Mason Bates is busy. To look at him, sitting in an empty reception room in the Kennedy Center on a weekday morning, you wouldn’t know it. On the surface, he appears to be one of the more laid-back classical composers in a field not especially known for its serenity. Bates, the Kennedy Center’s first composer-in-residence, is 39 and looks younger, with a boyishness compounded by a shaggy haircut that always seems slightly tousled, clothing that focuses on tidy dark pants and zipped sweaters, and a disarming, self-effacing delivery, peppered with “likes,” “you knows” and pauses as he pours out ideas and then backs into statements, phrasing, rephrasing, verbally twisting his hands until he comes up with something he feels he can live with, one that won’t hurt anybody’s feelings. And even this comes out with a dose of self-mockery. “That sounds so pretentious,” he says, shaking his head.
It takes a while to realize that this keen self-consciousness is born not of shyness, but of focus — an intentness on getting the effect he wants, exactly right.
To see that in action, watch him onstage with an orchestra. You might not notice him at first unless you know to look out for him, standing by the percussion at the back. He doesn’t draw attention to himself. He does, though, sit with the quiet laser focus of a mother hawk, eyes darting from conductor to players to audience to cable installation. When it’s time, he stands and bends forward over a beatpad, bringing all that focus through the touch of one finger on a computer interface that sends whomps and whooshes and other ambient sounds out over and through the orchestra in the music that he wrote and seems, as he plays it, to still be writing.
Or listen to his music. In June, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Bates had been a composer-in-residence for five years, gave the world premiere of a piece — “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” — that didn’t include a single electronic note.
Inspired by the Jorge Luis Borges book of the same name, it’s a musical depiction of a fantastic bestiary in 11 movements. There’s a slithery monster that creeps palindromically back and forth, its music reversing halfway through; a “sprite” that goes skipping through the strings, leaping from one stand to another so you can actually watch the movement ruffle through the players; and sirens that sing offstage with aching sweetness, in the voices of violins, luring the orchestra after them.
“Mason,” Muti said, in an interview shortly after the premiere, “knows how to write very well for orchestra.”
This accolade from a giant of the field demonstrates one secret of Bates’s success. It’s not just that his music is engaging. It’s not just that his side interests — his love of electronic music, his active second life as a DJ and his burgeoning activities as a curator of interesting new-music concerts — represent a link to the younger audience the orchestra world is so hungry to reach.
Deborah Rutter, who worked with him in Chicago as head of the CSO, named him as her first major appointment after taking over as the Kennedy Center’s president. “He’s trying to push boundaries in an organization that hasn’t, until recently, thought that boundary-pushing is the way they should go,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “He has been a huge help to me. . . . We want him to be a piece of who we are.”
But there’s another, more conservative reason: that classical music and its audiences love young dynamos who satisfy the urge for innovation while continuing the traditions of the classical canon. Bates presents cutting-edge concerts and writes big pieces for orchestra that are essentially 21st-century tone poems, or musical narratives. “It certainly doesn’t seem very fashionable,” he says of his illustrative, theatrical orchestra works, such as “Alternative Energy,” which traces the machine age from the days of Henry Ford through a particle collider into a hypothetical future. Or “Liquid Interface,” premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in 2007, which was about different forms of water. “The idea of bigger structures that you can really perceive is sort of a 19th-century one,” he says, “but it can be invigorated with new sounds.”
In short, he forges into new territory, but on terms that the establishment can embrace.
Bates has been quiet, and focused, and affable, and political in the best sense, since he was a student at Juilliard (where, full disclosure, he did classical music data entry for a company I worked for, Musicmaker.com, a precursor of iTunes). Originally from Richmond, Va., (his parents still live on a farm in King and Queen County), he got a double degree through the joint program of Columbia University and the Juilliard School in New York, in English and composition. His teachers in the latter included David del Tredici and John Corigliano, two idiosyncratic masters of contemporary narrative and orchestration.
“Mason’s a very independent guy,” Corigliano said in a telephone interview. “He doesn’t just start at the beginning of a piece and not know where he’s going, which is the case with a lot of pieces. He’s very dedicated, a real composer. He’ll talk it over abstractly.”
Corigliano can also attest, like other Bates colleagues, to his gift for friendship. “Mason is one of the half-dozen students that have stayed in contact continually,” he said. “He calls up, says, ‘How are you? I miss you.’ He tells me what he’s writing; we talk it over. He’s a real friend now, friend-colleague.”
