Mason Bates Interview

Mason Bates, Musical America’s 2018 Composer-of-the-Year, is a breath of fresh air in a room that is often accused of lacking ventilation! Mason is, at once, edgy yet traditional, intuitive and insightful, curious and experimental, and more willing to test the preconceived boundaries of the concert stage than possibly any composer before him. Small wonder that he is the number two most performed American composer! His performances are a mixture of DJ and symphony orchestra, electronics and acoustical instruments working in sync – in a way that has never been done before. Mason has found a way to take the immovable quality of most electronic music and then be able to humanize it, by his participating in performances as a DJ.

Mason and I had the opportunity to spend some time together in Brazil, performing his work, Mass Transmission, together. A little later, we met for this interview, as he was putting the finishing touches on his stunning new opera, Steve Jobs.

Jonathan Dimmock: Mason, lI’m trying to look inside music, what it’s attempting to “say” to us, and where it’s going as an art form.  What’s your take on what it is that you feel you, yourself, are trying to say.  You’re melding the DJ technique with Classical musicians.  Your technique is eye-opening to me.  It’s thinking outside of the box.  How did you come to this?  And where do you think music may be headed?  What is it we try to find when we play or compose music?

Mason Bates:  What’s interesting to me is the different perceptions people have. I feel there’s a real continuity between the programatic composers of the 19th century, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, who were searching for new sounds as a way to tell a narrative.  A lot of people hear electronic dance music and recognize that there is something continuous with composers like Gershwin, who brought jazz and classical music together.  I actually like that ambiguity.  For me, the missed opportunity would be if this is only about the crossover between classical music and electronica.  Because what we do in classical music, that doesn’t exist in other kinds of music, is a kind of deeper listening – which is not to disparage classic rock, blues, or jazz – but the detailed resolution, and the listening perception is a lot deeper.

We’re not just listening for sound.  We don’t want to use classical instruments as merely a production element.  It’s not a techno-track.  We’re trying to tell deeper stories.  So when I look at, say, Symphonie Fantastique, and all the crazy, exotic orchestral effects that tell that story, that love story, I see a way to do that kind of thing, 150 years later, using digital technology.  Not only can you bring in beats of electronica and techno, but once you have the speakers involved, you have to ask where the sound is coming from, and what is the content that is attached to this sound.

So, in Mass Transmission, yes there are a lot of beats that push the piece forward, but I wanted it all to come out of the source material of the piece – which, in that case, was radio history.  While my own electronic background came out of my work as a DJ, and my interest in electronica, I think what I realized after a few years of integrating, was that there’s actually a connection to older symphonic music history on the level of form and content, sounds and narrative.  And that’s something that I really don’t think is explored today in contemporary music where we’re in a world of more process-based stuff, like minimalism, post-minimalism, post-serialism.  That concept is about taking your material to generate other things.  But a lot of people aren’t asking the questions that were asked in the 19th century: namely,  how can we use this massive form, the symphonic form, to tell stories, to tell narrative.  I think that’s a fascinating opportunity for music.

JD:  Regarding deeper listening and telling stories, this is not only what separates classical music from other kinds of music in general, but it also explains why people criticize our music by saying they wouldn’t want to listen to it on the radio.  The radio is for background!  To tell a whole story requires being present.  So that brings up an interesting question:  As we have a society that increasingly is unable to be present, because of social media and decreased attention spans, what do you think the ramifications might be for us as Classical musicians?

MB:  This makes what we do endangered.  People who are used to 140 characters, or 6-second videos, may never be able to penetrate a 35-40 minute symphony.  On the other hand, I like to look at it more optimistically.  It really makes what we do more valuable and rare.  It’s like a hand-written note today – a hand written thank you note.  When you get a hand-written note, you think: What a gentleman!  Because that’s basically gone extinct because of email.  I think the classical experience can be a bit of a refuge from the world that we are living in now.  Going into a concert hall and being able to have that incredibly deep, visceral listening experience that doesn’t really exist in many other kinds of music, gives us a leg up.  The challenge is that it has to be attached to thoughtful production.

I do think that, in order to engage new listeners, we do have to think about the way we present format.  Here we are at Davies Hall right now, where the San Francisco Symphony can present some real visionary material.  Between New World and SFS, and You Tube Symphony, and Sound Box, it’s extraordinary! But the format is the key!

