Fermilab Sounds Inspire 'Alternative Energy' Symphony

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The physicists at Fermilab usually don’t pay much attention to the hums and growls and other mechanical sounds emanating all around them. It’s the sort of background noise one tends to block out in the workplace. But to contemporary composer Mason Bates, those sounds were music to his ears.

Currently composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Bates found inspiration in the sound of Fermilab for his latest symphony, “Alternative Emergy,” commissioned by the CSO, which performed the piece for the first time on Feb. 2.

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Born in Virginia, Bates is a Julliard trained musician who went on to earn a PhD in composition in 2008 from the University of California, Berkeley, and has also worked as a DJ and techno artist. He brought that experience into his composing, expanding the usual orchestral arrangements to include electronics.

He spent a year composing “Alternative Energy,” which he describes on his website as “an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years,” from the 19th century to a futuristic Icelandic rainforest — a consequence of global climate change — whose human inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life. He likens the work to the “tone poems” favored by Berlioz and Liszt.

“Alternative Energy” opens in a Midwestern junkyard, set in the 19th century. Bates built a drumset made from scraps of car parts for the CSO’s principal percussionist, Cynthia Yeh, with a blues fiddle handling the primary melody. That central motif evokes the cranking up of a vintage car motor, which Bates sees as “a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever-more-powerful energy.”

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The crank motif is echoed in the second movement, set in the present day, and featuring a recreation of the sounds of Fermilab’s particle accelerator booting up, among other tonal effects. Bates received a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility last year, listening intently as physicist Todd Johnson revved up various pieces of machinery, and making recordings of those he found interesting.

Seriously, though, why Fermilab?

“Fermilab exists at the intersection of technological power and human curiosity, and I wanted the symphony to include an example of massive energy used in a positive way,” Bates told Fermilab Today.

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“When we hear a surround-sound recreation of the Tevatron booting up — a massive machine spins around the orchestra — it is as if the crank on an old Model T suddenly grew to be several acres in size.”

Making a recording of the Tevatron’s signature “quench” proved a bit more challenging, but Bates was up to the challenge:

“I was blown away by the beautiful architecture of the main building and the sculptures scattered around. On a sonic level, I was astounded at the variety of noises that jostle out of this huge facility. I had hoped to find the sounds of massive machines and I found that in one of the refrigeration units,” Bates said. “And when Todd told me about the mysterious, capricious ‘quench,’ I told him that we needed to find a way to capture that. He contacted Derek Plant who, unbelievably, was able to set up various recording devices in just the right places. We got it!”

Once captured, those sounds then needed a bit of re-mixing, which Bates accomplished at Skywalker Studios with a bit of help from sound designer Gary Rydstron, who counts George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg among his past collaborators.

The remaining two movements of “Alternative Energy” are set in an industrial wasteland in China’s Xinjiang Province, and the aforementioned Icelandic rainforest. Bates incorporated bits of birdsong and jungle recordings for the latter movement.

“Alternative Energy” made its San Francisco debut last week at Davies Symphony Hall under the baton of Riccardo Muti (pictured at top), and will be performed in San Diego this weekend. For all you music fans outside of the area, check out Bates’ earlier composition, “Mothership,” commissioned for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, to get a sense of his style:

Image credits: Mason Bates, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fermilab