BATES: The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica

Mason Bates was born on January 23, 1977, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (though he grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and considers Richmond his home town), and currently resides in Burlingame, California. He composed The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra & Electronica on a commission from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, with the generous support of the Ralph I. Dorfman Commissioning Fund. He completed the score in early 2009. The final section, “Warehouse Medicine,” was first performed at Carnegie Hall by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, in April 2009. The San Francisco Symphony gave the world premiere of the complete work in May 2009, with the composer on electronica. The B-Sides is dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition to the electronica part, performed by the composer, the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second an optional doubling of English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended and crash cymbals, high triangles, sandpaper blocks, tambourine, high woodblocks, castanets, snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, djembe, large broom, typewriter, and oil drum), harp, piano (doubling celesta), and strings. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.

Dialogue between classical and popular music—particularly with regard to dance idioms—has taken many forms through the centuries. Think of how Bach incorporates stylish dance meters in his various partitas and suites, or of Stravinsky snatching ideas from American ragtime to use in L’Histoire du soldat.

Influence can work in the reverse direction as well. Fascination with classical memes ranges across a wide spectrum, from the mock-kitsch of “A Fifth of Beethoven” in the disco era to Beck’s sampling of Schubert or the guest appearance of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in the Kelis tune “Like You.”

The perceived rift between classical and popular music became especially stark in the twentieth century in part because audiences and contemporary composers lost their sense of connection with each other. Yet that seemingly insurmountable barrier has crumbled and is rapidly turning into a clich√© from the past. Much as composers of earlier generations did, today’s younger composers unselfconsciously draw on all their musical experiences, a tactic they view as a birthright rather than a source of anxiety.

Feedback between different musical realms—and from other artistic disciplines as well, particularly in his theatrical sensibility—permeates the work of Mason Bates. Bates has a solid classical foundation and is steadily building a body of works across the traditional media, including orchestral, chamber music, and music theater compositions. Now thirty-six, Bates also pursues an active career as a DJ, spinning and mixing at clubs under the moniker “Masonic.” Even though his personal website (masonbates.com) invites the visitor to choose between his activities in “electronica” and “classical,” one thing that sets the composer apart is how convincingly he balances these different personae. “Eventually,” as Kyle Gann aptly puts it (in an in-depth profile that appeared in Symphony magazine in 2006), “someone was bound to grow up so immersed in genre-mixing that they would get both sides of the equation right.”

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Bates in fact began on the classical side of the equation, although his family wasn’t unusually musical. He studied piano, sang in choruses, and later took composition classes from the legendary Dika Newlin, a fellow Richmond denizen who was among the last surviving pupils of Schoenberg and who became a punk rock performer as a septuagenarian. Bates captured the attention of conductor Robert Moody, and the connection led to his first orchestral commission, Free Variation,which he composed when he was seventeen.

It was while Bates was pursuing simultaneous degrees in composition and English literature in the Columbia-Juilliard joint program that he discovered a thriving club culture in the Lower East Side and began honing his skills as a DJ artist. He found a composition mentor in John Corigliano and also studied with Samuel Adler and David Del Tredici. Bates moved to the Bay Area in 2001 to enroll in the Ph.D program at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies.

While Bates’s composing career continues to expand with various high-profile commissions, “Masonic” maintains a busy schedule spinning live electronica throughout San Francisco’s club scene. He prefers that term (“electronica”) to “electronic music” since “the trajectory of almost every classical composer into electronics has been through computer music,” according to Bates. “But that’s not really where I come from.”  “Electronica” is the genre name Bates uses to cover the wide-ranging field of contemporary dance music (another term that was in vogue in the 1990s was “IDM,” or “intelligent dance music”). “What I like about electronica as a name,” he says, “is that it implies a focus on propulsive rhythmic elements but also on beautiful and atmospheric sonic exploration.”

Through a series of orchestral works—including the San Francisco Symphony commission from 2009 we hear on this program—Bates has been exploring post-minimalist hybrids between the acoustic sounds of the traditional orchestra and the toolkit of techno beats and digital samplings controlled from his laptop. “What separates Bates from a lot of other would-be crossovers,” Gann observes, “is his authenticity in both fields.” A series of orchestral works feature some sort of interface between acoustic ensemble and electronica, while Ode—which was commissioned to complement a program of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—is an acoustic piece that samples the Beethoven but presents it in a reverse trajectory.

The presence of the electronica elements goes beyond a matter of merely adding texture. Years of involvement in this world have left a mark on a more fundamental level. “DJing changed my approach to classical music,” Bates notes. “It changed my sense of time.” After his period as a student in New York, he spent a couple of years in both Rome and Berlin, where he was an active participant in the thriving techno-music scene of those two cities (in Berlin, one of his projects involved a collaboration with musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic for a mix of contemporary classical and electronica). Bates recalls playing one of his entirely acoustic pieces for American composer William Bolcom (a work for prepared piano), who remarked that his work in electronica was “stretching out the form of a piece so that it’s constantly changing, but on a more gradual level.”

