Coronavirus

How We Work Now: Composer Mason Bates

Mason Bates
Courtesy Photo

Mason Bates

In a new series amid the coronavirus pandemic, Billboard is asking individuals from all sectors of the music business to share stories of how they work now, with much of the world quarantined at home and unable to take in-person meetings, attend conferences or even go into the office. Submissions for the series can be sent to HowWeWorkNow@Billboard.com. Read the full series here.

This installment is with Grammy-nominated composer Mason Bates, the first composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Mason Bates: I had a bit of a premonition that there was going to be a lockdown in March, and it also happened to be a moment when I had finished a very big project. I thought, This would be a great time to go up to the mountains of Kirkwood and go skiing. [My family] booked a house for three nights, and we ended up staying for the first two weeks of the lockdown. There are some pictures of me out buying groceries on skis and stuff. At that time, I did not understand that this could go even into the summer.

The thing that really knocked me off emotionally was the cancellation of my opera [The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs] at San Francisco Opera. It was coming to San Francisco after its premiere three years ago in Santa Fe, and this was kind of like the mothership coming home, you know? For me, it was very disappointing that the San Francisco Opera didn't make any effort to reschedule the piece. It just never occurred to me that they would just cancel a piece that they commissioned. It was sort of like a slow-motion asteroid.

I’m in Hillsborough [Calif.], which is a little bit more property and big spaces. It’s not an urban environment. I'm up at around 5:30 a.m., and I have about an hour and a half of uninterrupted creative time, which is important because once the day begins, these days, it's pretty scattered.

From about 8:30 to 11:30, I have my biggest block of time. There are usually three or four hours at the end of the day when I can get some lower-priority creative stuff done, like orchestration, notation, that kind of thing. When I start to make dinner by six o’clock, I put on some music that’s good for whatever project I'm working on. Right now, I'm working on a string quartet for the Dover Quartet, and I’m listening to things from string band music to string quartets, just to kind of keep my head on it.

But like a lot of people that work at home, and now have their families with them, it's disruptive. You're used to having emotional, mental space where you can compose and work. And now there are a thousand distractions every day. I really don't like to have people in the house when I'm writing. It makes me feel self-conscious when I'm trying out ideas on the piano. I just feel like I need to be able to write without any fear of second-guessing, and even though I'm pretty certain nobody in the family really cares that much about my doodles on the piano, it definitely has impacted productivity.

I’m trying to be mindful of, there's a lot more suffering out there that's greater. But it is trying to have to suddenly be the kids’ teacher, and also stay focused on your composing. I'm giving myself composition assignments every morning, saying, “Okay, today you're going to write a bluegrass string quartet movement that has surprising harmonic shifts,” or something like that. And it's helped me to have a little bit more of a rigorous schedule.

I feel a responsibility to help the field find new ways to communicate this moment. That pressure does eat at me a little bit. If you can gather an orchestra, but not an audience, well, then we could get something going. Or we could present a concert about ambient music for just 100 people in a large space. What I did was put out a curating series for the Kennedy Center. I wanted to give a look into how I put concerts together, and talk about the ways we experience music during a time when we have a little moment to get some perspective.

I think it's okay to be unproductive. I think it's okay to not have to throw together some digital opera. Honestly, I’m trying to be charitable here, but if the future is all these online performances, then, shit, I hope we can do better. Because our field, like sports, really depends on the live experience. So I'm putting up this series, and that helps me feel like I'm contributing.

To me, one of the biggest deficiencies in our field has not been the programming or the outreach. It’s the production. I feel like what would help both the live experience, as well as the future potential to stream it in a way that feels vivid, is production. It’s lighting. It’s stagecraft. It’s a little more color, a little more theatrical presentation. Turning on even something like the Berlin Philharmonic right now, I appreciate that it’s there, I just think it could be filmed much more vividly. The things that are streaming right now are really, really generous, but they do feel like a shadow of what we normally do.

Who knows? Maybe five years from now, we'll look back at this and say, "This was a moment that galvanized the field to think about concert production." We just don't know yet. I think if some streaming platform wanted to partner with several large presenters, like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and L.A. Phil, to present a kind of modern television version of classical radio -- like a Netflix classical -- that could be fantastic. That’s a pipe dream.

But look how quickly people adapted to walking around with masks and all this. Humans are pretty quick to change. Once this is behind us, there'll still be some tentativeness in attending a concert, but I think that they will return, and I'm actually feeling that it might be a very heartfelt return to the analog world. I think there are going to be a lot of incredibly meaningful concerts that remind people, no matter how good Tiger King is, the real experience in a concert hall or theater is not to be forgotten.

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