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Kennedy Center names first composer-in-residence

Mason Bates, 38, has just been named the Kennedy Center’s first-ever composer-in-residence. (Photo: Ryan Schude.)
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The Kennedy Center announced today the first major innovation of president Deborah Rutter: the appointment of its first-ever composer-in-residence. Mason Bates, 38, a much-awarded, Juilliard- and Berkeley-trained composer whose sobriquet is “the most-performed composer of his generation,” will serve a three-year term starting in the 2015-16 season. His activities will include composing music for the center’s various constituents, curating a new contemporary music series, and working on different avenues for community and audience inclusion.

As DJ Masonic, Bates also has a flourishing career as a DJ in dance clubs around the country.

“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 on Wednesday, speaking by phone from the Kennedy Center, where he had just come from a meeting with videographers and projectionists to talk about ways to implement some of his visions for involving the audience. “The Kennedy Center is uniquely positioned to show the way forward, [to show] a national audience how you can present a dynamic new experience in way that nobody needs a Ph.D to appreciate.”

Rutter has gone, savvily, with what she knows: Bates is in the final season of a six-year stint as one of two composers-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Rutter ran before coming to Washington. It was Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director, who appointed him, but Rutter got to see some of the results. Bates and his co-resident, Anna Clyne, reinvigorated the orchestra’s contemporary music series (audiences have grown from a couple of hundred to a thousand and more at each performance), wrote major works (the CSO and Muti recorded and released “Alternative Energy,” a four-movement work, 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 press statement formally issued with the announcement. “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,” the 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, in the course of a three-part festival called “Beethoven and Bates,” played “Alternative Energy” this past September. 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.”

One of Bates’s 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, tailored to each specific venue, is through-composed from beginning to end, with interludes by Bates to bridge the shifts from DJ sets to live performance. “It’s a little bit like a wedding,” Bates says, “in that it feels incredibly fun and almost improvisational to the people experiencing it, but it takes a lot to put it on… If you really want to integrate four or five classical sets with great sound design into a club experience, and you really want people to pay attention and get the great experience of classical music, you have to really manage those transitions.”

Bates, who grew up in Virginia and came often to the Kennedy Center as a child, now lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and two young children. He says he will spend around five weeks a year at the Kennedy Center, though the details are still being worked out. His time here will not be devoted exclusively to performance. “When you’re involved with an organization,” he says, “you really need to be there when you’re not the center of attention,” checking out what else is happening, and learning about the community. As for specifics of future commissions, “I get the impression that I need to let them do their season announcements,” he says, “before I can take the sheet off things.” But he says he’s in conversations with all of the center’s main constituents.

Of his new appointment, “It’s really inspiring,” he observes, “that [Rutter] is saying artists need to be at the center of this kind of institution.”