Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Mason Bates Marries Sound of Icebergs Calving with Orchestral Melodies
Mason Bates, who composes on a computer, said he’s looking forward to spending more time in Sun Valley: “The first concert my kids went to was here five years ago.”
Monday, March 25, 2019


If Mason Bates were a bee, he’d be busy at the business of cross-pollinating.

Bates, who will have a residency with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony this summer, has one ear firmly turned toward classical music and the other tuned into the electronica beat of dance clubs where he often works as DJ.

But Bates sees no reason that classical and electronic music can’t be married. And that’s how he’s come up with such works as “Liquid Interface,” which uses actual sounds of icebergs calving.

Bates will perform that with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony during its 2019 performance season in Sun Valley. And he and the symphony’s Music Director Alasdair Neale offered a sneak peek during an Upbeat with Alasdair lecture held this past week at Ketchum’s Community Library.

Neale called Bates one of the most distinguished composers of the times at the young age of 42.

“He’s redefined what a 21st century orchestra can do with his electronica sound,” he said.

Bates recounted growing up a choir boy in Virginia—something that served him well when it came to writing for voice. Early on he was bitten by the composing bug, making up songs to the detriment of practicing piano.

Finally, his music teacher convinced him he needed to be skilled on at least one instrument to be an accomplished composer.

He came to classical music backwards, he said, becoming enamored with more modern composers like Gershwin, Bartok and Copland before becoming turned onto Beethoven and Mozart.

“They seemed a little distant at first,” he said.

He was commissioned to write a piece as a high school sophomore and his career was set.

It was when he headed to New York City to study at Julliard that he discovered electronic music at dance clubs and all-night raves. He began tripping out on the big techno beats, drums and bass, trip hop, downtempo and jungle sounds as he learned to turn and twist the knobs and turntables as a deejay.

And he further honed his familiarity with the alternate sound as he moved to the West Coast where he got a PhD at UC Berkeley.

At first, he kept his classical music palette separated from his electronic music life. Then he began blending the two.

He composed an energy symphony called “Alternative Energy” for the Chicago Symphony and a water symphony called “Liquid Interface” for the National Symphony Orchestra that premiered at Carnegie Hall.

He composed “Mothership,” a mix of acoustic and electronic elements that was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

He won a Grammy for the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an electronic opera performed by the Santa Fe Opera. And he was named Composer of the Year for 2018 by Musical America, the oldest American magazine on classical music.

In between those compositions, he became the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Neale and Bates played excerpts from “Liquid Interface,” during which Bates performs on an electronic drum pad and laptop.

The first movement features an ominous recording of glaciers crashing into the Antarctic Ocean layered on top of symphonic music. A haunting medley of strings follows, accelerating to lively drum and bass rhythms.

In each movement the temperatures rise as listeners feel the evaporation and hear the glaciers calving. One movement focuses on Crescent City, a focal point for tsunamis in California. This movement examines the destructive force as water grows, giving a nod to New Orleans, which has had its own water troubles, with a touch of Dixieland jazz swing.

The Crescent City part is “unbelievably virtuosic and fast,” said Neale.

As the thaw continues, blocks continue to crash as beats go from a slow trip-hop to an energetic bass. Droplets splash in the form of light electronic beats

Neale noted that electronic music is a natural extension of things like the wind machine used by Richard Wagner.

And, Bates pointed out, Pink Floyd promoted the use of electronic sounds in “Dark Side of the Moon.” And even the Beatles introduced some electronica to the world with the synthesizer and moog.

“At the end of the day, I just want it to be a robust work,” he said.


In addition to “Liquid Interface,” Mason Bates will perform “Passage,” which incorporates excerpts from JFK’s moonshot speech, with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony this summer. He also will perform “Devil’s Radio,” which he composed five years ago to mark the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s 30th anniversary.

The symphony season runs July 29 through Aug. 22.


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