Mason Bates on His Brand New Work and The Evolving Orchestra

By Ricky O’Bannon

Mason Bates
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Mason Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology received its second performance Friday at the Cabrillo Festival. His new work, which was premiered in June by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is something of a psychedelic take on Camille Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. Inspired by Argentine magical realist author Jorge Luis Borges’ book of the same name, Bates said he imagines the listener taking a walk through a dark forest encountering fictional and fantastic creatures one by one before they converge later in the piece.

2015 marks Bates’ fifth trip to Cabrillo, and the composer is best known for incorporating electronic music, which he knows well as a DJ, into the symphonic form. Bates talked about his new piece and the changing attitudes toward electronics in the orchestra that he’s seen during his career.

You seem to really look for a narrative in your work. In classical music there is programmatic music that has a story or concept and absolute or abstract music that isn’t explicitly about anything. Why do you find programmatic music to be more fertile territory for you?

If you look in the 19th century, there was a fairly robust debate between the Berlioz/Wagner camp and the Brahms camp [about whether music should have a program or be abstract.] I feel there is an interesting kind of tension between those two camps. But those giant programmatic pieces always pulled new sounds out of those composers. [Berlioz’s] Symphonie Fantastique is probably the best example. It really pushes those composers to find new theatrical, sonic territory.

That’s something that I think is a wide-open artistic opportunity. It’s especially thrilling to look at that model of a narrative journey with new tools — with new sounds in the orchestra.

So for you as a composer, a story or idea in your piece gives you something to respond to. Like with Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, you have to figure out musically how to make it sound like a sprite is flying around the concert hall by having a musical theme traded by violinists throughout the orchestra and even off stage.

I would have never thought of that effect had I not been trying to conjure a sprite. In the Space movement of B-Sides I ended up finding a lot of Ligeti-esque textures to evoke clouds and atmospheres that I never would have thought of [without the piece’s narrative.] I don’t think everybody has to do that, but for me it’s thrilling. I think the challenge of that is to make the music work on its own.

There’s a concept, and then there’s the execution. People have been slamming programmatic music or praising it for hundreds of years. It’s never in fashion. I go to the symphony to have my head explode. I don’t really want to just sit on my hands and behave like I’m in a loft concert in the 60’s. I want something that engages.

You also walk that line of coming close to something [in sound that the audience] has a recognition of, and that is kind of the riskiest thing of all. If you’re conjuring up something that’s a known thing, you want to do that in a way that’s fresh but sounds like a known thing.

Bringing the theater to the symphony has been a mission of mine. It really has to be musically interesting. It can’t just be some kind of an effect that comes and goes. So for me having the violin stands behave like a set of dominoes [in Anthology of Fantastic Zoology], that was a challenge. And it was a logistical challenge, too. I had to have a map of the orchestra in front of me while I was composing.

With Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, I’m remind of Saint-Saenz’ Carnival of the Animals. Were you trying for something like that structurally?

Sure. To me the challenge of this piece was creating memorable musical themes. If you can create six different themes that are fresh and unique, then you can go into this whole different world where you bring them back and have them collide. I was really inspired by French and Russian ballet scores. Something like Pictures at an Exhibition had this sprawling form with very colorful movements that you remember and could return to.

I wanted all of these animals come back in the end. In order to do that, I needed to create memorable themes. The extra challenge is that they’re non-existent, surreal animals. What I love about magical realism is that in this term it needs to be very real and very unreal. So in this piece it was like creating highly vivid animals and then hitting them with a little drop of acid.

Anthology of Fantastic Zoology doesn’t use any electronics, but it is the thing you are best known for. How have you seen the landscape change since you first started writing pieces that incorporated electronics into a symphonic form?

When I first started writing music for orchestra and electronics, I don’t know if “resistance” is the right word, but there were a fair number of psychological barriers. This idea that we’re going to have electronic sound mixed with the orchestra — this epitome of analog sound — was hard to swallow.

Fast-forward to now, and there are orchestras all over the country that do pieces like Mothership and Alternative Energy when I’m not there [to perform the electronic parts]. The fact they can do it on their own with very little budget impact I think says something about the orchestra that’s actually been true over the centuries: It can change.

You mean how it expanded over the years from strings to include winds and brass and more percussion?

Yeah. The thing is an orchestra is not a garage band [with unlimited rehearsal time.] Orchestras large and small can change and include new sounds, but [as a composer] you have to do that from a position of respect and knowledge You have to know how you can do these things with three rehearsals. For me artistically, that means I can do whatever I want with sound design. I can paint it up like a Fabergé egg, but I have to find a way to boil down the electronics so they can be triggered by someone else in the orchestra [when I’m not there to perform them.]

The other thing is thinking about how to integrate electronic sounds into the orchestra well. The pieces can be more about the orchestra as opposed to some kind of kitschy thing.

It is well integrated. You probably get tired of the electronics question because sometimes it is brought up as kind of a novelty fact, and maybe some still see it that way, but it really does complement what you do with the orchestra.

That’s part of my woe as a symphonist. My electronic inspiration came out of DJing, and that was a fun angle for writers to pursue early on, this DJ-composer. The truth is that in a way electronics has expanded for me to be more theatrical. Sometimes it’s EDM [electronic dance music], sometimes it’s “let’s go to Antarctica to record these glaciers.”

It first has to start as an artistic problem. For me that was how do you get around the expectation of “this is a concerto for electronics.” Once I got around that, I found that there was incredible power musically and theatrically in electronics, and the key has been convincing orchestras that this is a journey worth taking. That’s been the gratifying thing to me — seeing that 15 years later, people will embrace that without any real resistance.

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