Meet Mason Bates -- The Man Behind Steve Jobs the Opera

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Mason Bates working in his home studio (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Mason Bates writes most of his music in a light, airy home studio on the Peninsula with lots of glass and a view of San Francisco Bay through the trees.

But when I visited Bates a few weeks ago, he was working on a piece with a gloomy theme. "Auditorium starts with the conceit that an orchestra, like a person, can be haunted," the composer says. "It’s a piece for two orchestras. One that’s living and one that’s dead."

Bates often works to expand the orchestra’s sound universe with electronic dance beats and audio samples. In Auditorium, which will receive its world premiere performances from Wednesday, Apr. 27 - Friday, Apr. 29 in concerts with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, Bates will play the laptop in the orchestra, triggering recordings he's made of a baroque ensemble. "So when the orchestra -- the living one -- goes to tune, we hear this ghost kind of blow in, building almost a kind of Ouija board type of relationship," Bates says.

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"His sense of mystery is tremendous," says the San Francisco Symphony's music director Michael Tilson Thomas. "There’s a sparkle of  joy of life in Mason’s Bate’s music, along with his wonderful ear for harmony and musical gesture. He makes everything, sound lustrous."

Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra from the San Francisco Symphony
Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra from the San Francisco Symphony (Photo: Courtesy SFS Media)

Bates says he works best at home in this studio. He uses both the old fashioned way of writing notes on a page with pencil and paper, as well as more modern tools that fill the room. "There’s the piano, and I'm often banging on that," Bates says. "And over here among the synths and computer, that’s where I’ m creating the electronic sounds and integrating them into the pieces I’m writing."

Bates says he likes composing especially because it means he can spend time with his wife, a molecular biologist, and their two young children. "I mean not at the same time, that would not work," he says. "But you know I’m at home, I’m not traveling."

Time at home for any purpose has been precious lately. Bates just started a gig as composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. There's the San Francisco Symphony premiere, and  he's just finished two recording projects, one with the The San Francisco Symphony, and the other with The Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He'll also be a composer-in residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music this summer in Santa Cruz, where he'll work for the sixth time with Festival Director Marin Alsop, a champion of Bates' music.

"I think Mason is extraordinarily talented," Alsop says. "I enjoy so much having him involved in the performances as well. Often he’s in the orchestra with his laptop, and his music resonates with audiences of today with younger audiences."

A draw for younger audiences

That’s one reason Bates is in demand. Symphony orchestras around the world are worried about aging audiences and a shrinking music business. Composers like Bates up the cool factor. He sometimes DJ’s after-concert parties, and his compositions aren't thickets of atonality, as with some modern composers: the electronica and dance beats he favors ride on familiar harmonies.

"It’s a sound world that’s very very appealing," Alsop says. "Some of it is pop oriented, some not. But it’s something everybody can relate to."

Accessibility is important

A few critics and the occasional older audience member have knocked the pop harmonies and beats in some of Bates' work. But the composer says he wants to be both accessible and something more. "If you want to go to a deep space, a deep listening experience, then you have to find a way to take the listener along with you," Bates says.

Bates' newest project is a Santa Fe Opera commission for 2017, written with librettist Mark Campbell, about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. "What if in an opera about a guy who changed communication, everybody communicates through a sound world," Bates says. "Maybe Steve Jobs has acoustic guitar and electronica, his wife has these oceanic strings, Woz  [Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] has saxophones. And when they’re all on stage together, worlds are colliding."

Bates' music for the opera includes a theme for Jobs' spiritual adviser which is full of pulsing synthesizers and vibrating prayer bowls. "Storytelling is the idea that possesses me," the composer says.