BWW Interview: Mason Bates Seeks Adventure in Music

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Composer, DJ and 21st century Renaissance man Mason Bates continues his series of high-powered classical/electronica hybrid music events with his innovative performance group, Mercury Soul ( on Friday, May 20 at San Francisco's well-recognized DNA Lounge (

From clubs to warehouses to concert halls Mercury Soul's performances, with Bates at the helm, feature classical and DJ sets merged together with engaging electro-acoustic interludes, coupled with the latest in contemporary lighting and projections and performed by an extraordinary assemblage of local classical musicians and DJs.

Having interviewed Bates about last year's Mercury Soul event (/san-francisco/article/BWW-Interview-Mercury-Souls-Mason-Bates-Merges-Classical-with-Electronic-Music-20150918), I was able to snag a few moments with him to share details about the group's current programming, concepts, and future goals.

EM: Mason, it's great to be back with you. In our previous interview, on the subject of combining the world of club culture with classical and electronic music as the wave of the future, you said you'd love to see more substantive intersection of classical music and EDM (Electronic Dance Music). Have you seen progress on that front since then?

MB: I certainly see a lot of interesting performances and presentations of classical music in alternative venues. On one hand I think we all understand in this world that there's a reason concert halls exist because of their great acoustics, and they're the best places to hear classical music. But classical music definitely can be played in a variety of spaces, and its migration into alternative venues, clubs and lounges has been a great way for it to reach audiences. From doing events like this or places you hear about in New York like Pangaea or le Poisson Rouge, I think great progress is being made.

EM: Speaking of venues, I've heard great things about this year's venue, DNA Lounge. Can you tell us about DNA and how you chose it?

MB: DNA has everything we're looking for in a venue. First of all, it has a really great following in the community, and also has electronic music colliding with other genres. Their event, "Booty Mashup," takes new wave and pop tunes from the 80s and 90s, colliding them with electronic dance music. We like DNA also because it has a great stage space where everybody in the hall can see both the stage and the surroundings in a way that gets everybody up close and personal with the classical instruments. One other point that isn't any less important for our main event at 9 o'clock but is critical for Mercury Soul, they do have an all-age component and we offer free classical shows at 2 o'clock in the afternoon before the show to kids from various participating local public schools, so we are able to bring these kids in to fun in an environment that their parents can feel good about them going to a club. They get to hear Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, and also great local DJs. So that's how we chose the venue. I think it's a really good match for us.

EM: On the subject of DNA and this particular event, I've noticed you have quite a stellar cast of performers. Could you tell us about them?

MB: The groups we have are some of the local rock stars in Indie classical performances. Classical Revolution has a huge following. They started out at the Revolution Café, basically playing classical music in a café setting. They've since expanded to a lot of different places in the city and around the country as a loose network of classical musicians who want to take this music into spaces. We also have One Found Sound, a great ensemble where the players have some association with the San Francisco Conservatory, which is important for us. We really value our relationship with some of our best young musicians here.

EM: Who chooses the repertoire?

MB: The repertoire is complicated for Mercury Soul. We have to find a diverse group of pieces that can work in the demands of our format, a wider variety than you would think. They don't all have to be loud and fast and minimalistic, but they do have to have a certain amount of visceral energy. We are playing in a space that's going to have a lot of background noise, even with phenomenal sound design. At the very least we walk in with about ¾ of the rep worked out. In talking to the groups we asked, "Hey, we're looking for something by Mendelssohn that might be kind of up tempo, have some of that interesting classical into romantic quality, in a very light, energetic way that Mendelssohn is so good at. We're thinking of this piece." And they would say, "What about the Octet?" So there's a bit of a conversation, but to be honest with you it's such an unusual format that we do have to give pretty strong guidance in the rep.

EM: Collaboration is always important. I'm also interested in the very unique concepts behind your lighting effects and "Digital Production."

MB: What's interesting is the program book or playbill that you get when you walk into a concert hall. It's such a great part of the experience, because you learn about what you're going to hear. In some circumstances it's hard to read, especially if the audience is coming into an alternative venue. But there's also the opportunity to take a program book into this century with technology. So we take the program notes and project them throughout the evening and guide the audience into what they're hearing, so that any given time if you look up at the screen you can read about it - performers, composer. That's actually a bit more complicated to put together than anyone would think because everybody on this earth now is so savvy about what good production is. You can't just throw together a PowerPoint, is has to be rather involved. Also the lighting is very important. In trying to transition from a DJ set to classical music we really have to prepare the audience because to just switch from one to the next is going to be a rude awakening (Laughs). It's such a different listening style. We do this on two levels. One is musical - there are about 8 pre-composed interludes that link the classical to the electronic sets. It takes me a long time to work these out. Also the lighting - we have very bright, traditional classical lighting for our classical sets and then we migrate back to a more surreal, immersive club vibe during the EDM sets. This is all to let the audience know when they need to stop and pay attention (Laughs).

