Composer and DJ Mason Bates blends classical with cutting edge

Mason Bates
Sioux City Journal

By Kay Kemmet

Mason Bates takes his audience on a journey from the confines of a dusty circuit board to the reaches of outer-space to a Detroit warehouse where techno was born.

He melds electronica with strings, brass and percussion for symphonies across the world but, by night, he steps behind a soundboard as a disc jockey.

“There is a way that those two musics interact that is absolutely incredible,” Bates said.

That intersection can be heard in his piece “The B-Sides.” The Sioux City Symphony will perform the composition on Saturday (April 26) at the orchestra’s last concert of the season. Bates will join them providing his electronic addition to all the traditional instruments at the symphony’s disposal plus a few unusual ones. (Anyone have a broom they can borrow?)

Bates found inspiration for the piece in Pink Floyd’s long-form b-sides.

“If you listen to any Pink Floyd track, it usually has some sort of orchestral backdrop," he said. Bates is a composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony and an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony.

He also takes cues from composers like George Gershwin, who blended modern classical music with jazz. While Bates’ music isn’t the same, he also creates a hybrid musicality blending the music you might twerk to in a club with symphonic majesty.

That doesn’t mean you should expect to see a disco ball hanging from the Orpheum Theatre’s ceiling. Rather, Bates takes the possibilities of electronica, the morphing textures, and mixes them into an ethereal composition.

He’s a composer forever searching for new sounds and electronica gives him an infinitely expanding library.

“I think music can really be about something,” he said.

He describes the piece as a spaceship that touches down on five different landscapes.

In the composition's first movement, “Broom of the System,” Bates describes a chimney sweep who works inside the circuit board dusting off the wires, anonymously keeping the world’s machines working. A percussionist lightly swings a broom against the wall, creating a theatrical element and adding to the overall storytelling of the movement.

In the piece’s fourth movement, he moves into a sphere untethered by electronics using a typewriter and oil drum to further that narrative.

He evokes a sea-breeze and imagines a melody that dissipates like an aerosol spray in the second movement. Bates took inspiration for the light and bright “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)" from a visit to Hawaii.

By the third movement, Bates transports his music to outerspace with a NASA recording from the 1965 Gemini IV mission. “Gemini in the Sola Wind” tells the story, through rearranged words of an astronaut communicating with ground control, of seduction by the vastness of space.

“That kind of storytelling for me is very much from my studies in literature,” said Bates adding that in this case, he uses electronica not only to create textures but insert elements that tell a distinctive narrative.

The final movement of “The B-Sides” returns to the spaces where techno was born in the warehouses of Detroit. “Warehouse Medicine” plays homage to his alternate personality as a DJ and the music that has given him a distinctive role in modern classical music.

Music, whether it be in grand auditorium or an underground techno club, is one enterprise, Bates said. The combination of those distinct genres, Bates said, keeps him energized as a composer.

“I think to stay fresh as an artist, it’s good to change up your output.”

While those worlds may seem different, Bates said the interaction comes from the use of texture, layering sound upon sound, the lack of a vocal line. He takes classical music, what most consider a static creature, and puts something new into it.

The musicians he works with, Bates said, “feel kind of empowered that this great institution is still evolving.”

Bates shows great affection and respect for music, classic and otherwise, but said he especially loves the orchestra as the genesis even for music as high-tech as electronica.

“The orchestra really is the world’s oldest synthesizer.”