Mason Bates has an interesting job. The Kennedy Center’s new Composer-in-Residence lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children. He still DJs, still works with orchestra and still tries to visit his family’s farm in Richmond. He continues his Jukebox series at the Kennedy Center tonight with a performance that merges classical music with DJing.
We spoke with the artist last November, in advance of this ambitious series. Consider going. It might be the most interesting show in D.C.
Brightest Young Things: What you do is extremely fascinating and not really well known in my world.
Mason Bates: Hopefully in the next couple of years we can try to spread the word better. I especially have gotten interested in merging the idea of social events and interesting and engaging artistic experiments. It usually ends up being really fun and also really enlightening. This first event is a perfect way to do something at the Kennedy Center that we could never do anywhere else just because of the amount of spaces we’re using and the touch of theatrical effects, that kind of thing.
BYT: How is this going to work or do you even want to explain it?
MB: It’s all about ambient music throughout the past century which might sound kind of strange. Actually, the first background music was christened in the 20s in France and it was called furniture music. That was sort of the beginning of the really rich history of music that’s been designed to go with environment. So in order to make that really work we decided to create three different kinds of lounges on the top floor of the Kennedy Center where audience members can just kind of float from space to space to kind of interact in not only with the Parisian music of the 1920s, furniture music, but also 1970s California minimalism and more current like 20th, 21st century electronica like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, that kind of thing.
BYT: When I think of ambient music, I instantly go to Aphex Twin and Matmos and stuff like that. I don’t usually think of classical.
You still work with giant orchestras and you write classical music and you’re known for writing classical music. How do these two intertwine?
MB: It’s interesting, the cultures are so different. But there are a lot of really awesome musical possibilities. I think basically because both of these musics are kind of challenging to listen to, and I mean challenging in that there’s no vocal line, there are no lyrics in electronic music, your ear has to go to these beautiful textures and intricate rhythms that electronic music creates and that’s not so far from the listening we do in the concert hall when we’re listening to the orchestra create these incredible textures and rhythms and harmonies. So I found that integrating the two in a substantive way has been a great way to expand the symphonic palette and sometimes that happens strictly in concert halls, sometimes they do it actually in clubs, sometimes there’s kind of like a hybrid event like the one we have next month, but you know the key for me is that while the cultures are different there actually is a kind of adventurous listening that people in both of those spaces do when they listen and I think that bringing them together has always been really inspiring to me.
BYT: One of the things that you do is that you work on a computer a lot of the times while in the midst of a performance. You’re using your computer as an instrument, unlike a lot of the other members of the orchestra who are focused, like a flutist, they play the flute. You’re playing a laptop but you’re also composing. For a lot of ambient music producers their entire instrument is their computer. So when you’re writing for an orchestra or writing for this, do you view that differently or do you kind of know what you’re doing when you’re doing it?
MB: If you’re writing electro-acoustic music or instruments and electronics I think it’s important to remember that instruments can out-synthesize almost any laptop especially an orchestra. An orchestra is kind of like the world’s greatest synthesizer. So when I’m creating electro-acoustic music for an orchestra I’ll often make sure that the electronic parts bring in sound that don’t double up on what the orchestra can already do so beautifully that is stuff that is really theatrical, I actually set a NASA recording of a spacewalk to music or sometimes that’s more sonic, like my piece “Mothership” has these machine-booting up sounds. But one thing that I don’t really need to worry about is using a bunch of synth pads, you can get a lot of that out of the orchestra itself.
BYT: So is there built in improvisation within that orchestra, within that piece?
MB: There is, there’s an opportunity for people to improvise. That’s not a really normal thing for orchestras to deal with so the way that we’ve made it work is that there are these two moments, kind of like sandboxes, where musicians can improvise, they’re given a lead sheet and if the orchestra can just roll with that – great, and they can bring other people in have their players play it and if they can’t they’re actually written out solos. So it’s the best of both worlds. I don’t know if that makes sense, it’s not a ton of improvisation but for an orchestra it’s actually quite a bit.
BYT: It’s not three guys in a jazz trio improvising, it’s lots of people.
MB: Yeah it’s kind of like you have to give the musicians a very defined space, that’s why I ended up calling the piece “Mothership” because the orchestra is the mothership. They’re docked by these improvisers who have a one minute super virtuosic solo. So the idea is them stepping on and off, like getting on and off a subway or something.
