The Kennedy Center announced today the first major innovation of new president Deborah Rutter: the appointment of its first composer-in-residence. Mason Bates, 38, a much-awarded, much-performed Juilliard- and Berkeley-trained composer, will start a three-year term in the 2015-16 season. His duties will include composing music for the center’s various constituents, curating a new contemporary-music series and working on different forms of community and audience inclusion.
Bates also has a flourishing career as a DJ in dance clubs across the country, performing as DJ Masonic.
“The things I would love to advocate for here are adventurous new artistic experiences, ways you can make those experiences fun and challenging and even social,” Bates said by phone Wednesday in the midst of meetings at the Kennedy Center. “The Kennedy Center is uniquely positioned to show . . . a national audience how you can present a dynamic, new experience in way that nobody needs a PhD to appreciate.”
In choosing Bates, Rutter went with whom she knows: Bates is in the final season of a six-year stint as one of two composers-in-residence appointed by Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Rutter ran before coming to Washington. In Chicago, Bates and his co-resident, Anna Clyne, reinvigorated the orchestra’s contemporary-music series, wrote major works (the CSO and Muti released “Alternative Energy” on their in-house label last year) and even got Muti into a dance club.
“By presenting new art to audiences in new ways, Mason will help initiate a new era of creative programming here at the Kennedy Center,” Rutter said in a statement. “He will also be an incredible ambassador as we continue our efforts to bring a refined vision of the listening experience to a larger audience, both at the Center and in the greater Washington community.”
Bates’s orchestral music is exciting and energetic, with electronic elements he often supplies himself, standing with his computer in the percussion section (as Washington audiences may remember from “Liquid Interface,” a piece he wrote for the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin in 2007).
“One of the great pleasures of concert life is hearing an audience respond to a piece of new music with the sort of full-throated excitement that is generally reserved for Beethoven or Mahler,” Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle after the San Francisco Symphony performed “Alternative Energy” this September during a three-part festival called “Beethoven and Bates.” He added: “It’s perfectly easy to understand why. Bates . . . writes music that is simultaneously old-fashioned in its outlook and bracingly new in its demeanor, and it satisfies the same urge for accessible novelty that people find in the other arts.”
Bates works hard to fuse his two worlds. One of his signature programs, “Mercury Soul,” is a fusion of electronic dance music and contemporary classical music, played in a club with a light-show component — not, perhaps, entirely dissimilar from the National Symphony Orchestra’s recent excursion to Echostage, except that the music is contemporary and the evening is through-composed from beginning to end.
“It’s a little bit like a wedding,” Bates said, “in that it feels incredibly fun and almost improvisational to the people experiencing it, but it takes a lot to put it on.”
Bates, who grew up in Virginia and often came to the Kennedy Center as a child, now lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and two young children. He estimates that he will spend about five weeks a year at the Kennedy Center, and not just working on his own projects and performances.
“When you’re involved with an organization,” he said, “you really need to be there when you’re not the center of attention.”