Fermilab sounds debut in “Alternative Energy”

Composer Mason Bates performs a previous symphony, “Mothership,” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Watch a clip from that show here.

Editor’s note: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform contempory composer Mason Bates’ newest symphony, “Alternative Energy,” at 8 p.m. from Feb. 2 to Feb. 4 and Feb. 7. This piece features sounds collected at Fermilab last spring, including hums from refrigeration units, growls from transformers and the quenching of a Tevatron magnet.

Most Fermilab personnel have learned to ignore the ubiquitous booms, hums, growls and crackles of Fermilab machinery. But composer Mason Bates places these sounds center stage in his new piece “Alternative Energy.”

“Alternative Energy” is an imaginative musical narrative that follows the evolution of energy and technology. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the piece at 8 p.m. from Feb. 2 through 4 and Feb. 7.

“The idea was that each movement would be separated by a hundred years, starting with old energy and moving to present and future energy,” Bates said about his newest symphony. The first movement in the show uses scrap metal to evoke a junkyard.

Bates came to Fermilab last spring seeking inspiration for the present-day movement of his piece. He was not disappointed. Bates found a variety of sounds to give a modern-twist to his dynamic orchestral symphony.

“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. 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,” Bates said.

Physicist Todd Johnson gave Bates a behind-the-scenes tour of Fermilab and revved different machinery while Bates eagerly listened and recorded.

“He was very enthusiastic and asked a lot of questions. He was obviously really happy to be here,” Johnson said.

Bates not only enjoyed his visit to Fermilab, but found exactly what he was looking for sonically.

“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!”

Bates features the sounds he recorded at Fermilab in the present day movement of his symphony. He called “Alternative Energy” his biggest piece to date. For tickets, visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s website.

Sarah Charley