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A composer offers the field just what it needs

Mason Bates
The Washington Post

Mason Bates is busy. To look at him, sitting in an empty reception room in the Kennedy Center on a weekday morning, you wouldn’t know it. On the surface, he appears to be one of the more laid-back classical composers in a field not especially known for its serenity. Bates, the Kennedy Center’s first composer-in-residence, is 39 and looks younger, with a boyishness compounded by a shaggy haircut that always seems slightly tousled, clothing that focuses on tidy dark pants and zipped sweaters, and a disarming, self-effacing delivery, peppered with “likes,” “you knows” and pauses as he pours out ideas and then backs into statements, phrasing, rephrasing, verbally twisting his hands until he comes up with something he feels he can live with, one that won’t hurt anybody’s feelings. And even this comes out with a dose of self-mockery. “That sounds so pretentious,” he says, shaking his head.

It takes a while to realize that this keen self-consciousness is born not of shyness, but of focus — an intentness on getting the effect he wants, exactly right.

To see that in action, watch him onstage with an orchestra. You might not notice him at first unless you know to look out for him, standing by the percussion at the back. He doesn’t draw attention to himself. He does, though, sit with the quiet laser focus of a mother hawk, eyes darting from conductor to players to audience to cable installation. When it’s time, he stands and bends forward over a beatpad, bringing all that focus through the touch of one finger on a computer interface that sends whomps and whooshes and other ambient sounds out over and through the orchestra in the music that he wrote and seems, as he plays it, to still be writing.

Or listen to his music. In June, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Bates had been a composer-in-residence for five years, gave the world premiere of a piece — “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” — that didn’t include a single electronic note.

Inspired by the Jorge Luis Borges book of the same name, it’s a musical depiction of a fantastic bestiary in 11 movements. There’s a slithery monster that creeps palindromically back and forth, its music reversing halfway through; a “sprite” that goes skipping through the strings, leaping from one stand to another so you can actually watch the movement ruffle through the players; and sirens that sing offstage with aching sweetness, in the voices of violins, luring the orchestra after them.

“Mason,” Muti said, in an interview shortly after the premiere, “knows how to write very well for orchestra.”

This accolade from a giant of the field demonstrates one secret of Bates’s success. It’s not just that his music is engaging. It’s not just that his side interests — his love of electronic music, his active second life as a DJ and his burgeoning activities as a curator of interesting new-music concerts — represent a link to the younger audience the orchestra world is so hungry to reach.

Deborah Rutter, who worked with him in Chicago as head of the CSO, named him as her first major appointment after taking over as the Kennedy Center’s president. “He’s trying to push boundaries in an organization that hasn’t, until recently, thought that boundary-pushing is the way they should go,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “He has been a huge help to me. . . . We want him to be a piece of who we are.”
Read the rest of the review here