I have a couple of analogous projects:  Mercury Soul, which is a club show that has classical music integrated into it. The other is Music now with Chicago Symphony, and at Kennedy Center where I have a series called Jute Box.  The basic goal is the same, which is to take the program book and bring it into the 21st century.  (Essentially it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.). And to define a 3-dimensional way of presenting information to people.  The key is that we never want to give up that thing which is most valuable in our world, which is that deep listening experience.  If we just play covers of Beatles tunes, or videos over classical music, that’s not going to work.  But if you can put a frame around classical works, whether it be lighting or video, and then when people start playing, you direct their attention absolutely to that performance.  That’s totally cool!

JD:  Even the way we dress!  We wear 19th century garb on the Davies Hall stage.  Where do you see the visuals going in the future?  How will people be experiencing the music?  Do you think it will be more and more like Soundbox, almost a nightclub setting?

MB:  Well, if it’s a symphonic situation, as opposed to chamber music plus, then you really have to reckon with symphonic concert halls.  I still think there’s a huge amount we can do to bring production into the concert hall, and bring social platforms into the concert hall.  At the Kennedy Center, I’m working on a series called “De-Classified,” which is in the concert hall.  Social hangs are organized in the lobby.  Then you go into the concert hall where there is immersive lighting and video-cinematic program notes.  The challenge is that we’ve all become such instinctive critics of production, because we’re Americans and watch tons of movies.  If you don’t do that very well, it can look like a PowerPoint.  So you have to spend a lot of resources on it.

I think there are a few ways to spend money in Classical music now that actually transform the format, the experience, the program book, and the lighting, It sounds superficial, but it really helps the listening experience if you can go into a magical theater space where things are dark, and the orchestra gets illuminated, and maybe if you know all about Brahms, but maybe you learn a little bit more because there’s a video interview with the pianist that’s going to play the concerto.  Then you a learn a little bit from their perspective.  And of course we have the benefit of editing.

JD:  It’s actually an ancient concept because the medieval cathedrals were intended to engage all five senses.  In the concert hall, we’ve taken this down to one dimension:  namely sound.  While we do it really well, not everyone can think in just one dimension anymore.

MB:  There are unbelievable forces allied to conspire against this change.  Some of them are psychological barriers.  Some are real; some not.  Most orchestras have a complicated relationship with the people who do the program books, with the advertising, etc.  And there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t find a way to tastefully incorporate sponsorship into projected program notes, or lighting.  But you start to get a lot of resistance from these institutions, or you get, on the development side, “well our older subscribers aren’t going to like that.”  I get so frustrated with institutions underestimating the adventurousness of their older patrons.  Sure you might get some initial resistance, but what they want to see is a lively experience that can be sustainable.  Having it be immersive, and having information being almost ambient, so that you catch it while you’re getting a drink, before you learn a little about it on a projected surface, that’s the way we doubled or almost tripled our audience in the Chicago Symphony’s Music Now program.  We would have 1000 people come in on a Monday night to hear concerts kind of like Soundbox.  Up from 300 when we started.  There was a creative blend of immersive production and projected program notes, and also partying with local DJs to give music before and after the concert, making sure the crowd was aware of things.  But it’s never going to happen going inch by inch, changing one thing at a time.  You really have to re-think the whole experience.

There are a couple institutions that are doing that, and there are many that could be doing it, but they feel like they have to justify the change.  Why should it have to be a new series?  Hey, if you go on a Friday night to the National Symphony, you don’t have to learn about it in advance, you can learn about it there.  That’s the experience that you get.  It should be the normal concert subscription program.  It doesn’t have to be a pops event or some special series.  I think the experience can be:  I know if I go to this symphony, that I’ll have a good time, and won’t necessarily need to read a tome of program notes.

JD:  Your Steve Jobs opera, how have you worked with the production staff about these concepts?

MB:  It has to start with the libretto and story.  One thing that Mark Hamill, the librettist, and I wanted to do is to have a non-linear, almost pixelated presentation of the life of Steve Jobs.  We didn’t want this to be another bio-pic movie.  We wanted to drop into various parts of his life, all of which connect to the idea of a man who wants to simplify our communication with beautiful devices.  But life doesn’t look like this; it’s much messier.  You might have cancer.  You might have a daughter out of wedlock.  You might have employees you don’t like.  So the idea of a pixelated narrative was one element of the story-telling, but how this gets into the production is that there’s a huge electronic component.  Every character has a very different sound-world.  Steve Jobs might be quick-silver electronica and acoustic guitar, whereas his wife might be oceanic strings, and the Spiritualizer is like an electronic nirvana of prayer bowels and windchimes and things.

