The Culture

Why Quinn Mason, a 24-Year-Old Composer From Dallas, May Be Classical Music’s Next Superstar

Mason, one of the most sought-after young composers in the country, has a new work set to premiere in November.

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Thirteen years ago, a class of fifth graders filed into the library of Onesimo Hernandez elementary school, in Dallas, for a short Career Day presentation—a tradition that inspires often unpredictable reactions in the under-twelve set. As the students settled into their seats, the Dallas Opera Orchestra’s principal oboist, Rogene Russell, smiled at the squirming audience and began to play her instrument. Straight away, an eleven-year-old boy blurted out the name of the work, as naturally as if it were basic arithmetic: “Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony!” he said. Russell was surprised that a youngster recognized the piece; she did this sort of thing in schools across the city, and she’d never seen a kid with such familiarity. For the remainder of the performance, the boy announced each piece as she played. “Prokofiev!” he declared. “Peter and the Wolf!” And so on.

After the presentation was over, a counselor introduced Russell to the perceptive student. His name was Quinn Mason, and, she was informed, he had been listening rather closely to local classical music stations.

Though he didn’t mention it to her at the time, Mason wasn’t just listening to classical music; he was playing and composing it too. He’d started learning piano earlier that year at school, and soon he was checking out books on musical notation from the school library that helped him learn how to set down on paper the sounds in his head. By age twelve, he’d written one of his first pieces, for solo cello. By age fourteen, he’d drafted his first work for a chamber ensemble. By age eighteen, his first symphony. By nineteen, he’d won his first composition contest and witnessed the first professional performance of his work.

Today, at 24, Mason is one of the most sought-after young composers in the country. He counts eight commissions on his desk, including a new work, “Reflection on a Memorial,” which the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is set to premiere November 11.

This level of success for a composer in his early twenties is unusual; typically, a young composer’s work is limited to a conservatory context and not performed for mainstream audiences. Yet for years, Mason’s work has captivated listeners and peers—people such as Will White, the musical director and principal conductor of Orchestra Seattle. “He engineers his climaxes masterfully; he knows how to structure his forms so that each phrase is calculated to propel the music onward,” White says. “Most composers—and here I mean even the greats—are fantastic at writing long crescendos that build excitement. But once they’ve built a head of steam, they don’t know what to do with it. Quinn’s buildups always arrive with a bit of payoff.”

If this wasn’t promising enough, consider the buoyant optimism of Houston-born composer-conductor John Axelrod, a mentor of Mason’s. “Two hundred years from now,” he says, “people are going to look back at the twenty-first century and say, ‘This is the age of the composer-conductor Quinn Mason.’ ”

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Mason with his first cello teacher, Heather Moncrief Rivera-Torres, in 2008.

Courtesy of Quinn Mason

Quinn Mason has spent most of the past year quarantined in an apartment near Dallas’s upscale Oak Lawn neighborhood with his mother, Gloria, who works as an overnight shift manager at CVS. Some days he gets up around ten in the morning, answers email for an hour, then composes until two the following morning; other days he’ll wake up in the afternoon and work through the night. He’ll often reference a little black Moleskine notebook, where he keeps his musical ideas—a sketch for a score, a title with an outline. Then he’ll use Sibelius, a musical notation software program, to flesh out the bars, and a virtual orchestra software program to listen to demos.

When Mason and I spoke over Zoom in July, our conversation quickly turned to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a groundbreaking, century-old magnum opus that has absorbed much of Mason’s attention for the past few years. “It’s my favorite piece,” he told me. “I literally have seven hundred and eight recordings of it.” On his website, he burrows deeply into his obsession with the work. “At any given time in the score, there are multiple rhythms, keys (bitonality), even tempi happening at the same time,” he wrote. “It’s almost strange to remember that this music was written to be danced to.”

As part of his quest to fully immerse himself in The Rite of Spring, Mason has scrutinized the ways various orchestras have approached it. For the New York Philharmonic alone, he’s dissected how the group performed it in 1940, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1990, 2007, and 2012. But the London Symphony Orchestra’s obscure 1978 recording, by the conductor Eduardo Mata, is his favorite, he says, because it “captures the primitive and brutal spirit of the composition while also keeping it danceable and not pushing it too hard.”

