Feb 16, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Composer Mason Bates has spent much of his career trying to push the boundaries of what sounds have a place on the orchestral stage. Bates often incorporates electronica into his pieces, but as he told a class of Peabody Institute composition students last week, he sees electronics as a means to a musical end. Electronics aren’t the focus so much as an additional tool in a composer’s toolbox.

Since he began writing, Bates said he’s been gratified to see the perceived musical boundaries of the traditional orchestra expand and that orchestras — which might be one of the oldest dogs out there — have willingly embraced a few new electro-acoustic tricks. According to numbers collected from 89 American symphony orchestras concert programs in 2015-2016, Bates’ piece "Mothership" is one of a handful of orchestral works written in the past 35 years that is seeing regular orchestral performances this season.

One of those performances came last week during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 100th Anniversary Concert. During a rehearsal of that concert, Bates stopped by to talk about his upcoming opera on the life of Steve Jobs, how his projects outside of composing inform his craft and his piece "Mothership" (a performance of which with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra can be viewed below.)

Q: Composers usually have a lot of control. It’s not absolute because there are many things that fall to the conductor and orchestra performing the piece that you don’t have a say in. But with "Mothership" it seems like you might have even less control than normal because you have improvisational sections for soloists, and just which soloists are chosen can change the overall feeling of your piece, whether that’s a saxophone giving a jazz vibe or an electric guitar giving a prog rock vibe. Was it challenging for you writing something that open and giving up even more control than normal?

With this project, there were two incredibly big challenges. One was to write an opener. I had written several anti-openers with pieces like "Rusty Air in Carolina," which is a much dreamier and deeper a piece. But I had never written a piece that had this from-the-get-go energy. The other challenge was incorporating the element of improvisation. The issue of control was a big one. … I needed to be able to give the improvisors a sandbox in oppose to say give them a playground.

The form of the piece and even the title indicate a little bit of the hand of control. The orchestra is the mothership. The orchestra is the thing. The improvisers are important, but they are the docking astronauts that come on board. That image really did come to me as a bit of a epiphany when I was in New York watching people get on and off the subway, and I thought "that's the way it should be." Let's not have a big party with lots of people just jamming over whole notes. But let's have the orchestra just humming along, then it slows down and the doors open up, and you have one minute to play.

For me there’s always an issue of how much control to relinquish whether it's aleatoric music or with something like this. I've got to say, I feel like it was a real revelation to me to find that you can have a piece where if you set up the improvisatory space appropriately, even if you have different things happening in that space, the actual contours of the overall piece can remain the same.

Q: You’ve said before that you find programmatic music pulls new sounds out of you as a composer. For "Mothership," you’re approaching creating a soundscape that evokes this sort of spaceship, and that’s something that others have tried to capture musically as far back as theremin sounds for flying saucers in old, cheesy sci-fi. Where did you go to try and design the electronica elements in the piece to try and create a fresh soundscape?

The main place I went for the sound design in "Mothership" was samples of machinery and aircraft. Particularly there were some sounds of Chinook helicopters that I really had to work with, but they had that kind of engine revving quality that was really interesting to me. Also, I had some sounds from the NASA movement of "The B-Sides." For "The B-Sides," I actually got permission from NASA to use the Gemini IV recording. There's a movement called Gemini in the Solar Wind that sets a NASA space walk to music and there were a couple of great beeps I had. There's something about this lo-fi beep and some of the other crackles of static that I found had a certain personality to them.

At the end of the day, you're dealing with a sound file. But often times that sound file — this sounds ridiculous but almost like the terroir of a wine — it will have some kind of the personality of the space it was recorded from embedded in it, whether you hear it acoustically in there or whether it's in the actual bit rate that it was recorded at. So I tried a mix of actual, literal spaceship sounds from NASA and some from military transport stuff.

