Composer and DJ Mason Bates to bring unexpected sound to symphony

Mason Bates
Sioux City Journal

By Ally Karsyn

A percussionist with the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra has been brushing up on how to make music with a broom.

Creative instrumentation comes to the stage with sounds produced by sandpaper blocks, an oil drum, antique typewriter and Apple laptop in an upcoming concert with symphonic composer and electronica artist Mason Bates.

“There wasn't much electronica in Virginia where I grew up,” he said, “so I didn't discover DJing until I went to New York for music school … Electronica grabbed me as an art form with huge possibilities in the concert hall.”

By night, he drops the beat in dance clubs and warehouses as DJ Masonic. But he also brings classical music with touches of techno to symphony orchestras across the country.

“Mason Bates is one of those composers who gets it and has stretched our ears very effectively with his creative combination of two worlds,” said Ryan Haskins, director of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra. “This is what he is known for – his expansion of the modern-day symphony.”

Bates is an artist in residence with the San Francisco Symphony and composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His musical career comes full circle as director of Mercury Soul – classical music meets the club scene in this cross-over project created in collaboration with Benjamin Shwartz.

He joins the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra for its season finale April 26 at the Orpheum Theatre.

In five movements, “The B-Sides” takes listeners on a journey, unified by rich harmonies of the orchestra and strong sounds of Bates’s techno beats.

“‘The B-Sides’ is a symphonic work intended for a classical space, which means it has a far more listening-intensive focus than electronica,” Bates said. “But you'll hear the clicks and pops of abstract electronica in the fist movement and some heavy techno in the last movement. More important than the electronic component is the overall shape of the piece, which explores surreal landscapes like the bands of a forgotten record.”

The first stop is a dusky, circuit-board landscape. Rasping sandpaper blocks and a broom sweep onto the scene. Bates, a Julliard-trained composer, plays along with the orchestra on his laptop and electronic drum pad.

Haskins credits the fusion of instruments as part of an adventurous development in writing music as composers break from tradition and explore new sounds and ways to make them.

“The exciting part of this is that, when it works, it works really well,” he said. “This exploration and discovery is exactly what is exciting about new music being created today.”

The piece progresses to a purely acoustic second movement, inspired by the beaches and lush flora on the North Shore of Kauai.

Then, it’s off to space.

Making use of what he learned studying English literature at Columbia University, Bates’ narrative approach comes to light. Using actual communications from the 1965 Gemini IV voyage provided by NASA, theatrics in the third movement reimagine the America’s first spacewalk before landing on the coast of Northern California.

This charming movement infuses the industrial tappings of a typewriter with jazz-tinged tunes. Here’s where the oil drum is brought in, too.

The broom returns and the tempo quickens to bring “The B-Sides” to a close. The final movement pays homage to techno’s birthplace, the empty warehouses of Detroit.

At full-throttle, the strength of the symphony mingles with Bates’s thumping beats of techno.

“Bates' musical and compositional explorations have a wonderfully natural way of becoming part of the orchestra,” Haskins said. “Yes, they are sounds that you don't expect to come from 80 members of a symphony orchestra, but that is the magic. The sounds always feel like they just belong.”