Mason Bates Consults the Ouija Board for His Ghostly Auditorium

Mason Bates
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Lou Fancher 

Musicians won't fling French horns or launch lutes or flutes across Davies Hall during the world premiere of Mason Bates' Auditorium. And an ensemble of ghosts riding on harpsichords and wielding theorbos or other Baroque instruments won't literally swoosh onto the stage. Even so, Bates says in an interview, "When the orchestra tunes and the baroque ensemble tunes, it's like a poltergeist."

A half-step difference in tuning, the brighter thirds and other features defining a 21st century orchestra's instrumental ancestors - 17th-century Baroque instruments - will arrive courtesy of Bates, who will join Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for the SFS-commissioned work.

Auditorium is like the interior zone of a giant mind or a magnificent Ouija board, Bates suggests. A call and response between the live SFS and the "dead" orchestra wafting out of Bates' electronic/techno setup is in some ways a metaphorical battle, as electronically processed sound presses into a classical blueprint. Or perhaps the two musical bodies are more like a ghostly pas de deux, a dance for two apparitions - one solid, one ethereal.

If so, Bates says the baroque instrumentation adds vulnerability laced with bluegrasslike energy to the dance. "Baroque instruments weren't powerhouses of engineering. It required effort to create particular sounds, which makes them sound scared, vulnerable." But far from fragile, the players of these early instruments could jam. "We think of Baroque music as having purity, but man, there's a whole lot more energy with which musicians had to play. It's like prebluegrass," he says, before mentioning as examples Italian violinists and composers Marco Uccellini and Carlo Farina. "Michael (Tilson Thomas) gave me a list of names to explore. Auditorium rises out of my love for 18th century music, which I'd not delved into until recently."

Read the full preview here.