The piece kind of begins and ends in the garage, one’s creative space.  In Silicon Valley, the garage is a mythical studio.  And it begins with that.  And as we see the young Steve Jobs, and his adopted father, who is a mechanical engineer, work together, we realize that the garage walls are blowing apart, and they become projection surfaces that, throughout the piece, build different scenes.  They’re a creative space that you work in.  You can project that to become the different scenes throughout your life.  So from the electronic sounds, to the complicated projection surface, down to the telling of the story, we’re trying to bring new story-telling to Opera.

JD:  When we create things, we’re fully engaged in the act of creation itself.  But do you ever think about what you hope people will take home with them following a concert?  How it makes them feel, think, etc.?

MB:  This is an interesting question because I can remember when I was a younger composer, at Juilliard, the idea of considering the listener’s experience was almost taboo!  I was coming in at the end of the period of the listener-be-damned!  John Corigliano transformed that for me.  He would say, “Let’s think about how this will impact the listener.”  My first response was, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  And he said:  It’s not like that at all.  If you’re writing a piece of music, everything is going to turn on the way the theme is transformed.  You better make sure that that’s perceptible!  If your theme is buried under a lot of orchestration, or if it’s not a very clear theme, your entire musical experience is not going to happen.

So, first of all, what is perceptible?  Basic question.  But that transforms outwardly to:  What are you trying to accomplish?  What do you want the take-away to be?  I think what I found is that I really enjoy the element of surprise, and the psychology of expectation, that music offers us, that a lot of other artistic forms don’t.  Visual arts is kind of, you see it: there it is.  But you give someone a piece of music that starts to unfold in a certain way.  Maybe it’s rhythmically based, or minimalist.  I love the idea that then you can go into a deeper space.  Once you have the listener with you, you can take that deep dive. So I believe you want to take the listener to all manner of deep experiences.  But you have to engage the body.  You have to be visceral.  Whether that be through harmony, rhythm, or perceptible, clear, melodic material, otherwise you won’t get there.

JD:  I’m reading a book about the way the body stores trauma.  And it’s all well and good to discuss things with psychologists, but if we don’t release the stored energy in the body, it stays there.  Which makes a lot of sense.  This piggy-backs on what you’re saying:  That if you don’t engage the body, you’ve missed the golden opportunity.  Engaging the mind, soul, and heart, is paramount, but if you can also engage the body, you have a more powerful tool at your disposal.

MB:  Think about something like jazz.  I’m so fascinated by it.  It’s the most complicated harmony you can get, that you still feel.  I love 12-tone pieces, and serial composers.  But no matter how complicated those frameworks are, you don’t really feel them!  Often, you don’t even hear the 12-tone row.  But with jazz, you have these amazing artists doing incredibly complicated things with harmony, and you can FEEL that.  It’s a complex experience, and yet it hits you as a human being.  That’s important.

JD:  Maybe that’s what the riot was about after the premiere of Rite of Spring.  It’s such a visceral piece, and it’s engaging the body (at that point in history, perhaps for the very first time).  It unleashed something, inside, that kind of frightened people about themselves!

MB:  I think the Russians are the best at doing this.  If you listen to some of the great ballet scores, they have this quality that’s practically etched!  The music, whether it be the Nutcracker, or the Rite of Spring, the material is so vibrant that it leaps off the page.  Not just the choice of the notes but the character of it.  When you shackle that power of the etched Russian sound to the very radical harmonies, I think it did provoke people to get up and scream and yell.  On the one hand they were so moved by it, and on the other hand, they were so frightened.

JD:  Like holding a mirror really close to your face!

And your music, the way you use beats!  I can’t listen to your music and sit completely still as if I’m meditating or something.  It pulls me in on a physical level. You’ve built that signature in your music.

MB:  Well it’s something buried in American music.  Gershwin’s infectious rhythms and French harmony are also incredible.  I always like the Yin and Yang.  If you have something that is incredibly infectious, it’s nice to take the plunge.  If you take a piece like Alternative Energy which SFS recorded here a couple years ago, it’s very much propelled by a bluesy recollection of Henry Ford in the late 19th century (junkyard percussion, fiddle).  But by the time you get propelled into present-day Chicago, and you get this massive particle accelerator waking up around the audience, swirling around, you’ve really been taken on a journey further than you expected.  You really need the visceral elements of music, rhythm and harmony, and very perceptible, clear melodic material to get to that deep space.  I think the challenge is always that Bernstein question of:  It needs to be fresh.  Can it be powerful and absolutely inevitable and still original?  And that’s what I spend so much time doing in my studio, throwing out material that’s possibly beautiful or interesting, but it’s already been there.