The tradition of the star performer-composer is as old as classical music itself — Beethoven on the piano, Paganini on the violin. But Mason Bates isn't a virtuoso of the organ or the lute. The role of the performer and the role of the composer have changed: Bates's instrument is the laptop.
He divides his oeuvre into two, not totally inextricable halves. As Mason Bates, he's a Juilliard-trained composer with a sheaf of stellar commissions under his belt. In addition to his works for purely acoustic forces — his solo piano work White Lies for Lomax (2007), notably, can be performed with or without a sampled field recording — his music has stirred electronic elements into music performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the London Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and on and on.
As DJ Masonic, he spins in clubs, galleries and warehouses, often incorporating live performances by jazz and classical musicians. His Mercury Soul project, mixing classical and popular performance into evening-long sets, blurs the line between composition, performance and curation. Making dance music with classical collaborators, making classical music with elements from dance, there's an awful lot of overlap between Bates the DJ and Bates the composer.
But perhaps his success in both arenas is also due to the extent to which his dual musical interests do not overlap. He is, in many ways, a traditionalist in both fields. His electronica is made out of steady, chilled-out grooves, not the wild sounds and irregular pulsations of Darmstadt-inspired noise or "intelligent dance" artists. And his orchestral music sounds like, well, orchestral music — the fusion of pop and classical elements isn't a takeover of the concert hall by a computer logic, but the next step in a tradition coming down from the jazzier concert works of composers like Gershwin and Bernstein via Adams, freshened and revived by the added electronic bounce.
His commission for the YouTube Symphony, for instance — Mothership — is in its final, YouTube version, positively demented, making room as it must for the improvisatory talents of various instrumental soloists of vastly different musical backgrounds. But is it really so different from Bates's other work? Compare it to The B-Sides (2009), his orchestral homage to Detroit techno, and you'll hear a the same phenomenon, just to a lesser degree: two musical traditions sharing the stage, each gracious enough to give the other a generous amount of space to be itself.