Some people raise eyebrows at computers in the concert hall. When Mason Bates begins his two-year term as a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in September, he’ll bring his electronica-infused compositions with him and challenge what audiences think along the way.
Bates, 33, wants to win over skeptics by showing us the places music takes him. “It never worked for me to think of it as going fishing for souls,” says the Virginia-raised composer, who moonlights as DJ Masonic and spins hip-hop and house in dance clubs all over the world. His earliest blended pieces interweave percussive electronic sounds with acoustic instruments, often with Bates himself cuing the electronica on a drum pad. “The electronics are propulsive and rhythm based half the time,” he says. “The other half I use it to go places, to travel and evoke.” His composition The B Sides features conversation between an astronaut and ground control during a space walk, repeating snippets in ways that suggest Steve Reich. Music from Underground Spaces uses earthquake recordings to transport listeners inside tectonic plates. Bates compares these kinds of electronics to thunder sheets or wind machines—electronica as superpercussion section.
And what will CSO fans think about a laptop occupying prime territory in Symphony Hall? In Digital Loom, Bates moves in and out of a soundscape similar to that of a parlor organ with tremolo and distant church bells, grounding listeners in the familiar, but cheek by jowl with the new. “Is it an artistically coherent and fresh and new experience?” he says he asks himself. “Then it will be that way for the audience.”
In addition to creating several new pieces for the CSO, Bates and his fellow composer-in-residence, Anna Clyne, will curate the MusicNOW contemporary chamber series. The first MusicNOW concert, which features Digital Loom as well as pieces by Clyne and the Chicago composer Marcos Balter, comes to the Harris Theater on October 4th.
Photograph: Ryan Schude