Mason Bates: Classical Disrupter
Mason Bates has successfully brought music and instruments into the concert hall that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Mason Bates is a boundary-pushing composer of classical music; his work is among the most-performed of any living composer.
Born in Philadelphia in 1977 and raised in Virginia, Bates was a musical prodigy, receiving his first orchestral performance of his work at age 17. He earned a dual degree in English and music at Columbia University and the Juilliard School and a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley.
Bates’s compositions often blend acoustic orchestral instruments and electronic music. They have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and countless other orchestras across the world. He received a Grammy nomination for Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (2015) and won an award for his opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (2017) about the founder of Apple Computer. In 2016 he composed the score for director Gus Van Sant’s film The Sea of Trees.
Mason Bates has been changing classical music, by infusing orchestras with unexpected sounds. He’s brought very modern music-making techniques into a very traditional space.
Mason Bates: I think that you have to be able to engage with your listener, if you’re gonna scare the hell out of them at some point.
And Bates would know. His music, which draws heavily from his college days as a DJ, has ruffled a few traditionalists’ feathers. But, though he’s faced plenty of pushback about his bold choices, Bates is encouraged by the fact that he’s not the first composer to push against the edges.
Bates: You know, music history is full of pollination. Whether it be people, like Gershwin, or somebody like Mozart—who in some of some of the string quartets, is using these kind of gavotte melodies—it’s always been happening. And it just, it’s sort of a matter of degree, and how much you flirt with the walking of the line.
Bates: One of the things that I love about this medium, is that we have time, and we have power—you know, like, acoustic power. You can have your intellect kind of engaging with a piece on one level, while your body’s getting hit on another. I think it’s important to take full advantage of both of those elements. I do think a piece of music really needs to have a kind of visceral invasion of the listener.
Though he’s barely 40 years old, Bates is already a veteran composer. He received his first symphony commission at the age of 17, and has since been working steadily to perfect his grasp on that most sophisticated of organic instruments, the symphony orchestra—which Bates likens to a giant synthesizer, but one with a lot more keys.
Bates: And every one of those keys is a person, and you gotta really know how to work with them, because it has so much power, when you can get it revved up. But you do have to be able to fit into the acoustics. You have to fit into the logistics.
AJC: You also have to have credibility among the musicians that you’re mingling with.
Bates: Yeah. Well, you know, what I’ve found, time and again, is that…people, in orchestras, are pretty skeptical before the first rehearsal. Once they hear what the music is, they loosen up real fast. And I do think it’s one of the interesting, and, I would say, special things about our medium, is that you have both an internal, and an external audience. And then we have, obviously, the crowd that shows up. But, there’s a lot that goes on, psychologically, as you’re mentioning, on the stage, with the musicians. And usually, people—pretty quickly—are, like, going from, “Why are the speakers here?” to, “Hey, look, we can learn new tricks, too.”
And orchestras who’ve had to learn new tricks for Bates include the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra. And it’s not just the big boys who can play Bates. He’s just as pleased when community, amateur, and volunteer orchestras take on his work.
Bates: It’s only going to get into the ether of the classical music canon if it happens on a regional level. You know, you have to be able to have a, kind of, grassroots of orchestras that play your music. And so, one important thing for me, is that the electronic component has to be able to work, in three rehearsals, without me there.
And he can’t always be there. He’s based in San Francisco, while also serving as artist in residence at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. This past summer, he spent quite a bit of time in Santa Fe, where his opera, based on the life of Steve Jobs, had its world premiere. The late Apple founder and CEO’s biography had previously had two outings on film.
Bates: It’s a topic that can withstand a couple of different angles, and I think, in many ways, opera is the best medium to handle this, this figure. And the reason I think that, is that it can be both a naturalistic and a kind of poetic medium. For somebody who changed communication—to me, communication is kind of the big picture of what he is, has done for us. Opera can really deal with that, because people can have not only different light motifs, but, like, different sound ones. It was really inspiring, I can tell you, to be writing a piece that so much had to do with a fundamental issue of the 21st century: how do you shrink all of our communication into these little devices, when we’re so complicated? That’s what he dealt with. Things spinning out of control, you know, like… He’s got a child from a different woman, he’s got cancer. These things are not one-button problems.
And it was fitting that Mason Bates should be the one to tell the Steve Jobs story, for they have a lot in common. They’re both innovators in their respective fields, who have helped define the new millennium.