Composer Mason Bates is a fusion of all-Americanness and 21st century globalism.
At 35, he still speaks with an only slightly modified variant of the unique drawl of Richmond, Va., where he grew up. He has a last name for a first name, a choirboy’s features, and what looks like a perpetual tan.
One of two Mead composers in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bates made his formal studies at Columbia University and the Juilliard School with teachers who pushed for American voices in a world they regarded as overrun by European influences.
Yet his early embrace of electronics and his “night job” as turntable spinner shows the influence of Europe’s inhalation of American club dance sounds and its transformation of those beats and effects into a sort of international Esperanto background music. A listener wandering into CSO performances last season of Bates’ “Music for Underground Spaces” or “The B-Sides” would have a hard time identifying the composer’s national, or even hemispheric, origins.
This could change with the world premiere performances Thursday through Tuesday of “Alternative Energy,” the first work written expressly for the CSO and its music director Riccardo Muti.
The maestro appointed Bates and his fellow Mead composer Anna Clyne to their positions and this week extended the appointments for two more seasons. Muti is also taking Bates’ piece and Clyne’s “Night Ferry” on the CSO’s California tour this month and the Bates work to New York’s Carnegie Hall in October. (Bates also will host a new CSO lounge party called “POST” after Friday’s concert.)
“This is my biggest commission to date,” Bates said by phone recently from Miami, where he was presenting one of his techno/classical “Mercury Soul” concert-cum-party evenings. “At 22 minutes, it’s my longÂest work for full orchestra. I thought it was very important that this piece take note of Chicago and the Midwest, because they are giving it birth in idea and performance.”
Staying in close contact with Muti – “We shared a lot of trans-Atlantic phone calls!” – Bates created a work that tells a story of the evolution, or devolution, of man-made energy. Its opening movement evokes a turn-of-the-last-century junkyard inspired “both by places I’ve driven to around Chicago, and by that great American tinkerer, Henry Ford.”
“Ford’s Farm 1896” is followed by “Chicago 2012” with sounds Bates gathered on site from the recently closed Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, as well as others Chicago has sent out into the world via its development of house and other club music. An explosive meeting of acoustic and electronic music takes the work through a nuclear meltdown in China in 2112; a coda of bird song and tribal voices closes out the piece in a 23rd-century Iceland as the Earth starts a repopulation.
“Maestro Muti really helped me to stretch here,” Bates said. “Both in crafting the electronics and their sound from laptop [which Bates operates onstage with the orchestra] to speakers with the same care as the orchestra’s acoustic parts and in bowing to classical antecedents, such as the ‘idee fixe’ that Berlioz used in the ‘Symphonie fantastique’ – except we’ll be doing this with a fiddle tune and junkyard car parts.”
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WMFT-FM (98.7).