Mason Bates

(b. 23 January 1977)

Mason Bates is one of the most visible and frequently performed composers in the United States. Known for both concert music and his work as a DJ, he has expanded the orchestra to include electronics and dance-style beats that are prominent in house and techno music.

Bates was born on 23 January 1977 and was raised in Richmond, Virginia. He studied music at St. Christopher’s School and was attracted to the art form by attending concerts of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra with his mother. After high school, Bates entered the Columbia University-Juilliard School Exchange program, earning a BA in composition and English literature. His principal teachers included John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, and Samuel Adler. Bates furthered his education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in composition in 2008 under the guidance of Edmund Campion.

While in California, Bates worked as a DJ and techno artist and began weaving the sounds of electronica into his small and large-scale concert works. His music was immediately popular with audiences, and Bates began working with several prominent conductors, soloists, and orchestras while still working on his doctorate.

His first symphony, Liquid Interface, was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and was premiered on 22 February 2007 in Washington D.C. with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Drawn to environmental themes, Bates focused on the subject of water and its variety of forms for this work. The piece evokes the transformation of water in a world increasingly under threat from global warming. Bates’s score, which calls for a large orchestra and electronics, involves colorful orchestration and is filled with sounds that depict phenomena such as clouds and water droplets. The third movement, entitled “Crescent City,” is an ode to New Orleans through its use of Dixieland jazz.

Another environmentally themed work is Alternative Energy. Commissioned and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti on 2 February 2012, the four-movement piece for orchestra and electronics chronicles the environmental devastation of the earth over a period of three hundred years. Central to the score are pulsing rhythms and shifting beats.

One of Bates’s most popular works is Mothership, a single-movement piece also scored for electronics and orchestra. In his program note for the work, Bates stated that he imaged the orchestra as a mothership that is “docked” by soloist instruments as diverse as violin, electric guitar, zither, and bass guitar. The piece was premiered by the Youtube Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas on 20 March 2011, and the subsequent video went on to receive over two million views.

Bates’s Violin Concerto, completed in 2012, has become one of the most frequently performed works by a composer under the age of 40. Written for the violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, the concerto was premiered on 7 December 2012 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under direction of Leonard Slatkin. Meyers has gone on to perform the work with the Richmond and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. The three movements of the piece are connected without pause. Bates drew inspiration from an ancient beast, a cross between a dinosaur and bird known as an archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago. Though it does not include the use of electronics, the concerto involved a jazzy interplay between soloist and orchestra, with the strings called upon to produce and array of percussive attacks.

Though still early in his career, Bates has worked closely with the San Francisco Symphony and served as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2012 through 2015. In January 2016 he was named as the first composer-in-residence with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The appointment will begin in the fall of 2016 and last through the 2017-2018 season.

Images courtesy of Marin Symphony, Chicago Tribune and Mason Bates

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