Symphonic Electronica DJ Makes Club Music for the Concert Hall

Composer Mason Bates’ “symphonic electronica” is not for the easy listener

| November-December 2009

  • DJ in Concert Hall

    image by Guru Khalsa

  • DJ in Concert Hall

This has been a breakthrough year for Mason Bates. The 32-year-old composer was a highlight of the inaugural concert by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra—the international ensemble culled from online auditions—held at Carnegie Hall in April. Bates was on hand to perform a sneak preview of his latest large-scale work, The B-Sides, before its full premiere in May with the San Francisco Symphony.

While much of the discussion focused—with varying degrees of skepticism—on the innovative audition process via YouTube videos, Bates’ piece offered a taste of innovation of another sort: Bates belongs to an emerging generation of composers who refuse to accept the notion of a stark divide between classical and popular idioms.

For Bates, that means cross-pollination between his orchestral compositions and the spinning he does at international club hot spots under the DJ name Masonic. He uses the catchall term electronica to cover the dizzying variety of club music styles he mixes, from funk and trip-hop to French house. Bates also applies it to the hybrid works he creates for the concert hall, which he dubs “symphonic electronica.”

Don’t assume this leads to yet another pallid, watered-down attempt at “crossover” easy listening—a new generation’s answer to retro-kitsch artifacts of the disco era like “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Bates regrets that people who don’t know his music are sometimes all too ready to make snap judgments. “They think what they’re going to hear is just an import from the dance floor, with string overlays,” he says. “Often they assume that when a concert piece has electronics coming out of the pop world, that’s the number-one thing you do. I’ve even had people ask me, ‘So, did you ever actually study an instrument?’ ”

In fact, Bates was at home in the classical world well before he began his forays into the DJ club scene. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, he studied piano, took composition lessons from Dika Newlin, one of Arnold Schoenberg’s last pupils, and received an orchestral commission from a youth orchestra. Soon he was on his way to Juilliard. 

In New York Bates discovered the allure of the thriving downtown club culture and started developing his DJ alter ego. But instead of compartmentalizing his musical experiences, the budding composer found in them a seamless continuum. Bates describes his approach to music as “listener intensive,” referring to the “substantive and immersive experiences” through which he aims to beguile an audience’s curiosity—whether it’s in the concert hall or on the dance floor.

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