Mason Bates plays electronica with the S.F. Symphony

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has a reputation for adventure, conducting old and new music in wildly varied concerts. He is doing it again this month in “Re/Current: Beethoven and Bates Festival,” two programs pairing one of history’s most influential musical figures with Bay Area electronica composer Mason Bates.

“Before I knew Michael, I was exposed to his completely left-field programming,” says Bates, whose piece “The B-Sides” is sandwiched between Beethoven’s Romances for Violin and Orchestra and the haunting Seventh Symphony in concerts this week. (On Jan. 15-18 programs, Bates’ “Liquid Interface” appears with Beethoven’s Mass in C.)

“You might go and hear Beethoven and then you’d hear something by the 20th-century great Edgar Varese,” Bates says. “Those connections he made between old and new inspired me to integrate certain sounds into the orchestra that you would never expect.”

Bates, who lives in Burlingame and DJs under the moniker Masonic, gets spacey on “The B-Sides,” which he describes as a journey through five landscapes inspired by the exploratory, less pop-driven B-side recordings of the vinyl age.

Using NASA recordings from the 1965 Gemini IV voyage, Bates incorporates audio communication samples into his composition, which sounds more like a contemporary classical composition infused by electronica than a work dominated by it.

Bates, who got interested in electronica in the 1990s with the advent of techno and the intelligent dance music movement, has a bachelor’s degree in music composition from Columbia University-Juilliard School and a doctorate in composition from UC Berkeley. He is also the current composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony.

Married with two young children, Bates admits he doesn’t listen to music constantly.

“I do love silence. Sometimes you don’t want to hear anything,” he says with a laugh. “As I’ve gotten older and I’ve experienced a lot of live music, I find that recorded music doesn’t really do it for me anymore. Now when I go to a concert hall, it’s like going into a cathedral and I’m in the space of where my music lives.”

Bates’ contributions to the orchestra are not wholly new, in that electronics and classical composition have been combined before, and contemporary orchestras have evolved after centuries of innovation and tinkering.

He says, “The orchestra is always adding instruments as new technology has come along, and I think there is room for the sounds of the digital age in the orchestra. When I was first composing, DJing seemed to involve a different skill set. But these two kinds of music, classical and electronic, are more similar than rock and classical, or even jazz and classical, because it’s about texture and sonority. I find that more and more I think of these things in the same way, with the same brain.”


Re/Current: Beethoven and Bates Festival

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $39 to $152

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

Note: Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface” is paired with Beethoven’s excerpts from “King Stephen” and Mass in C in concerts at 8 p.m. Jan. 15-18 in Davies Hall.

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