Interview: Mercury Soul's Mason Bates Merges Classical with Electronic Music

By: Sep. 18, 2015
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From Mendelssohn to Mason Bates, Mercury Soul's upcoming San Francisco performance on Fri., Oct. 2 (, combines the talents of top local Indie classical musicians with electronic music in the atmosphere of high profile nightclub Ruby Skye. A must-attend event for Bay Area music lovers, the return of this "classical music rave" of DJs, classical music and live electronica, with spectacular lighting and projections, promises to be both memorable and innovative.

The Oct. 2 lineup will include sets by DJ Masonic (Bates), Chicago's DJ Justin Reed, and guest DJs from Housepitality and Vinyl Dreams, two popular local underground dance music collectives. Classical offerings from the Del Sol String Quartet, the Thalea Quartet, and members of Elevate Ensemble include Bates' Bagatelles and a work by local composer Gabriela Lena Frank, plus works by Mendelssohn, Poulenc, and Stravinsky, and Bates' electro-acoustic sinfonietta, The Rise of Exotic Computing.

In founding Mercury Soul in 2008, composer/DJ Bates created an entirely new concept of musical performance, merging contrasting musical genres by alternating dynamic classical chamber works with DJ sets linked with electro-acoustic interludes and performed with imaginative stagecraft in unusual venues. He has received wide recognition by bringing the Mercury Soul project to prominent orchestral ensembles and famous clubs throughout the US. His compositions push the borders between classical and electronic music, integrating electronic sounds into the symphonic genre.

Recognized as a musical force of nature in the Bay Area, Bates also has collaborated closely with San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, whose recordings of the composer's three symphonies will be released in March of 2017. Awarded the prestigious Heinz Medal and recently named second most-performed living composer, Bates, has achieved the distinction of being the Kennedy Center's first composer-in-residence, a post he currently fulfills.

EM: How would you describe the concept for Mercury Soul?

MB: A SWAT team of classical musicians parachutes into a thumping club, then they all make music together: that's Mercury Soul.

EM: That sounds phenomenal. What was your original motivation for founding the group?

MB: Our mission is to spread the deep experience of classical music to a new generation in imaginative new ways. Electronica is a surprisingly symbiotic musical form. Electronica fans are used to being challenged and engaged viscerally at the same time - and so are classical music listeners. It's a giant, fun experiment that aims to move the needle on both classical music and EDM (Electronic Dance Music).

EM: Moving the needle - that's brilliant. Certainly the world needs experimentation now. But how did you go about finding support for this daring, creative concept?

MB: Dropping a chamber orchestra into a club is a lot more expensive than a garage band, so we've been fortunate to receive critical support from donors and a few foundations, such as the Fleishhacker Foundation, the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation, and the East Bay Community Fund. We're looking to expand our support base into the tech world, where creativity and technology intersect daily - just like on our shows.

EM: You're in the right locale to do that for sure. Would you say that combining the world of club culture with classical and electronic music is the wave of the future?

MB: Hopefully the future is multi-pronged. We'd love to see more substantive intersection of classical music and EDM, because both sides of the equation can learn a lot from each other, but the concert hall will live on too. Big|Brave institutions like the San Francisco Symphony are pushing the envelope in format and programming, while chamber ensembles such as the Del Sol Quartet are showing the classical musicians can pop up in all manner of spaces.

EM: I'm delighted to hear that. Could you briefly describe the work you've been doing for and with students?

MB: After six years of bringing Mercury Soul to orchestras and clubs around the country, this is the first time we've added a free "pre-show" for public high school students. There's a need for more music outreach at the high school level, and anyway, EDM is high on teens' iPods these days. In early visits to School of the Arts, we are discussing how you collide two different kinds of music through the perspectives of composition, performance, stagecraft, and dance. And a few of them will get to perform before their friends on the afternoon show!

Mercury Soul: Fri., Oct. 2, Ruby Skye, 420 Mason St.

Photo credits: Ryan Close, Guru Khalsa


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