Bates is certainly adept at forging and keeping relationships — from Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony (who led the premiere of “Mothership”) to Anna Clyne, his co-composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony, who calls him “a real friend” as well.
He also is fiercely protective of his personal life — not in terms of keeping it secret, but in terms of making time for it. He and his wife, Jamie, a molecular biologist, have two children, ages 7 and 4, and whatever his commitments, he makes sure that he has sufficient time at home in San Francisco, where he is also on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory.
“I guess I can say this, I always sort of try to hide it,” he says. “My composing needs kind of align with my family needs. I cannot travel three weeks in a row. I never wanted to say, ‘I need to be home because I have children,’ but the fact is, I have to be home to write. It really will grow cold if I’m away for more than a week. But also, there’s the family to deal with. You can’t be everywhere at once.”
In Washington, Bates is increasingly playing the role of an impresario, coming up with creative ways to present a wide range of contemporary work. (“We don’t want to have the same kind of piece, like, five times on a concert,” he says. “I just like variety.”)
He opened his own series at the Kennedy Center, KC Jukebox, with the exuberant cornucopia of a concert-happening called “Lounge Regime,” which sent the audience milling through three spaces with lighting, set pieces and projected program notes (as well as cash bars). Bates says it was “the most involved production of anything I’ve ever done.” The second one was more conventional and — despite Bates’s emphasis on “a really snappy production” that overrides “all this dead time” between pieces with projected program notes — suffered from, well, a lot of dead time between pieces.
“Essentially, programming at institutions is like sending satellites into space,” he says. “How do you know what you’re going to do on Mars 20 years ahead of time?” His whole first season was, of necessity, programmed long before he knew the facility and its quirks. Now he knows the terrain better — and it’s a good thing, because his KC Jukebox has been expanded to five concerts instead of three.
For Bates, it’s clear — presenting concerts is an extension of the kind of creativity he brings to composing, which remains his primary activity. “It all goes back to, how does the artist interact with institutions?” he says. “I think a lot of composers might see the orchestra as this world of rules and sets of limitations. I really see it as an evolving creature, and it always has been.”
Bates revels in what he refers to as the color wheel of sonic possibilities that an orchestra represents. “There is a way,” he says, “to have a tonal influence on the way you’re writing and still create kind of exotic new sounds. . . . You want to create something that’s fresh and inevitable, and those two things are kind of at odds. . . . So you have to be able to have a sensitive touch across that color wheel.” In practice, this may mean music that is now bracingly astringent, and now achingly lovely — even at the risk of people hearing a single Romantic passage and branding the whole work, incorrectly, as Romantic. Bates’s music is too fluid and mercurial for such easy labels. “This is a time-based art form,” he observes, “so if it hits that for a second and then goes into something else, it’s rich.” Not limited.
Not surprisingly, he’s working on big pieces and big projects for big institutions. In April, D.C. audiences will get a double dose of him with an NSO Declassified concert — a new series for the orchestra — focused entirely on his music, followed by the season’s final KC Jukebox performance. Bates will then go out to the San Francisco Symphony, where he was featured to the extent of a whole festival called “Beethoven and Bates” in 2014, for his next big premiere: a new work called “Auditorium,” which features a recorded Baroque ensemble electronically dogging the steps of the live orchestra. (The San Francisco Symphony recently released a new recording of three major Bates orchestral works.)
After that, he can resume work on his much-anticipated first opera, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” scheduled to premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017. Rather than a straightforward bio-opera, Bates says, the libretto by Mark Campbell is “shattered chronologically”; he refers to the work as “a pixelated opera.”
He has assigned each character not only his own leitmotif, but his own instruments, from strings to acoustic guitar (Jobs) to prayer bowls. “Trying to have that mix, when those guys are onstage,” he says, “is the big musical challenge in this piece. And also, it’s a singing medium, so it has to all be in the voice. And that’s a special challenge for a symphonic composer.
“It’s not easy, balancing everything,” Bates adds. “I think family and music are working out. The missing piece is generally, kind of, your inner peace of mind, maybe? It can be just hard. There was a while in Oakland I lived across from a Buddhist temple, and I walked in there and it was incredible. I was just, like, sitting, doing nothing. So I need to do that.” For this young composer, the only thing in short supply is silence.
On April 14, the NSO will play Bates’s violin concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers; the concerto also features in “The B-Sides” on April 15, a concert on the NSO’s Declassified series devoted to Bates’s music. April 18 marks the final concert in this season’s KC Jukebox series: “New Voices, Old Muses,” showcasing works by living composers responding to the past, including Anna Clyne and Donnacha Dennehy.