Composer Brings 'The Color Of Sound' To DNA Lounge

Mason Bates (center). | Photo: Mason Bates/Facebook

Tomorrow night, DNA Lounge hosts Prismatic: The Color of Sound, a club show that integrates DJ sets, live classical music pieces and synchronized light effects.

Part of a series known as Mercury Soul, the performance is the brainchild of Mason Bates, a Bay Area composer who also goes by DJ Masonic.

Bates graduated in composition from UC Berkeley ten years ago. In addition to producing works that integrate electronica and classical orchestra, his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered in Santa Fe last year and will be presented by SF Opera during the 2019-20 season.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
James Moore & Mason Bates in Santa Fe for "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs."

Mercury Soul is becoming a recurring feature. What is the theme this time?

We now are offering three shows this year, and a couple shows out of town, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Here, it's really exciting to build an audience, because we have different kinds of music-making and art-making in the San Francisco community that are colliding: we have DJs, amazing classical performers, and we also have performers from outside the music world: dancers, light artists. This show is about color. We are exploring how music is related to color in the electronic world and in the classical world.

I've composed specific music for a player piano, a piano that plays itself, that is hooked up to a lighting rig that projects different colors. It's really wild. Oakland artist Nick Kanozick built it. All the classical pieces explicitly reference color in the title. They have coordination with our lighting projections. Also the DJ sets tie up with the colors to make it pulsing and kinetic.

It's a club show, so we make it exciting. The pieces try to conjure the color from their music. For example, the first piece we play, by Jennifer Higdon, is called Fiery Red. That inspires music almost like your hair is on fire, it's so exciting and thriving. On the other end, we have a piece by Michael Torke, one of the most famous contemporary synaesthetic composers. He has a piece called Rust that has an industrial sound to it. He's got all kind of brass instruments, a huge brass ensemble for this show that we use throughout.

The great thing about Mercury Soul is that you get to experience live classical sets but we use these classical ensembles throughout the DJ sets as well. You hear a brass band rocking along to a funk track, or strings hanging over some ambient music sets. Even if you don't spend a lot of time with classical music, it's a fun way to encounter it.
Mason Bates and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. | Photo: Mason Bates

Your opera the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs came out last year in Santa Fe, and will come to SF Opera in 2019-20. Are you going to update it?

We're definitely making some tweaks. It's probably far less extensive than many other operas. It's about 100 minutes, 90 minutes, one act. We've been so careful to make that structure work. Honestly, with a tight structure like that, you really need to get it right the first time, it's difficult to add and subtract. By the time it comes to San Francisco, the audience will see a piece that has lived and breathed over several years. It's going to be a unique experience to come to the home of Steve Jobs.

What was exciting about this piece, we had reactions all over the map. We had initial reactions from the East coast that were very negative. And then we had other responses from the Chronicle, the LA Times, the Financial Times that were positive. It became a piece that the critics had to weigh in on. They were going at each other. The LA Times called the NY Times review cynical. It was pretty exciting to see. You can't really ignore the critics when you write an opera. I was grateful to read the Washington Post, they included it as one of their top ten musical events of last year and they said it might be the first critics-proof opera. I don't know if that's true, but it was meaningful to the entire team. We were laughing all the way to the opera house.

The set design for this show was very elaborate. Even though it's quite simple to look at, we wanted it to have technological bells and whistles we associate with Steve Jobs. Music is the language of opera, but there are so many other art forms that inform an opera. Musically, I wanted to create a new kind of operatic experience that integrates electronics, that travels backward and forward in time, but that also relates to the fundamental things that we really love about opera. I loved the experience and I'd love to do it again.

It took me many many years to get the Steve Jobs piece to happen and many false starts. One of the big takeaway was you really need to find the right subject matter. I really connected with the subject matter, being a Bay area resident, technologist. The audience had a lot of entry points in the story. We all use Steve Jobs' devices. There was the humanness in him. He was a complicated individual with controlling tendencies, even with his own cancer he tried to control it. As I think about the next opera, I have to make sure I have an idea that is solid first of all.

The second opera is always easier to get moving than the first one. There are a lot of people asking, "if you have an idea, please send it to us."

Mercury Soul Prismatic features DJ Masonic, DJ Justin Reed, Pankind Trio on steel drums, Steel and Ivory piano trio, conductor Brad Hogarth and LED art by Christopher Schardt.
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