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Friday, November 13, 2009

Hey DJ! Friday Q&A: Masonic aka Mason Bates

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2009 at 8:06 AM

Mason Bates is probably the only DJ who gets props from both the downtown dance community and ritzy classical society. The San Franciscan has an impressive resume fit for both worlds.

He's performed with the San Francisco Symphony and is the current composer-in-residence for the California Symphony (he'll soon be the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony next). But he's also hit the decks with San Francisco DJs in SOMA clubs. In the last couple years he's merged classical and beat culture at Mezzanine and 111 Minna, spreading his Mercury Soul vision across the city.

Mercury Soul hits 111 Minna tonight, Nov. 13, with Mason blending jazzy downtempo with classical music from 20 different musicians (performing live). It's a sonic style cocktail of unusually complimentary tastes, and it goes down at happy hour (5-9 p.m.). Get better acquainted with this high- and low-brow'r below.

Name: Masonic (aka Mason Bates)

Club night(s): The Mercury Lounge at 111 Minna

Style(s) of music you spin: Groovy downtempo & classical music

So what's your story, in 100 words or less? Symphonic composer by day, DJ by night, I found my schizophrenic musical state begging for resolution when I moved to SF in 2001. So I began incorporating live electromica into my orchestral works, as well as adding classical musicians to my DJ sets.

How did you start merging electronic and classical music? A piece called "Omnivorours Furniture," commissioned by the LA Philharmonic, was my first attempt at bringing these two worlds together. The piece exists at the interaction of morphing electronica beats and symphonic textures, a kind of head-banger's portal into the concert hall. But I soon found that the ambient possibilities of electronica offered musical opportunities equally powerful as beats.

What's something the two styles have in common that you wouldn't expect? Despite the gulf between the spaces where these musics exist - concert hall vs club - the ears of both audiences are well-primed for experiencing the other. Electronica's absence of a vocal line requires the music to bump-up other elements to maintain musical interest - intricate rhythms, beautiful sonorities, gems of harmony. This makes electronica heads pretty tolerant of the intense listening experience of classical music.

What's new for you on the classical front? The most exciting recent premiere for me was The B-Sides with the San Francisco Symphony. The musicians are amazing, and Michael Tilson Thomas understands electro-acoustic music better than just about any conductor. But the newest piece of news is that, beginning next year, I'll be the composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony. That'll involve a new piece for them - which I'm dreaming about already!  Though I'll continue to live in the Bay Area, I'll be in Chicago often to help bring music into the community.

Name of a track you can't get out of your head: Trademark's "High Times"

Name of an artist you're currently championing in your DJ sets: Up, Bustle, & Out / Abstract Rude / Chaser

Name of a current favorite track for the peak of your set: Delic "Funky Oreo 2000"

Musical mantra: Make it fresh and inevitable.

Favorite DJ experience: Mercury Soul at Mezzanine in 2007 was one hell of a rush. 1,400 people showed up to hear thumping DJ sets interspersed with classical performances. Maestro Benjamin Shwartz conducted some of SF's best players. Set designer Anne Patterson created a trippy and beautiful environment in the club.

But to be fair, I dig throwing down at John Colins and Eve for happy hour too!

Worst request: "Do you have anything by Vanilla Ice?" -no joke!

Worst club faux pas you've committed: Turning over a table full of drinks at Wish. That's the quickest way to get hundreds of hateful eyes turned to you. (I was just trying to move the table a little closer to the couch, but the damn thing was top-heavy!)

Most treasured vinyl score: Afromystic "Future Tropic"

What other music-related projects are you currently working on? After a great experience writing a big work for Chanticleer last spring, I've been asked to give them a new piece for next season's tour. I'm also working on a new piece for the California Symphony, where I am in my final year in a wonderful composer-in-residence.

What's something happening in the local music scene that should be getting more attention? Upright bassist David Arend, who plays with me everywhere, is a musician fluent in any musical style you can think of. I call him The Harmonic Parasite because of his uncanny ability to instantly internalize the harmony of any track and then lay down ultra-phat basslines. Also, Classical Revolution shares Mercury Soul's vision of bringing classical music to unusual spaces.

What elements would your fantasy club night entail? Lasers to cue musicians on the other side of a vast warehouse party. Secret service-type earpieces for me and Dave to communicate. A huge outdoor spotlight to project Mercury Soul's violin logo into the sky (like Batman). A DJ booth on a large movable dolly that rolls around the venue like a mariachi band.  That kind of stuff.

Question we didn't ask you but  you often ask yourself: "Is Oakland the new Brooklyn?"

Next time we can see you spin: With upright bassist David Arend, I can be found at the beautiful new lounge Eve for 'First Fridays' and at the bumping John Colins for "Third Thursdays" of every month.

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Ian S. Port


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