Bridging Huge Gaps, Geographical and Musical

02.23.12
Mason Bates
The New York Times

By Kevin Berger

Last Friday, Mason Bates paced through his cozy Oakland house. A cab was picking him up in a few minutes because Mr. Bates, a composer known for his dynamic blend of classical and electronic music, was performing that night in Los Angeles with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but he knew he was forgetting something. 

Suddenly Mr. Bates remembered. He stopped in a small service room, pulled a bundle of clothes from the washer and put them in the dryer. He had promised his wife, Jamie, a molecular biologist at Stanford, that he would dry their son’s clothes before he left for Los Angeles.

“Good thing I remembered,” he said, smiling.

That dance — between family and work — has become more than a theme in Mr. Bates’s life: he has used it as the inspiration for his most recent composition, “Mass Transmission.”

With a skyrocketing career — he is the composer-in-residence at both the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as a popular club D.J. — Mr. Bates has built a national reputation as an innovator. But for the first time, Mr. Bates said, he is feeling the pull of gravity. Constantly writing and touring has caused him to miss Toliver, his 2-year-old son.

That longing to connect informs “Mass Transmission.” The San Francisco Symphony will perform the premiere of the 15-minute work March 15 to 17, as part of its American Mavericks festival, a three-week celebration of 20th- and 21st-century composers. The festival begins March 8 and presents mold-breaking works by Charles Ives and Steve Reich and new pieces by Meredith Monk and John Adams.

Mr. Bates, 35, possesses a natural confidence and charm. For nearly a decade, he has been hailed as one of the young saviors of classical music, thanks to his gift for rinsing the gray out of traditional forms with the searing beats of electronica.

But San Francisco clubgoers know another side of Mr. Bates. He performs regularly as D.J. Masonic, spinning dance music at nightspots like Mezzanine and John Colins (where he is scheduled to appear March 8) and as the D.J. in Mercury Soul (performing March 16 in Davies Symphony Hall after the regular program), a chamber group that seems a mix of Schubert and Massive Attack, a trip-hop band.

The way Mr. Bates blends electronics into classical music, said Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, “is in the spirit of the original American maverick composers and their thirst for the unconventional and new. And he writes beautiful notes.”

Edmund Campion, a composer and professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, said Mr. Bates was a much-needed bridge between musical worlds. “The orchestra today is fighting with its identity as a historical elephant,” Mr. Campion said. “Mason provides a sense of renewal, a connection to social and cultural things in contemporary life.”

That role was solidified last year by the performance of Mr. Bates’s rousing piece “Mothership” with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mr. Tilson Thomas and seen by hundreds of thousands online.

“Mass Transmission” is based on radio-wave communications in the 1920s between parents in the Netherlands and their children on Java. Children were sent to the island (now part of Indonesia) to work for the colonial Dutch government. The piece, scored for chorus, organ and electronics (including samples of Indonesian gamelan music), opens with the wistful voice of a woman recalling her first communications with her daughter. The ethereal music contrasts the human voice with the cold mists of electronic static. An organ traverses the two like a Bach toccata.

“I think of those early transmissions as the Skype of the 1920s,” Mr. Bates said. “Today, trying to communicate with my son and wife through a technological medium that remains imperfect really made me receptive to this story of a mother and daughter separated by oceans.”

Mr. Bates grew up in Richmond, Va., the son of a surgeon and a schoolteacher. When he was in sixth grade at St. Christopher’s, a boys’ prep school, he showed his piano teacher a piece he had written. She responded that while his piano playing could use work, he had a gift for composing.

Mr. Bates earned degrees at Columbia University and the Juilliard School, where his teenage infatuation with Pink Floyd matured into a love for the polytonal symphonies of Stravinsky and John Corigliano, a renowned contemporary composer and one of his Juilliard mentors. In 2000, Mr. Bates moved to the Bay Area. While earning his Ph.D. in composition at Cal, he moonlighted as a D.J. at raves and parties.

“I want to be known as a symphonist,” Mr. Bates said. “Electronica is an important new element of the orchestra, like valves in brass instruments once were. But I strive to make it an organic and integral part of the whole orchestra.”

In the cab, on the way to the airport, Mr. Bates said that “Mass Transmission” symbolized his music to date.

“It’s about animal warmth encapsulated in a mechanistic environment,” he said. “It’s about speaking over distances, which could be the distance of death. It’s really about reaching a loved one over any gulf.”