Some people hear the future of classical music when they hear the music of Mason Bates. On one level, he's OK with that. He just turned 30. He plans to spend most of his life in the future.
How he'll play the futurist's role in an art form preoccupied with the past is trickier.
The Richmond-bred composer, a 1995 graduate of St. Christopher's School, will be in Washington, D.C., this weekend to premiere his "Liquid Interface" with the National Symphony Orchestra. He describes the piece as "a kind of water symphony," evoking water in its frozen, flowing and steamy states, and its profound, often violent interplay with human and other life.
Click on links below for a sample of Mason Bates' music.
Icarian Rhapsody (1)
New music couldn't help but stand out in this NSO program, otherwise devoted to two 19th-century warhorses: Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony. "Liquid Interface" will make extra waves, though, because it introduces electronic sound into the normally all-acoustic symphony environment.
"Symphonic musicians get unsettled when they see speakers and wires and some guy with a laptop in the percussion section," Bates says. "I have to get over a certain level of misunderstanding, sometimes even contempt."
Highbrow anxiety might rise after a visit to Bates' Web site, www.masonicelectronica.com. One click leads to Mason Bates, contemporary composer, with an impressive curriculum vitae (Juilliard, Berkeley, Prix de Rome, Berlin Prize), a schedule of performances and audio samples of recent works. Another path leads to "DJ and electronica artist Masonic," performing at raves, in sound installations and other ventures way off the classical track.
"The two musics actually have something important in common," Bates says by phone from Northern California, where he's completing doctoral work at Berkeley. "Both electronica and classical music take the listener into sounds without words, where you become more conscious of colors and textures, rhythms and harmonies."
Computer-generated and other electronic sounds are numerous and varied enough to create a virtual orchestra, a capacity Bates-as-Masonic exploits in his electronica. In his symphonic works, however, he says, "I think of electronica not as an alternate orchestra but as an additional percussion instrument one that's also capable of adding big sonorities and atmospheric sounds."
"You've got to keep it simple," he's found. "There's a limited amount of time to rehearse, to tie the orchestral and electronic sounds together. Acoustics are a huge consideration electronic ambience can easily interfere with orchestral presence. Also, the brain processes electronic sounds differently from acoustic sounds.
"You can't [compose] electronic sounds that are too complicated too dense or heavily textured in a resonant space like a symphony hall or a big empty warehouse," he says. "The sounds crowd up on one another. What works better is slower, more rhythmic, kind of trip-hop beats slow-motion hip-hop without the rap."
Bates has learned to apply electronics judiciously to orchestral scores. "There's an inverse proportion of musical effectiveness to the amount of time electronica are used. And I would never encourage anybody to add electronica to the mix until they have a handle on the orchestra. You have to feel comfortable with all the sounds, all the surprises, an orchestra can produce."
Bates was symphonic before he was electronic. His first major work, "Free Variations for Orchestra," dates from 1994, his senior year at St. Christopher's, when he was studying piano with Hope Armstrong Erb and composition with the late punk performance artist and piano prodigy Dika Newlin.
"Dika was really my only contact with the alternative-music scene in Richmond," Bates recalls. "I was a West End kid" eldest of three children of Dr. Robley Bates, a Richmond urologist, and his wife, Louise "deep into learning classical music and composition, attending a prep school with kids learning how to be movers and shakers."
Now living a continent away, nudging a tradition-bound music into the future, Bates values the "grounding" of his Richmond upbringing. "It gave me a respect for history and tradition and also gave me a sense of the dramatic. And I think it contributed to my wanting to communicate with everybody, which isn't the case with some new-music people." S
Leonard Slatkin conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in first performances of Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface" in concerts Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 23, at 1:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Tickets are $20-$80. Call (800) 444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.