EM: It's certainly very contemporary.

MB: It's hard, Erica. You've got to have a stage manager who's reading score and knows when to cut the lights at the end of a quartet, when to bring them up at the start of another, knows the right mix. It involves a lot.

EM: It sounds very theatrical, like what goes on back stage at the opera.

MB: It is. In a way it's like going to a wedding, where it's fun as hell, and looks and feels very improvisatory, but in order to make it work there's a very intense wedding planner somewhere, who has basically spent the last couple of months working to make it smooth and seamless.

EM: Let's talk about your CDs. You've recorded your three symphonies with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, "Works for Orchestra" (

MB: It just came out about a month ago. It's a huge event for me. These are my three biggest electro-acoustic works. It's also quite a different release for the field because these are big narrative works that tell stories almost in a 19th century programmatic way, like Berlioz or Wagner, but they use completely different sounds. So the mixing of that, surround electronic mixing, was wild to do. It's a really beautiful CD the way that it's performed and mixed.

EM: What music will you be releasing with the Chicago Symphony next month?

MB: That's actually a very big acoustic piece, no electronics at all, called "Anthology Fantastic Zoology" ( As you can tell from the title, it's a kind of bestiary of mythological, imaginary creatures from literature and mythology. It's like a psychedelic Carnival of the Animals - sprites, griffins, nymphs. Riccardo Muti couldn't be a more perfect fit for this because he's a musical dramatist, has conducted at La Scala. That he would do such a dramatic piece means a lot to me.

EM: Muti, what a giant. It sounds like it may be something for all ages?

MB: Yes. It's got a dark fantasy component to it that's a lot deeper than it might sound because it becomes almost like a Rite of Spring, like a primal rite, with all these animals fusing together. My kids enjoyed hearing it, and I think because it has some colorful movements it could be something kids could get into.

EM: Speaking of kids, could you comment on your plans for Mercury Soul's new educational direction, doing shows for both adults and high-school students on each show day to bring classical music to young people in public schools, who otherwise have little exposure to it?

MB: There's a lot of great classical music outreach, but not a lot to high school students. There are programs for mostly elementary and middle schoolers coming to the Symphony. We found at Mercury Soul that we can address this gap with this event because it has the energy and relevance you need to get into the lives of high school students. A lot of them have this electronic dance music on their iPods, would love to go to a club but can't. They're just too young. So this is a really exciting, energetic event for them. People get educated in almost an ambient way here. At the event you can't help but learn about Stravinsky or Mendelssohn or Hans Biber from the 18th century because of the way the information is floated around. By integrating it into the DJ sets and having equally powerful dance music and classical sets, we found we can wake up this demographic. We has about 350 kids come to our show in October, who came on their own two feet. They didn't get bused. So that was a pretty big moment for us when we saw all these kids there. Some of them participated in the event. It's a lot of work for us to add this extra event, but it was in keeping with our mission to expand the boundaries of classical music.

EM: Kids are the future, after all. They're so impressionable but malleable in a good way.

MB: Yes. These kids are actually closest to the ticket buying age of classical music audiences. We want to get them before they go to college.

EM: This is a great time to be able to establish that desire to be a part of and experience it. Where do you see Mercury Soul headed in the coming months and years, with regards to new shows and your organization's expanding and evolving in general?

MB: In a way we're close to doing the kinds of things we want to do. We've done events all over the country. With the Chicago Symphony, National Symphony is doing an event next year at the Kennedy Center, Miami with the New World Symphony. What we'd like to do is scale up. We're ready for that. We've had about 6 years of building different shows for different environments. I'd like to see us have a regular series here in San Francisco - there's a real appetite for this kind of immersive event, in a city that has a lot of Burning Man fans who love a musical adventure, a lot of classical music fans looking for new venues, approaches to presentations. Locally we'd like to have a series of about four concerts a year. I think nationally as we go to places like the Kennedy Center we want to change the conversation about how classical music can be presented, to make sure that people understand that integrating the social element into classical music can be done substantively. It's not like you can only play certain kinds of music. You can really seek an adventure even in a club when you're talking and having a drink. A model for me and for us has been Michael Tilson Thomas - his ability to communicate with everybody in a room, tell them something very interesting. Often they're having a good time. Those are our goals. We also look to incorporating more high schools into our high school shows. It's so fun for us to see that demographic pumping their fists to Stravinsky and Bach (Laughs).

EM: I congratulate you for your commitment to all of these innovative concepts and everything you're doing. I so admire that. It's been such a pleasure to speak with you. Toi, toi, for Friday.

MB: Thank you for chatting. I appreciate it.

Photo credits: Chris Howard

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From This Author Erica Miner