Mason Bates’ opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs won the 2019 Grammy for Best Opera Recording. Chosen to be the first Composer-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Bates’ symphonic music has received widespread acceptance for its unique integration of electronic sounds and he was named the most-performed composer of his generation in a recent survey of American music. In 2018, he was named Composer of the Year by Musical America magazine.

A passionate advocate for bringing new music to new spaces, he is also a DJ and a curator, whether collaborating with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he had a residency, or with commercial clubs through his Mercury Soul project, who transforms clubs into post-classical raves that integrate classical music and electronica for packed crowds.

He has also composed music for films, included Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to catch up with Mason Bates at the Kennedy Center for this Conversation about his work, his philosophy and his upcoming state-of-the-art project.

STAY THIRSTY: How do you bring classical music to new audiences in new ways?

MASON BATES: Anyone of any background can be blown away by the deep listening experience of classical music. Certainly the field could enrich itself by expanding its programming to include more diverse voices. The biggest impact will come from adjustments to the concert experience. The program book will become more cinematic, and more dynamic production and staging will enliven the experience.

STAY THIRSTY: How would you describe your style, your view of production and your sense of stagecraft?

MASON BATES: I like a fluid and integrated experience, rich in ambient information and occasional surprises. Darkening up the hall and adding “social satellites” around the experience – bars and restaurants not run by catering companies – has created a much more welcoming environment in my curating projects. Using imaginative projected information and videos in the empty spaces of a concert allows everyone to learn without squinting at a lame Playbill. The more immersive and inviting the concert experience, the more programming freedom we’ll have.

Mason Bates - DJ

STAY THIRSTY: What do the skills involved in being a successful DJ add to the equation and how do they impact your productions?

MASON BATES: That’s a great question. Most people don’t even consider how DJing has helped me design concerts, but there are a lot of useful synergies. DJing requires a sensitivity to slowly evolving the energy in a room, mixing from one record to the next in a slow build (or the reverse). DJs also get attuned to the way large crowds interact with spaces. So many classical ensembles perform at the highest level in the world, yet they overlook crucial parts of the experience that shape the listening psychology.

Mason Bates performance

STAY THIRSTY: How did becoming the first composer-in-residence with the Kennedy Center change your career and your thinking?

MASON BATES: The Kennedy Center is an amazing place, a giant cruise ship of the performing arts filled with everything from ballet to hip hop. It’s been wonderful to work for a place with such high stature that any artist, no matter how famous, will consider an invitation to come by. But no question, as an artist I’m used to being much more nimble in my decision-making, and cruise ships don’t turn on a dime. So I’ve learned a bit about how to smuggle your vision through a vast organization and keep it intact.

STAY THIRSTY: Is there a difference in musical tastes and production appreciation between the people on the East coast of the United States vs. those on the West coast?

MASON BATES: I’m a half-breed of sorts: deep roots in Virginia (my family’s farm is full Southern Gothic, complete with a Bates cemetery), but firmly rooted for the past twenty years in San Francisco. There’s a benefit to putting down roots in very different parts of the country because you appreciate different audience perspectives. Generally, I find that East Coast audiences don’t give much thought to what’s happening on the West Coast, even though that’s where the most dynamic work is happening in my opinion. For what it’s worth, I consider the Third Coast to be an important middle ground. My five years working with the Chicago Symphony endeared the place to me. It’s one of my favorite cities.

Mason Bates

STAY THIRSTY: Do you think in terms of classical music or of contemporary music? Which genre tells your stories more successfully?

MASON BATES: I prefer the term “concert music” because it is agnostic – it simply defines the space where the music happens, and it implies a focused kind of listening that links both old and new classical music. But hey, I’m pretty sure the term “classical music” is here to stay.

STAY THIRSTY: What role do sound and light play in your productions?

MASON BATES: Sound is a fascinating, ninja-like element. People don’t realize how much sound can enhance an event. On a basic level, having a superb sound designer lightly re-enforce the instruments makes the experience more vivid (technological advancements have left the days of horrid amplification behind us). Beyond that, there’s a lot that subtle sound design can bring to a concert. For example, there’s often an uncomfortable silence between pieces on classical concerts while the stage is changed. I’ve experimented with ambient sounds and barely audible room noises that take the edge off the silence.

Mason Bates production

STAY THIRSTY: How important is music history in your conceptualization of productions?

MASON BATES: The days of reading liner notes while listening to a CD or LP are behind us, and many people learned a lot about music history that way. So we need to find new ways of adding historical context. I like to map projected information to the side walls of a concert hall, allowing the information to appear and disappear in an unobtrusive way. It’d be nice if we could create a liner note experience for mobile devices as tactile and inviting as the old LP covers.

STAY THIRSTY: How do social platforms fit into your overview for creating a new work?

MASON BATES: I’m admittedly a bit slow-footed with social media, but I really appreciate how these platforms raise awareness about what’s going on outside of New York and L.A. So many people heard about my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs because of the viral excitement on social media. 

STAY THIRSTY: What can we expect from your new symphony, Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra, and how do digital audio, video and animation figure into it?

MASON BATES: Philharmonia Fantastique is a dream project. I’ve been exploring dramatic forms in my symphonies for a long time, but this is the first time I’m actually including a visual narrative. The piece is a collaboration with director Gary Rydstrom of Lucasfilm and animator Jim Capobianco of Aerial Contrivance Workshop, and together we are flying a magical Sprite inside the instruments of the orchestra to see how they work.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.