With The B-Sides, Bates found an opportunity to challenge himself in a new way. One evening in November 2007, during the intermission of a San Francisco Symphony concert, Michael Tilson Thomas invited him backstage to discuss a possible new commission. “It was between Tchaikovsky and Brahms that Michael Tilson Thomas broached the idea of a new work,” Bates writes in his note to the piece. “He suggested a collection of five pieces focusing on texture and sonority—perhaps like Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Since my music had largely gone in the other direction—large works that bathed the listener in immersive experiences—the idea intrigued me. I had often imagined a suite of concise, off-kilter symphonic pieces that would incorporate the grooves and theatrics of electronica in a highly focused manner. So, like the forgotten bands from the flipside of an old piece of vinyl, The B-Sides offers brief landings on a variety of peculiar planets, unified by a focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities and the morphing rhythms of electronica.”

Bates further points out that the Schoenberg model had special relevance for him, since it was music he had come to know earlier in his life. Five Pieces (from 1909) is a work Bates admires both because of its “intense focus on texture” but also because of the “conceptual and quasi-narrative element” conveyed by the suggestive titles of each piece. In several of his works involving orchestra and electronica (including Liquid Interface, which the SFS performs next week), Bates filters the old-fashioned gestures of program music through a postminimalist sensibility, drawing the listener into sonic spaces evoked by samplings from nature—for example, of calving glaciers or the humid night sounds of the South.

But the brevity of the form—relatively short pieces of several minutes each—is at the far end of the spectrum from the context of a techno club, where the DJ can shape the experience over the leisurely rhythm of hours on the dance floor. “Your patience is much shorter in the concert hall,” Bates says. “I’ve found that what works is music with a lot of trap doors, music that keeps you guessing.”

The strategy Bates opts for in The B-Sides is to coax the audience into each of the five environments he explores: He compares their focus to “surgical strikes” of sound. Yet before we can become comfortable with any of them, he snatches us away to a new landscape. (Bates will be present to tweak the electronica part live from his laptop and drum pad;  orchestras also have the option of performing the piece without him, using a percussionist to launch the preprogrammed electronica.) In fact, relatively little of the sounds of club culture pervades The B-Sides. What Bates does import is a more abstract sense of evolving forms and rhythms, which are threaded through the particular images he touches on in each piece.

In terms of overall shape, the odd-numbered pieces involve electronica, while the two even-numbered movements are essentially acoustic, although techno beats enter at the end of the acoustic fourth piece (“Temescal Noir”) to begin shifting the music into a new groove before we’re finished with the one under way. This borrows the technique of “tempo changing” from the DJ world—which is as central to techno as harmonic modulation is to music from the classical period.

The third piece (“Gemini in the Solar Wind”) is not only the longest of the set but its emotional center, in which Bates’s sense of what he calls “theatrical space” is most apparent—“by which I mean anything that takes you out of the space that you’re in. You can always have something up your sleeve in electronics. These sounds don’t just provide beats but are providing voices.” The voices are in fact samplings from the Gemini IV space walk in 1965 (the communication recordings were generously provided by NASA). Overall, Bates says, he wanted to create “a bit of distance between the dance floor origins of electronica and the concert hall—you have to meet in the middle.”

Bates has provided the following description of The B-Sides:

The first stop is the dusky, circuit-board landscape of “Broom of the System.” To the ticking of a future clock, our broom--brought to life by sandpaper blocks and, at one point, an actual broom--quietly and anonymously keeps everything running, like a chimney-sweep in a huge machine. The title is from a short-story collection by David Foster Wallace, though one could place the fairy-like broom in Borges’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

The ensuing “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)” blooms on the Northshore of Kauai, where a gentle, bending melody evaporates at cadence points. Djembe and springy pizzicati populate the strange fauna of this purely acoustic movement, inspired by several trips with the Fleishhacker family. The lazy string glissandi ultimately put the movement, beachside, to sleep.

“Gemini in the Solar Wind” is a re-imagination of the first American spacewalk, using actual communication samples from the 1965 Gemini IV voyage provided by NASA. In this re-telling, clips of words, phrases, and static from the original are rearranged to show Ed White, seduced by the vastness and mystery of space, deliriously unhooking from the spacecraft to drift away blissfully.

His final vision of the coast of Northern California drops us down close to home. The initial grit of “Temescal Noir,” like the Oakland neighborhood of the title, eventually shows its subtle charm in hazy, jazz-tinged hues. Unbothered by electronics, this movement receives some industrious help in the rhythm department by a typewriter and oil drum. At its end, the broom returns in a cameo, again altering the tempo, and this propels us into “Warehouse Medicine.” An homage to techno’s birthplace--the empty warehouses of Detroit--the final stop on The B-Sides gives no quarter. Huge brass swells and out-of-tune pizzicati emulate some of the visceral sonorities of techno, and on this pounding note The B-Sides bows out.

The work is dedicated to Michael, whose impromptu composition lessons informed the work to an enormous degree, in addition to the countless concerts I have experienced while living in the Bay Area.  Many thanks, as well, to the wonderful musicians who have brought this to life.

—Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
Recordings: Mason Bates’s extensive website, masonbates.com, includes lists of upcoming performances and a complete list of compositions, as well as samples of his work.

Reading: Thomas May’s profile on Bates appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Listen Magazine. | Kyle Gann’s profile appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Symphony magazine.