What do classical music and dubstep have in common? To the average listener, probably not a whole heck of a lot, but to Grammy-winning, Juilliard- and Berkeley-trained composer, conductor and disc jockey Mason Bates, the similarities far outweigh the differences.
“Bach’s cello suites are dance pieces. You can draw a straight line from Baroque dance music all the way to modern dance music. The dances themselves have changed, the instruments have evolved, but the soul of the music has endured,” he said.
Bates is an unusual member of the music community, in that he has won awards for composing operas and he has worked with many a symphonic orchestra—including the Sun Valley Music Festival last year—but he is also an accomplished DJ, with a healthy backlog of engagements at clubs all across the country, from San Francisco to Miami and everywhere in between.
It is the tremendous ease with which he wears these multiple creative hats that inspired him—under the stage name DJ Masonic—to found Mercury Soul, a singular musical touring act that melds classical music and contemporary dance music into one harmonious sonic amalgam.
Alongside fellow conductor Benjamin Schwartz and visual designer Anne Patterson, Bates established the Mercury Soul program as a way to engage audiences actively with the history of music, invoking connections between Baroque, classical and Romantic periods and the house music of contemporary nightclubs.
As a DJ, he merges all these seemingly disparate sounds together to produce a truly unique dance experience, which he feels is more closely akin to the way the works of classical composers are meant to be enjoyed.
“It’s nice to have something more social and casual. Remaining fixed to your seat for the duration of a performance is more of a modern conceit,” he said. “Mercury Soul is a fun way to create a dance party and have classical movements bloom from the music. You’ll hear it float into the mix, allowing the audience to get used to the instruments before we go fully into a piece by Ravel or Bach or something.”
With full lights and effects, Mercury Soul appears like an average dance party at first, but as Bates said, over the course of the evening he gradually sneaks in snippets of classical music until finally whole movements or suites are performed by live musicians. The beat goes on, and whatever DJ Masonic is spinning on the turntables blends in with, amplifies and supports whatever the orchestra is playing.
In conversation, Bates downplays the originality of the idea, pointing to a rich history of these techniques in recorded music, but assenting that doing it live and in a club setting is out of the ordinary.
“The combination of classical instruments and modern production and electronic beats is something we’re all familiar with in film and pop culture. Think of Pink Floyd. They had tons of interesting collisions of sound design and classical instruments. We don’t think of this as something that happens live, though,” he said.
Having performed with the Sun Valley Music Festival last summer, Bates said he feels excited at the prospect of returning.
With the festival, Bates conducted the symphony through some of his own compositions. He also DJed a lawn party after that concert. That instance is precisely what inspired him to schedule this upcoming return.
“The concept of dance music is that it engages the body. That’s what I noticed when I was spinning the lawn party. I’ve DJed in places where the community doesn’t know how to handle it, but in Sun Valley there was an openness to letting the body connect directly to the music,” he said.
The Argyros was more than happy to organize Bates as part of its ongoing Argyros Presents series. In lieu of a traditional night club, Bates said, the Ketchum performing arts center was the ideal setting.
“It’s cool to be doing something at The Argyros. I’ve seen that space and it’s just beautiful and so versatile. It’s like a Rubik’s cube the way it can be turned around. We have access to such stagecraft and lighting. This is going to be a really different show,” he said.
Tickets are available for purchase online now at theargyros.org, ranging in price from $25 to $70. The show kicks off at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 21.
Local talent DJ Doc Roc and DJ Juidos will make special appearances to spin sets.
Taking advantage of The Argyros’ state-of-the-art constellation sound system in a way that has not fully been explored up to this point, Mercury Soul promises to be a night of entertainment unlike any to take place at the performing arts center to this point.