Aerosol melodies

05.12.10
Mason Bates
San Francisco Bay Guardian

Mason Bates straddles the electronic-classical divide with The B-Sides

By Marke B.

Ah, Le Poisson Rouge — how I yearn for you. The edgy New York City club and performance space has become a golden nexus for the current rich collision of the indie, electronic, and contemporary classical worlds. Zing go the avant-garde, filter-bent strings in the Bay often enough, of course, especially through the out-there provenance of sfSound (www.sfsound.org), the biannual Soundwave Series (www.projectsoundwave.com), and Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (cnmat.berkeley.edu). But it took last August's sold out Herbst Theater one-off by Wordless Music, the Poisson-based org that brings big indie names to the new music stage, to finally hold SF's flannel-clad fixie pixie population enraptured by the freakier side of symphonica, with the white-noise-drenched West Coast premiere of "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and soul-loosening pieces by Bay boys Fred Frith ("Save As") and Mason Bates ("Icarian Rhapsody").

It's been a massive year for 32-year-old Virginia native Bates, who told me over the phone that he moved from NYC to North Oakland four years ago because he "wanted a house and a short commute to a great city." In March the Julliard grad debuted a six-movement work, Sirens, commissioned by local vocal greats Chanticleer, right after he wrapped up a three-season young-composer-in-residence program with the California Symphony. Perhaps his biggest break came last month, when the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, assembled via audition vids and led by San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, made its debut at Carnegie Hall, playing a portion of Bates' latest orchestral suite, The B-Sides. Like many other professional cynics, I had my nails sharpened and painted Jungle Red for this dreadful-seeming Internet marketing buzz-blast, but the inclusion of Bates' forward-thinking work helped rescue the affair from maudlin crowd-pleasing.

Speaking of gimmicks, here's what many perceive as Bates': he plays a laptop onstage with the orchestra. Good heavens! Mere gimmickry's a sad assumption — sure enough, his YouTube gig has reignited that tired technology vs. "true" classical debate that has periodically raged ever since the theremin took the Paris Opera stage in 1927. But Bates, who has toured clubs in his DJ Masonic guise for years, rises above all that with a deep knowledge of dance music history, which itself claims a long and fruitful entanglement with contemporary classical, and a mission of sonic integration.

"The laptop is a piece of the enterprise, a means of augmenting the texture of an orchestral arrangement and adding a richness that evokes new sonic landscapes," says Bates, who considers his keyboard a "specialized extension of the percussion family." As for snap judgments about technology, "it actually goes both ways," he says. "Of course, some traditional symphony-goers can't really go there. But it's important for people from the club world to know that I'm not just orchestrating techno" — like the Balanescu Quartet's version of Kraftwerk or the Williams Fairey Brass Band's take on acid house. "I'm not Richie Hawtin for woodwinds and booming tubas. I'm coming from a more ambient, electronica place — I'm always aware that I'm playing off something while delving into unique textures and expanded sonari."

The B-Sides, which will have its full debut for three nights with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, consists of five movements inspired by archetypal ambient moods — from the buzzing insects and tropical evocations of "Aerosol Melody Hanalei" to astronautical voice transmissions and blankets of static in "Gemini and the Solar Winds." "Wharehouse Medicine," which the YouTube Symphony debuted, is like a nifty bit of Leonard Bernstein pumped up with chattering clicks and back-ear bass that energetically summons up the chillout rooms of yore. If it seems odd that Bates references vinyl in his title, while combining laptop rumination and live orchestration, don't sweat it. "I was thinking back to the experimental freedom that B-sides once afforded to groups like Pink Floyd — surgical strikes into trippy terrain."

Bates will also be bringing his outstanding Mercury Soul project (www.mercurysoul.org), conceived with conductor Benjamin Shwartz and visual artist Anne Patterson, to Davies after the May 22 symphony performance and to Mezzanine (www.mezzaninesf.com) on May 28. Mercury Soul "is almost a negative image of what I do with an orchestra," Bates says, "where I DJ and we create a club atmosphere interspersed with live performances of contemporary works by the likes of Steve Reich and John Luther Adams."

"Look, I know a laptop is never going to be as expressive as a fiddle," Bates says, a twang of his Virginian upbringing coming through. "And a CD installation pack may never rival the power of a written score. But if I can expand and screw around with orchestral space that way, then it definitely meets my intent."

Actual publication date was May 12, 2009.