BYT: What do you listen to at home?
MB: I still listen to a fair amount of psychedelic rock like Pink Floyd, I’ve always loved mid-Beatles, late-Beatles. But probably the thing that’s most on my iPod would be more indie electronic like things like Mouse on Mars, Prefuse 73, definitely the more underground electronic groups. Not the Top 40 commercial like stuff. I also of course listen to a lot of symphonic music, and I do love a lot of jazz and funk, Tower of Power.
BYT: When did you start performing? Because you kind of have to go to school to do what you do and that’s not usually the route that most musicians take.
MB: I’m a pianist by training, I studied classical piano for many years and actually in the late 90s I performed with the Atlanta and the Phoenix symphonies on a concierto that I wrote. But the electronic performing, DJing was where I felt the most comfortable. Honestly it wasn’t necessarily something that I envisioned I would do, growing up in Virginia and not being very exposed to that world. Learning about what electronic sounds could do with an orchestra inspired me to find that integration work. So I do have a real music background – I studied at Julliard in actually playing piano. But the electronic stuff, the DJing, that definitely came after school.
BYT: You live in San Francisco, are you going to stay in San Francisco while you’re at the Kennedy Center?
MB: Well yeah, that’s where my family is – my kids and my wife are back there. I actually grew up in Richmond and my own family have a farm an hour and a half, two hours from the Kennedy Center and just on my last visit there I went and spent a couple of days there at the end. So the answer to that is yeah, while my kids will be out in San Francisco going to school and what not I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time in D.C. and that’s the way I really got to know Chicago when I was at the Chicago Symphony. With D.C., there’s even more of an opportunity for me to spend time there because I grew up very close by. So I really look forward to being there a lot and honestly if you’d want to stay in touch over email I would love to know what you think is cool and what’s going on. I just want to get out and figure stuff out.
BYT: It’s also a nice break from the wife and the kids, you get to stay out as long as you want and not need to worry.
MB: Yeah it’s amazing being off the leash and then when I go back to San Francisco – I mean I love it, I’m a family man – but I can’t stay out until 6 a.m. or anything because I have people who are going to be body slamming me right when I wake up.
BYT: What does your wife do?
MB: She is a scientist. She works on cancer research at a company called Gilead. She started actually as a ballerina in Seattle so she’s really an ideal listener in that she really knows music from a very deep place but it’s not like she has a PhD in it or anything so she’s kind of like the perfect listener.
BYT: How old are your children?
MB: Six and three.
BYT: This is great, so you have a wonderful balance. Your wife is literally saving the world from preventing cancer and you’re trying to bring musicians together in a way that hasn’t been done very much and you’re not afraid of technology and your kids are sort of creative types and higher educational types and you live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive, craziest cities in the country.
MB: It is, we really do love it here. She’s from the West Coast, she pulled me out here 15 years ago. But it’s amazing when I come back east, especially when I come back to the D.C./Richmond area, it has a really powerful pull for me. And I actually brought my son Oliver last visit and he came with me to the Kennedy Center and checked it out and then he went down to the farm. So I’m hoping that they’ll cross paths on occasion.
BYT: How are your kids going to rebel? They can’t start a band.
MB: I don’t know. I’m sure they’ll find a way, whatever that is. At this point, a truly rebellious thing would be to understand sports. I feel like I need to take a Cliffnotes in sports or start to fake it because I don’t want to impart my complete ignorance of sporting events onto my children who definitely need to have a shot at eating nachos and hanging out at the Super Bowl.
BYT: Number one, no one hangs out at the Super Bowl. And number two, because you said that you’re going to end up commissioned for the next NFL Monday Night Football theme. You’re gonna be that guy.
This event sounds really neat. I hope our readers become interested.
MB: The thing to emphasize is that it’s going to be a really fun event. We have ambient music from the eras and we have a serious project involved like how different composers of different eras have created music for environments. It’s going to be really fun, we have signature cocktails, Parisian cocktails happening. So there’s going to be everything from a Parisian lounge to a 1970s lava lamp room to a 21st century lounge. I think it’s going to be a really cool way to experience the Kennedy Center in a way that most people haven’t. So bring some friends.