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When Worlds Collide, and Boundaries Fall

January 29, 2008

Mason Bates has a secret life. The Bay Area composer has a Juilliard pedigree, a Rome Prize and a Berlin Prize, and is currently composer in residence for the California Symphony. He's performed his work with the Atlanta and Phoenix symphonies, and locally been performed by the Cabrillo Festival, Oakland East Bay Symphony, and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. The National Symphony will play a piece of his at Carnegie Hall in February.
But by night, Bates, 30, maintains an alter ego as DJ Masonic, spinning techno records and creating a blend of down-tempo hip-hop, trip-hop, French house, and funk, says the “electronica” section of his bifurcated Web site, at venues in Rome, Berlin, and San Francisco, including nightclubs, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum.

Now, Bates’ twin identities are starting to merge. In 2003, Bates received a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and decided to include some musical, rhythmic, and other elements from the intense styles of electronic-instrument-based dance music lumped together as electronica. “Ever since, I’ve been passionate about bringing these two worlds together,” he says.

That fusion will manifest itself in San Francisco on Friday, when Bates, in his Masonic persona, joins San Francisco Symphony Resident Conductor Benjamin Shwartz and a passel of some of the city’s top classical musicians at the hip South of Market club Mezzanine for a concert titled "Mercury Soul." Shwartz will conduct works by 20th-century avant-garde legends like György Ligeti, Anton Webern, and James Tenney, as well as new music by such acclaimed contemporary composers as Donnacha Dennehy and Bates himself. (You can sample Bates' compositions Digital Loom and Icarian Rhapsody at his Web site.)

Concept sketch by Anne Patterson for "Mercury Soul"

Punctuating those orchestral works will be sets of electronic music deejayed by Masonic and performed by the duo Masonic&MarsBassMan. The evening will also be a visual spectacle, featuring installations and lighting by renowned set designer Anne Patterson, and will conclude with a dance party. It should be a fascinating experiment in crossing outmoded musical and cultural boundaries. “Hopefully we’ll introduce a whole new audience to classical music,” Shwartz says.
Changing Spaces
The seeds of this performance germinated in Berlin three years ago, when Bates and members of the Berlin Philharmonic performed his electronica and chamber music in a small club. But that show, like last month’s ambitious "Rewind" concert, involving Bates and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, still presented the old-fashioned setup of listeners watching musicians play onstage.

Bates decided that a nightclub setting could enhance the experience for modern audiences who’ve grown up in an intensely visual, boundary-blurring media and entertainment environment. Around the same time, he met Patterson, who’s worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and other symphonies, and realized that she’d be an ideal partner to create that immersive visual element.

“Lots of people who do classical visuals don’t understand that there’s enough information flying at you already in the notes, and that you don’t have to overload the audience” with visual information, as well, Bates says, describing Patterson’s work as “beautiful and organic.” The pair presented a proposal to the Craig Capital Foundation, which primarily funds visual arts projects, but which leapt to support a synthesis of classical music and the visual arts in a club.

Benjamin Shwartz

Shortly after receiving the grant, Bates met Shwartz, who also appreciated the sophisticated musical techniques of electronica artists such as Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars, and San Francisco’s own Matmos. They realized that a capacious club like Mezzanine, where Bates — or rather, DJ Masonic — spun records and which can hold 1,000 people, would afford them the space to present not just chamber music but even chamber orchestra repertoire. It also boasts platforms that will be occupied this time not by go-go dancers but instead by a classical percussion quartet.
Reaching New Audiences
Experiments like "Rewind" and "Mercury Soul" are happening at a moment of transition for classical and postclassical music. From condescending “crossovers,” featuring pop singers backed by reluctant orchestras, to rock-star-written symphonic works, to various marketing ploys designed to draw pre-AARP audiences to classical concerts, the landscape is littered with failed attempts to update and modernize classical music. Mercury Soul is different, a conscientious effort to rescue serious contemporary postclassical music from the tiny college recital halls in which it’s typically ghettoized, and instead to bring it to a broader audience of adventurous music lovers.

“The mission is not just to present contemporary classical music in a more casual and fluid environment,” Bates explains, “but also to reach out and get a lot of people who might not ever hear that music to go out and experience it.” So it makes sense to bring the music where those audiences already go, such as clubs like Mezzanine. “Most people my age are not used to sitting down in a huge concert hall for two hours with their hands politely folded over their laps,” says Shwartz, who’s 27. “We’re hoping to take this music to a place where people our age are used to listening to music.”

While musicians like cellist Matt Haimovitz are successfully taking music from the Baroque and Classical periods to rock clubs, Bates didn’t want to play older music at Mezzanine. Instead, he wanted to present what some people now call "postclassical" music, which is loosely defined as composed music that incorporates elements of classical structure and instrumentation through relatively unconventional means. Think Steve Reich, John Cage, and other composers from the preceding two or three generations.