Q: You’ve probably reached a point in your career where you could have the luxury of sitting back and only working on commissions. However, in addition to composing, you are also still DJing, performing and working on concert curation like with MusicNOW when you were with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Soul and lately your KC Jukebox series as composer-in-residence with the Kennedy Center. Besides just having a wide range or artistic interests, is there something about all these other things on your plate that you find beneficial to your life as a composer?

A great model for me is John Adams. I'm not sure if anybody has the great luxury of sitting isolated in the woods and composing, but if anybody could it would be John. But he's out there conducting, he's programming things at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and various festivals. I think with John — speaking about kind of a mentor — it's about constantly going from the darkness of your studio to the bright sunlight of performing or working with an orchestra. You get so many ideas and so much inspiration from interacting with an orchestra. For me that's a really powerful motivator.

I don't do most of the performances of my work, but I'd say every time I'm with an orchestra either playing or hearing them out in the hall, I have ideas. I'm backstage now listening to [the BSO rehearse Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra,"] and I'm hearing this chord wondering, “What exactly is that chord? I should check that out." I do think that we can become very solipsistic as composers, and there's something very powerful about that because you can obsess about something in a way that can make very powerful art. But I think working with musicians and orchestras can really benefit my time.

In terms of curating, it's really a different mindset in terms of how you think about presenting that program and what information people receive when they're experiencing it. That I think is something that the field needs to catch up to. I think it's going to have to be from people in the field that want to change it because I don't think it's going to happen on its own. … Personally for me it was really been invigorating to work within the climate of the Chicago Symphony [and now at the Kennedy Center] to see that with creative programming and curating, you can really get many more people to show up who have never heard anything but are willing to experience it. I have a great passion about that and my commercial project with Mercury Soul. Curating is something that I wished had been part of my education. Going forward I think it would be interesting if as part of a composition degree, there was a little more discussion about putting concerts together, how you present that information to the audience and about appreciating music outside of your particular iPod that needs to be on the concert because nobody wants to hear a full concert of just Downtown Minimalism or Columbia maximalism.

Q: This summer it was announced that you were commissioned to write an opera about Steve Jobs for the Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 season. As you are a Mac user and tech junkie, to me it seems like a natural fit, but what interested you about doing the project, and how goes your progress on the work?

There have been several operas about creative people whether you think about Death in Venice or Tales of Hoffman. I thought it would be interesting to write about a creative technologist because that seemed to me a fruitful musical place for an opera to go and it could involve my sound world in a way that another subject wouldn't. But also I live in the Bay Area and I see the techies are very creative set of people. And [kind of like composing] they too have to deal with this interaction between these big ideas you have and how you apply them and turn them into reality — and in their case products.

At the heart of this opera, it's about Steve Jobs’ roles as revolutionary sort of simplifying and turning communication into a sleek thing through these little devices. [But that] collides with the fact that people are messy. If you have a [daughter out of wedlock or cancer], that's not like a text bubble that you can just dismiss. That doesn't just go away. There are a lot of things in his life that he wanted to control. I think his positive charge of charisma and unbelievable imagination and his negative charge of sometimes having a desire to really control everything, were really grounded by his wife. And I don't think Laurene has really been explored in any of the treatments of Steve Jobs' life.

What does that mean musically? To me that means giant leitmotifs. I thought what if every main character has not only like a leitmotif but a whole sound world. If those sound worlds are really radically different, all sorts of things can happen musically when they collide when these characters are on stage together.

Steve Jobs has this huge acoustic guitar and electronica sound world. He loved the guitar. That busy picking I think might represent some of his busy inner spirit that never found the rest it was looking for. That collides with his wife's oceanic lower string harmonies. Then in the opera, she's able to musically slow that down. His spiritual advisor, Kobun Otogawa, is all electronically processed prayer bowls. There are about six principals, and each inhabit a different world. I thought I could run with that idea of taking these sound worlds and colliding them. We're going to follow Steve Jobs from his early idealism to becoming a mogul, and he does have a real reconciliation by the end of the work.