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Drinking With Mason Bates

Over expensive cocktails at the Aviary, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence talked Steely Dan, gin, and his plan for the MusicNow series.

photo: graham meyer

We had a taste of the good life at the Aviary with Mason Bates, one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composers-in-residence.

“Is there any room in the Office, by any chance?” we ask as our check arrives at the Aviary. A yes comes back with my credit card, along with an admonishment to wait for an escort—not that we know where to go, anyway.

“Dude, I think they’ve sniffed you out,” says Mason Bates, one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composers-in-residence. Possible. I do have a conspicuous digital recorder on the banquette between us, but I think it’s him. The CSO publicist made the reservation in his name, one of the most recognizable in contemporary music.

Bates, 36, began his appointment with the CSO for the 2010–11 season, along with his fellow composer-in-residence, Anna Clyne. In April, his contract was extended through 2014–15. He and Clyne curate the CSO’s MusicNow series of new-music concerts, each followed by a reception with pizza and beer (including Goose Island’s excellent Matilda) open to all concertgoers.

The next MusicNow installment happens June 3 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and includes Bates’s own world premiere Difficult Bamboo, a piece where the conventions of music about nature, such as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, are upended by exploring an invasive species. “What if the nature piece is overrun by nature?” asks the chamber work, Bates says. “It starts pleasant, minimal, mellow, then becomes chromatic and goes off the rails, gets kooky.” Bamboo is represented by an “unkillable musical motif,” he says.

In the Office, we’re shown to two leather chairs that I’m pretty sure my grandfather owned. There’s actually plenty of space in here, except on the walls, which are loaded with well-lit art. In the dimmer center of the room, I plan to take my flash picture of the experience closer to when we leave, in case I get kicked out for it.

Bates tells me he got kicked out of Bourbon & Branch, a new-wave cocktail bar in San Francisco. After a bad day, he wanted to stay and have a drink at the bar, but all the seats were spoken for with imminent reservations. He pragmatically observed that the place was empty, but the staff’s gentle nos escalated to, “Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”

That theme of populism clashing with the trappings of artistry recurs throughout our conversation. The obvious trigger, $20 cocktails, leads us to food sourcing, menus calling out the yoga instructors of humanely raised animals, and democratizing the concert experience. The day after our Office visit, Bates ran a happening called Mercury Soul, where audience members at Metro in Lake View alternately heard electronic dance music and live orchestral classical music.

We also went through Jorge Luis Borges’s Handbook of Fantastical Zoology, how Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Petite Prières is way harder to sing than it sounds, the draw of heroin paraphernalia, “Flowers for Algernon,” flavor characteristics of gin, Steely Dan vis-à-vis cheese, cutting Die Meistersinger down to size, and identity theft.

Having blitzed through Chicagomag.com’s drink budget already upstairs at the Aviary, I change my mind and snap Bates with a full glass, on the theory that if we get kicked out, we’ll save $25 apiece. They pretend not to notice, and by the time we leave, it’s us who are well lit.

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