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Classical Music

Concerto for two universes

Be it mixing trip-hop and funk at a club or writing a symphonic or chamber work, composer Mason Bates is getting noticed for his straddling of classical music and electronica.

October 31, 2004|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

Spinning. It's what politicos do, particularly these days. Also fitness fanatics. And in dance clubs the world over, DJs.

And then there's composer Mason Bates. Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he's become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well.

"By day, I use the hours as 'blockbuster' time for writing music," Bates says. "By night, I go to these incredible clubs and spin trip-hop, techno beats, funk." In between, he says, he strives to be as "creative" at finding audiences for his scores -- which often incorporate influences from clubland -- as he is when composing them.

The success of both those efforts can be measured next at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic's New Music Group will premiere Bates' "Omnivorous Furniture for sinfonietta and electronica," commissioned for the orchestra's Green Umbrella series.

In the 18-minute piece, 15 Philharmonic musicians will share the Disney stage with two electronic speakers and Bates. He'll be in the percussion section, performing on an electronic drum pad.

At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets -- the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers -- Bates just might have that bait.

"A few others have attempted to bring club music into an orchestral setting before," he says. "But not with a substantive approach, because they don't have a deep understanding of electronica."

Half-reclining in a Disney Hall lounge chair while in town for a day from Berkeley -- where, in addition to carrying on a full-time career, he's pursuing a doctorate in composition -- the slightly built, hazel-eyed Bates, now 27, speaks softly, with the slightest Southern drawl. He talks about his background, his Virginia roots, attending haah school in Richmond, studying with an influential piano teacher.

Nothing about him, however, suggests self-importance. He takes in stride the trunkload of honors that have already come his way -- the American Academy's Rome prize and its Berlin prize, two ASCAP awards, a Charles Ives Award and a "very generous" Young Concert Artists fellowship, to name a few.

He's written 20 commissioned works that have been played by major ensembles. His output has included symphonic pieces, chamber works, music for the theater and music for the turntable. In 2003, he played his synthesizer concerto with the Phoenix and Atlanta symphonies. Monica Felko, his manager at Young Concert Artists, says she "was amazed at how he brought his two musical universes together." In Georgia, she says, "even the gray-haired ladies at the Friday matinee loved it."

"The applications for grants and fellowships, et cetera, are around," he says offhandedly. "All it takes is to file them. Like throwing out a fishing line, sometimes you get a bite, sometimes not. As for so-called success, often things don't work out, so it's important for me not to take that roller-coaster ride or I'll get distracted from what I really want to do -- have the freedom to write music that is what I intend it to be.

"I'm an uncomfortable fit with academia," he adds before noting warily that he intends no offense to colleagues at Berkeley or other institutions. "It seems that people there often write music just for each other. Nor was I ever attracted to all the thorny, cerebral stuff. Music, for me, is not a mental exercise, not an abstract construction. It's intuitional. It needs to have the power to viscerally move people and to communicate strongly, across a broad reach."

That's why George Gershwin is a hero of his, he says. "Coming out of jazz and Tin Pan Alley, he did amazing things with that material in the concert hall."

A surprising gift

Bates is the product of an old Richmond family of no particular musical distinction, but one entirely supportive of his career. The Bateses operate a farm that also has a hunt club. Young Mason grew up in what he calls "a very conservative area." His father is a urologist, his mother a grade-school teacher and his older brother a Marine captain, recently back from six months in Iraq.

"It was a place where no one was to any degree on the left," he says. "In my home, Reagan was a god, and when Clinton was elected, I was told it was the end of the world."

Yet Bates says that he, his parents and his sibling lived in perfect harmony, "and even now we don't talk about politics, not even my brother and I." Both sons took piano lessons. Then the older one moved on to drums, then football, then the Marines, while Mason focused on serious piano study and composing.

"Within minutes of sitting down to practice scales, I'd find myself noodling at the keyboard, making up my own tunes and ideas," he says.

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