You've loved classical music since you first heard Pachelbel, and you've loved electronica since you first hit the dance floor to DeadMau5. So, how to reconcile your two disparate musical souls? We have no idea, but, fortunately, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates definitely does.
One of the coolest imports to Chicago in recent memory, the Virginia native also moonlights as an electronica DJ. Well, that's an understatement: A graduate of Juilliard, he has won wide acclaim for his compositions, which seamlessly blend orchestral and electronic music. "An orchestra is the greatest synthesizer in the world," says Bates.
One of the most sought-after composers in America, Bates was recently named a recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award for Arts & Humanities. More good news? Chicagoans have some time to discover his work. Along with fellow Mead Composer-in-Residence Anna Clyne, he recently signed a two-year contract extension with the CSO. If your curiosity is struck, as it should be, don't miss the next installment of the CSO's MusicNOW series, curated by Bates and Clyne, on October 29.
Despite traveling back and forth between his home in San Fran and work here in the Windy City, Bates took some time to hang out with us at Orchestra Hall. He talks about the "aha moment" that inspired his career, what he thinks about the Chicago audience, and more. Oh, and how does this musical genius like to dress? You'll have to click through to find out.
Photographed by Heather Talbert
Bates is wearing a Paul Smith jacket and Saks Fifth Avenue white shirt.
Outside of Chicago's famous Orchestra Hall.
How do you bridge the gap between the two different music styles?
"Classical music and electronica seem so far apart to us, but, in fact, they have surprising and beautiful confluences. Both explore non-lyric-based textures and rich sonorities, and both have intricate rhythms and harmonies (far more so than in, say, rock). So, bridging the gap between the two worlds is not as impossible as it may seem."
The gorgeous theater in Orchestra Hall can hold a total of 2,522 spectators.
What music do you listen to for personal enjoyment?
"Mouse on Mars, composer György Ligeti (late works), Prefuse 73, composer Donnacha Dennehy, and The Ingessana Tribe."
Orchestra Hall's first concert was held on December 14, 1904.
Bates is wearing a Theory suit and Sand black dress shirt.
You're always traveling! What's your favorite place to visit, and what's your favorite place to perform?
"I love unplugging in tropical places, which doesn't happen too often. Kauai is a favorite, but so is my hometown of Richmond, Virginia when it's high summer and there's a sea of insect noise. As far as favorite places to perform, I'm taken with Chicago. The audience is so knowledgable and quite adventurous."
The stage may look cramped, but it's definitely a form of organized chaos.
Bates is wearing Diesel jeans, an Arnold Zimberg shirt, and Abercrombie & Fitch belt.
How does the music scene differ in Chicago from San Francisco?
"They are both really cool, but Chicago, to this day, has remnants of its dramatic past that people are really devoted to. There is a seriousness and a keen level of curiosity. People seem really devoted to the musical roots planted here, too."
Since 1904, the Armour Stage has hosted thousands of performances by musical legends ranging from Toscanini to B.B. King. Another use? Countless seated dinners, cocktail receptions, and meetings.
When was it that you knew this was the musical direction you wanted to go into?
"It was when I moved to San Francisco that I had my 'aha' moment. I became more familiar with the electronic style of music. Since there's no vocals, electronica really needs to pump up intricate rhythms, harmonies, and textures. The same can be said for the orchestra. It's like the world's largest synthesizer."
The commanding stage at Orchestra Hall.
Who are your favorite designers and why?
"I'm no connoisseur, let alone an expert, on style. But I'll say that my scrawny size has led me to a better understanding of which designers offer slim-fit clothes: Theory and Prada for formal wear, for example. When I lived for a year in Rome, I finally was able to find pants that wouldn't fall off me. I guess the Italians are pretty scrawny, too."
What are three things you’d never leave behind when heading out on tour?
"My laptop to stay plugged in, ear plugs to tune out, and Art of Shaving products to keep me from looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away."
The gorgeous Grainger Ball Room in Orchestra Hall is primarily used as an event space for wedding receptions, meetings, and pre- or post-concert fetes. With Australian crystal chandeliers and sweeping views of Michigan Avenue, who wouldn't want to host a party here?
After becoming the youngest recipient of the prestigious Heinz Medal in Arts and Humanities, what's next?
"I would love to explore the literary, operatic, and film worlds if the right opportunity came along. But, I'm really happy with exactly what I'm doing right now. "
Row B, for Bates perhaps?