Mason Bates: Electronica, Meet Orchestra
(Soundbite of song, Siren Music")
GUY RAZ, host:
As a teenage composer, Mason Bates listened to the giants of classical music: Handel, Mozart, Bach. But when he left his home in Virginia and headed to New York City to study at Julliard, he started going out to dance clubs and all-night raves.
And it was at those clubs where he discovered electronic music. And in his mind, those two worlds: classical and electronic, collided.
(Soundbite of song, "Siren Music")
RAZ: This is one of Mason Bates' original compositions. It's called "Siren Music." Next Sunday, in Sydney Australia, more than a hundred musicians from around the world will perform one of his compositions. It's called the YouTube Orchestra, and the concert will stream live on the internet.
Mason Bates is the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and on the side, a club DJ who mixes beats and sounds at some of the top dance clubs in the world under the name DJ Masonic.
Mr. MASON BATES (Composer-in-residence, Chicago Symphony Orchestra): I never really thought of these two things as compatible when I first started getting interested in deejaying back when I lived in New York about 10 years ago.
I started to really get interested in spinning in San Francisco because it has such an interesting, diverse scene. And I would really keep these two lives pretty separate. I'd be writing a piece for the Phoenix symphony, and then I would go and DJ for a couple hours at a club somewhere in San Francisco.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BATES: I started to realize that while it is a schizophrenic personality, it can be integrated. And that's when I started to bring electronics into my symphonic music. And that was a real revelation.
RAZ: I want everyone to get a sense of how different your styles are in which you compose of. First, let's just hear some of your electronic work, something you would play at a club in Berlin or Milan.
(Soundbite of song, "Blues 7")
Mr. BATES: Well, "Blues 7," which is the first track on my CD "Digital Loom," has these huge kind of hip-hop or what you might call trip-hop beats that are interacting with these kind of watery piano sounds and 12-string guitar samples.
(Soundbite of song, "Blues 7")
Mr. BATES: It's probably a little more abstract than the music that I would spin at the top of a night at a club somewhere, but it's absolutely out of the world of electronica.
RAZ: Half of your time, you're sort of under these small lights in a darkened club, turning and twisting knobs and playing music like this and even sort of more danceable music. And then half of your life you're doing stuff like this, which is a composition for an orchestra.
(Soundbite of song, "Liquid Interface")
Mr. BATES: Well, "Liquid Interface" is a kind of water symphony for the 21st century. If you imagine Debussy's "La Mer" or "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" by Wagner, these are great pieces about water. I always wanted to write a symphony that would encounter the different kinds of states of water with electronics to bring it to life.
So at the beginning of "Liquid Interface," you would hear the sounds of glaciers. You hear actual recordings of glaciers made in Antarctica on top of these mammoth, orchestral textures that explode in the upper registers.
And that kind of interaction between the electronics and the orchestra is something that I get a ton of inspiration out of.
RAZ: Electronic music is mainstream music in most of the world, except for in the United States. And I - and it's interesting to me because it seems as if classical and electronic are kind of naturally compatible. You know, you've got these big sounds, these big sort of Wagnerian sounds, and then you think of the sounds that are produced in dance halls by, you know, some of the biggest DJs in the world.
We spoke a couple months ago about Gabriel Prokofiev, who is the grandson of Sergei.
Mr. BATES: Right.
RAZ: He's a club DJ like you, and a composer, and of course, the grandson of this incredibly famous composer.
Mr. BATES: It's a great point. The spaces were music lives, those are critically important in the way that we experience that music. It's interesting that techno music was born in these huge warehouses of Detroit, and it became very much about kind of filling these massive spaces with this thumping electronic music.
When I go to concert halls, I find the one thing, in a way, that I don't have to battle with is the acoustics because the acoustics of the spaces that orchestras live in, they are often as resonant as the kind of large clubs where electronic music was born and currently flourishes.
RAZ: I mean, Handel was writing music for cathedrals.
Mr. BATES: Right. You know, orchestrally, you have this huge palette to deal with, but you also have these incredibly resonant spaces to work with. And when you're spinning in a, you know, 20,000-square-foot club, you're also dealing with the kind of massive space that you might have to deal with in a concert hall, a completely different kind of vibe. But it's interesting how compatible those spaces are.
RAZ: Mason, I think it's March 20th, about 100 musicians from 30 countries are going to perform at the Sydney Opera House, and Michael Tilson Thomas from the San Francisco Symphony is going to lead them. They are going to be performing, in addition to several pieces, one of your compositions, "Mothership."
(Soundbite of song, "Mothership")
Mr. BATES: YouTube had this idea of bringing all of these musicians together and presenting a concert that would use all the bells and whistles of 21st century technology and broadcasting it on the Web.
RAZ: It's going to be streaming live.
Mr. BATES: That's right. And that doesn't happen with orchestras. It's an incredible thing to take an orchestra concert, film it in high-definition and stream it around the world.
They wanted a new piece that could integrate a couple of soloists from around the world in the composition, in an improvisatory way. And I was thinking: How is that going to work? It's very difficult to do much on the level of improv with an orchestra.
I mean, at the end of the day, you have 100 musicians that all need to stay together. So I went to my studio, and I thought about it, and I came up with this idea of the orchestra as mothership. What if the orchestra was sort of drifting through space, and at various times in the piece, these soloists kind of dock with the mothership, play their solo for about a minute each and then go on their merry way.
So what you hear in the piece is this orchestra humming along. And at several moments in the piece, it kind of downshifts and lets in the soloists. They groove over the orchestra for a few minutes, and then it kicks back into gear and goes deep, deeper into space, I suppose.
RAZ: It's such a powerful piece. I can't wait to see that on March 20th on YouTube. That's Mason Bates. He's a classical composer, club DJ and currently the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony.
In a few days, 101 musicians from around the world will perform his composition "Mothership" in Sydney, Australia, as part of the YouTube Orchestra.
Mason Bates, thank you so much.
Mr. BATES: Thank you, Guy. It's great to be here.
(Soundbite of song, "Mothership")
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz here at NPR West in Southern California. You can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday nights.
We say goodbye today to Mathoni Muturi. She's been sitting in the editor's chair for the past two months. She's back to her other job on NPR's Washington desk. Mathoni, thanks for making us sound better.
We're back on the radio from Washington, D.C. next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.
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