And he didn’t just collect 708 versions of his favorite orchestral composition and commit it to memory: two years ago, he assembled 103 versions of a brief eleven-beat percussion sequence in the work, strung them together in chronological order by performance date, and posted the ten-minute compilation, “1,133 Rite of Spring Beats,” on YouTube. After the link went viral—well, for a classical post—he created a follow-up video: “1,133 (More) Rite of Spring Beats.” (“[Conductor Lorin] Maazel 1978 sounds like a broken Macintosh computer’s startup chime,” wrote one follower in the comments.)

This sort of intense focus is nothing new to Mason. He showed a desire for deep study even in elementary school, when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a now-defunct diagnosis on the autism spectrum that was associated with developing and cultivating a set of special interests. “You’ve seen me on this call,” he said during our Zoom chat. “You’ve seen me look everywhere. I definitely get easily distracted. But whenever I’m super focused on something, I won’t stop focusing on it. I focus on it for hours and hours.”

As a toddler, Mason was attracted to musical toys more than to trucks and action figures, so Gloria got him a miniature keyboard. After he started elementary school, she noticed that his infatuation with music was getting in the way of his studies. “I don’t think I ever did my homework,” he says. But while some mothers might have lectured their child about “priorities,” Gloria had a different philosophy. “When a person is in love with something, you can’t just be like, ‘Hey, put it down, and let’s focus on this,’ ” she says. “That doesn’t work. Music is his love.” She preferred to let him indulge his interests.

So indulge he did. Mason learned to play piano, cello, and percussion, and he designed personal challenges for himself, like memorizing Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies and reading all the music books in his school library. “That was my homework,” he says. Rogene Russell, who started driving Mason to Dallas Symphony Orchestra rehearsals after she’d met him at Career Day back in 2007, recalls that in 2014 she gave him a twenty-volume set of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Not long afterward, he reported that he’d read it cover to cover.

Mason capped off his time at North Dallas High School by conducting one of his original works, “Bulldog Fanfare,” for the 2015 graduation ceremony. He went on to study at Dallas’s Richland College for two years, then at Texas Christian University for a year. But he struggled to maintain interest in nonmusic classes, so he left TCU and transferred to Southern Methodist University, where he took music-specific classes as a nondegree student.

He continued to write music the entire time, and in 2016, at age twenty,  he received his first commission: for the University of Texas–Arlington Saxophone Quartet. Unlike most of his peers, Mason, who has perfect pitch, didn’t usually rely on an instrument in order to compose. If an idea for a score came to him while he was, say, shopping for groceries, he would later jot it down like a diary entry. “Entire pieces,” says SMU composition teacher Lane Harder, with astonishment. “Like he was taking dictation.”

Word of his talent was spreading, and the awards he was stacking up helped. So did Mason’s eagerness to make connections. He emailed conductors and formed friendships in online chat groups; he worked every room he entered and composed pieces that players enjoyed performing—a predilection that shouldn’t be underestimated. “He met a bassoonist from Scandinavia and decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to write some bassoon études,’ ” says Russell’s husband, Doug Howard, a former principal percussionist for the Dallas Symphony. “And so he wrote a group of études for the bassoon, sends them to the guy, and the next thing we know, they’re on YouTube.”

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Quinn Mason at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, in Dallas, on September 18, 2020.

Photograph by Temi Thomas

Like many young composers, Mason has spent much of his early years imitating the styles of others—a tradition he’d read about in all those library books he devoured as a child. He tried writing in the style of one composer, then another, examining the creator’s predictable inclinations or magical departures. When he played a new score for Russell, she’d sometimes tease him: “Quinn, have you been listening to Dvořák this week?”

Once, he even made a game of it. Mason brought a piano concerto to his Richland College composition teacher, Jordan Kuspa, and told Kuspa it had been written by an obscure Russian composer. But when Kuspa attempted to look up the composer, he couldn’t find any reference to the musician. The work wasn’t a masterpiece, Kuspa says, but it was strong. When Mason asked him what he thought of it, “I gave him my opinion,” Kuspa says. “And I don’t know for sure, but I came away with a very strong suspicion that he had written a piano concerto in the Russian romantic style and brought it to me just to see if I would be able to tell.” (“That is true,” Mason admits.)