Bates also wanted music that had some connection to the electronica that would be sharing the stage. The assumption is that contemporary electronica composers and their audiences have a lot more in common with recent classical-tradition composers than with pre-Industrial Age figures. “This isn’t Couperin or Bach — it’s Ligeti and Nancarrow,” Bates says, “stuff that has the textural and rhythmic focus that I think electronica ears are primed for.” Shwartz notes that Nancarrow, who had to use player pianos to achieve the complex rhythms he sought, would likely be using computers if he were a young composer today.

Can Bates imagine listeners dancing to Nancarrow? “Maybe,” he muses. “I could see people, after the classical part of the show ends, really busting out.”

While the concert is primarily designed to attract new and more diverse audiences to classical music, Shwartz maintains that there’s plenty to appeal to the mainstream classical music audience, as well. “I think the more active and interested and open-minded members of the classical crowd who are interested not just in new music but also in new concepts of presenting music will have a really good time,” he says.

It’s also no accident that he and Bates programmed relatively short pieces for their contemporary classical sets. The decision is perhaps a concession to the intended audience's unfamiliarity with the works, or to ears attuned to the under-10-minute musical cycles of pop music. And if listeners don’t like a particular piece, “they can talk to their friends, go buy a beer, go outside and smoke a cigarette,” Shwartz explains. “Being a music lover myself, there’s been moments when I wanted to get out of the concert hall. I don’t think people are going to be running out of the club. But just the knowledge that you’re not actually stuck there is liberating.”
Easing Transitions
To avoid aesthetic whiplash from wrenching shifts between wildly varied musical styles, Bates, like any good DJ, has devoted careful attention to managing the transitions. At a techno concert or down-tempo club, “you might be talking to your friends half the time but you’re still listening a lot,” he says. “But that’s not the way you hear classical music. If you just show up and start fiddling away on a violin without any kind of preparation, it’s hard to grab people. We want to guide the listener through that change. One way to get from one to the next is to have the beats become more ambient and more abstract.”

Patterson will also supply lighting cues that subconsciously suggest to the audience that a change is about to come. Several of the postclassical pieces, including those by Dennehy and Bates, have electronic elements themselves. And Bates has composed some short, approximately three-minute pieces he calls “Mercury Interludes” that the orchestra will play over the beats he’s laying down from the DJ platform. The orchestral sounds will gradually increase in prominence as the beats fade.

Finally, the concert does sport a kind of fusion: the premiere of Bates’ Seismology, an orchestral piece that incorporates the electronically modified sounds of earthquake recordings from the Berkeley Seismology Lab. In trying to merge his two worlds while avoiding the pitfalls of crossover music, Bates has learned an important lesson from predecessors like George Gershwin. “You can’t have an uninteresting techno track, and then orchestrate it, and then that’s that," he says. "It’s got to be a new thing — a new kind of creature. It has to be some creature that inhabits both of those spaces.”

In a way, the transitions that will happen at Mezzanine mirror the way so many of us experience music in the 21st century. "Mercury Soul" — which Bates envisions happening once or twice a year — is one of many experiments in changing the way we’ll be listening to creative music in this ever morphing era. The walls are coming down all over the musical landscape just as they are between national economies and cultures.

As evidence you need only look at three more examples of the genre-busting trend coming up in the Bay Area: the Bang on a Can marathon on Feb. 9 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco; the Other Minds Festival March 6-8 at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco; and the Adorno Ensemble's multisensory event Feb. 7 at the Varnish Fine Art and Wine Bar in San Francisco; among others. (See Listening Ahead for more details.)

Music critics including Greg Sandow and The New Yorker's Alex Ross (see SFCV's feature article) have noted the overlap between audiences for exploratory rock, jazz, and other so-called “popular music” (such as Frank Zappa, Björk, Radiohead, and even the studio-era Beatles and Pink Floyd), and those who cruise the edges of contemporary classical and postclassical music. The sell-out crowds at events such as Wordless Music in New York (featuring John Adams, Gavin Bryars, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) and elsewhere seem to demonstrate that if only music lovers with adventurous ears can be exposed to contemporary classical sounds — in new ways that interest them and not necessarily in the old ways classical music presenters desperately want them to — they’ll groove to them, as well.

Perhaps someday wide-ranging composers won’t need alter egos to fully realize the scope of their musical ambitions. If the day ever comes when those narrow categories that segregate audiences and limit musicians finally collapse into irrelevance, maybe events such as "Mercury Soul" will be viewed in retrospect as the first breaches of the barriers.

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.