“I’ll be honest,” Bates said. “When I first was invited to talk with [Muti], I was not expecting that he would have fully studied and learned — without having ever heard — a piece of mine with the name ‘Liquid Interface.’ He’s astounding.”

Bates and Muti, who turns 70 this summer, and is not known for following popular musical styles or electronics, clicked immediately. The Bates piece the CSO is performing this week is “The B-Sides.” Commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas for the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered it in 2009, it’s an off-kilter dance suite that drops into five surreal landscapes and pays tribute to Chicago and Detroit club music traditions. “Maestro Muti looked at my score, which calls for a full orchestra and electronics, and lasts 20, 25 minutes, the way he looks at any other piece, with incredible concentration and analysis.”

Muti was frank with Bates. “There’s a section that I think of as the easiest to perform because so many people have incorporated so many of the types of rhythms in dance music into their minds and bodies and vocabularies. And Muti said to me when we were preparing for the first rehearsals this week, ‘I think this is the hardest section!’ But somehow he just zeroed in on the phrasing and made all of it start clicking.”

“The B-Sides” is the opener in a CSO program with a Strauss tone poem and Schumann’s Cello Concerto with soloist Yo-Yo Ma. For “Mercury Soul,” Bates is joined by Clyne and CSO members, along with his regular collaborators, con¬¬¬¬ductor Benjamin Schwartz and designer Anne Patterson as well as additional guest DJs. “We’re creating a different environment for making and listening to music.

“It’s all about expanding conceptions, of the orchestra, of types of music, of performance space. It’s going to be an interesting week.”