In the years since, Mason has channeled the likes of Aaron Copland, John Adams, and, of course, Stravinsky. He has also played around with genres of Latin music, like mariachi and banda, and studied singers such as the salsa legend Héctor Lavoe, whose work, he says, taught him how to think about the arc of a melody: how to write it, how to structure it, how to make it effective. He has produced electronic dance music tracks (“club bangers,” he says) and toyed with avant-garde styles well outside of the academy. “When I first met him, he said he had just written a piece for twelve bass drums,” says Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra music director Richard Giangiulio. “Can you imagine twelve bass drums making music? But he was able to do that.”

The Dallas-based composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez, who has mentored Mason, stresses that Mason has moved far past mere imitation. Rodríguez notes how the philosopher of science Sir Francis Bacon categorized some creators as ants, who simply rearrange the items they see around them, and some as bees, processing the pollen from different flowers to fashion a distinctive flavor of honey. “Quinn is at that stage now,” Rodríguez says. “He’s in those critical years in which he is developing his personal voice.”

That voice came through clearly when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra first commissioned Mason for a work, entitled Inner City Rhapsody, that premiered in September of last year. Mason made prominent use of percussion and the contrabassoon, two sections that are often relegated to supporting roles. He experimented with triangles, using four of them, he says, to “represent the spark of an idea” at the beginning of the piece. From his time watching DSO’s rehearsals, Mason was familiar with its players, and he tailored the work to their strengths, writing expressive solos for the flute, oboe, and English horn. “Quinn gives space for individual performers in his scores,” says Orchestra Seattle’s Will White. “Even in his most active pieces, the music always has time to breathe. He doesn’t write for musicians as though they’re automatons whose sole purpose is to push the right button at the right time according to his design.”

Stylistically, Mason often grafts little bits of modernism onto the rootstock of traditional tonality. “It really reflects our time,” says David Cooper, the principal horn player for the Chicago Symphony, who has commissioned a work from Mason. “It reflects our architecture. It reflects the hustle and bustle, sometimes, of the digital age. But it still has reflection. It still has contemplation and beauty.”

Mason’s new commission for the DSO, “Reflection on a Memorial,” will premiere to a reduced-capacity pandemic audience this November. “Harmonically and compositionally, it will be different from any other slow music I’ve written so far,” he says. “Harmonically, I’ve always stayed kind of safe, including in my recent works. Lately, however, I’ve been experimenting with different chordal structures and compositional architecture, and that has resulted in some interesting music.”

The theme of the evening’s concert will be acknowledging racial injustice, and for this particular performance, “Reflection” will be dedicated to George Floyd as well as to other victims of racial violence. “I’ve definitely been thinking about the events that have been happening lately,” he says of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. “And I’m very glad that a new kind of movement is happening, that people are actually speaking up about the injustice that has been happening for years and years. I’ve personally experienced some of that myself, of course.”

But however autobiographical the work might be—and Mason says all his recent pieces are—he wants to leave his scores open to interpretation. “I like to let my work speak for itself,” he says. “I want my music to reach as wide of an audience as possible and have a kind of lasting effect. Most of my colleagues don’t think about this. Most of the pieces that are being written nowadays are one-and-dones. I personally do not like that because you spend all this time writing your piece—you planned it, you composed it, it took you a few months. And then you did all that hard work only for it to get played once and it’s forgotten!”

This past April, Mason was commissioned to write a three-minute piece for Orchestra Seattle called “In Memory.” After Grant Hanner, the principal violist for the orchestra, premiered it online, Mason encouraged others to perform the composition, without requesting the typical fees. Since then, in the middle of a pandemic, the work has been performed more than forty times, and not just by violists. Oboists (and a violinist) have performed it too.

Whether this means we’re living in the age of Quinn Mason is too soon to say. “To be honest, history is not up to us,” says Richland College’s Kuspa. “Let’s just say I’m optimistic that Mason’s music will make an impact on the world.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Age of Quinn Mason.” Subscribe today.

Tags: Music, Classical music, Composer, Dallas, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Quinn Mason, Reflection on a Memorial

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