Symphonic Electronica DJ Makes Club Music for the Concert Hall

article image
image by Guru Khalsa

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.

Accordingly, Bates began to embed elements from his tool kit of techno beats and digital samplings into his writing for traditional orchestra. This isn’t a matter of merely mixing in an ambient texture or souping up a bouncy “four-on-the-floor” beat with a film-score gloss. Over the past few years, he has been creating a series of orchestral works that have an ambitious narrative sweep–program music for the information age.

Bates faced a new challenge with The B-Sides, which unfolds as a suite of five varied pieces that “incorporate the grooves and theatrics of electronica in a highly focused manner,” he says. Bates likens them to “surgical strikes” of sound on disparate landscapes.

Bates drew inspiration from both the classical and pop ends of the spectrum. Schoenberg’s transitional Five Pieces for Orchestra–a work Bates admires for its “intense focus”–served as an overall model, while he was also influenced by the way such artists as electronica duo Mouse on Mars and classic rock band Pink Floyd weave orchestral lines into their sound fabric.

But the relative brevity of the work highlights an important distinction from Bates’ sound sculpturing as a DJ. “Your patience is much shorter in the concert hall,” he points out, in contrast to the leisurely span of hours on the dance floor, over the course of which a DJ can shape an overall experience through subtle transitions between moods. “I’ve found that what works in the concert hall is music with a lot of trapdoors, music that keeps you guessing.”

Bates acknowledges that orchestra players sometimes approach his work with an air of suspicion. “And then the ice will be broken at the first rehearsal, when they realize this isn’t just going to be a film score in the concert hall, that it’s a real orchestral experience where the electronic part is like a super-percussion section.” Bates typically takes part in the first performance, playing onstage with the orchestra. Wielding a laptop and drum pad, he tweaks the electronica in real time with the rest of the ensemble to work out balances and in-the-moment nuances. Merging the roles of composer, improviser, and DJ, he eventually sets up a preprogrammed version that can be launched by a percussion player without his live participation. 

“What’s wonderful for me is how excited orchestras become,” Bates says. “They come to realize that there are pieces being written that take elements of our plugged-in life and illuminate them on the concert stage.”

Bates doesn’t see anything particularly novel about bringing “just another piece of the world” into an orchestral environment: “When I studied Mozart, I began to notice how often he quotes dance tunes of the day. What it boils down to is having an omnivorous appetite, seeing musical possibilities everywhere.”

Excerpted from Listen (July-Aug. 2009), a new bimonthly magazine that covers “life with classical music.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.