The Kennedy Center

Liquid Interface

About the Work

Mason Bates Composer: Mason Bates
© Richard Freed

This new work, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, was completed last fall and is receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts.
The score, dedicated to John Corigliano, calls for 3 flutes, all doubling piccolo; 3 oboes, one doubling English horn; 3 B-flat clarinets, one doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons, one doubling contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bongos, trap set, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, cymbals, 3 suspended cymbals, ride cymbal, chimes, high tam tam, castanets, triangle, glockenspiel, washboard with spoon, crotales, 2 harmonicas, slide guitar, crystal glasses (glass harmonica), wind machine, strings, and "electronica" performed (by the composer himself in the present concerts) on an electronic drum pad and laptop. Duration, 24 minutes.

Mason Bates was raised in Virginia, where he studied piano with Hope Armstrong Erb and composition with Dika Newlin before undertaking studies in composition and in English literature in the Columbia-Juilliard Program in New York. His primary composition teacher there was John Corigliano, but he studied also with Samuel Adler and David Del Tredici. From his current base in the Bay Area he balances an increasingly busy career with continuing studies at Berkeley, where he works with Edmund Campion at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies.
Mr. Bates is active as a performer as well as a composer, and is equally comfortable in the realm of concert music and that of "electronica" (the latter described by him as "a catch-all term for the various subgenres of techno music"). He has explored in his recent works such phenomena as the marriage of orchestral sonorities and the white-noise of Southern insects (Rusty Air in Carolina, commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra) and the fusion of techno beats with the sounds of a chamber orchestra (Omnivorous Furniture, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic). He recently performed as soloist in his Concerto for Synthesizer and Orchestra with the orchestras of Atlanta and Phoenix, and as a disc jockey of trip-hop and electronica he appears regularly in clubs and lounges in San Francisco under the pseudonym Masonic. His compositions for purely acoustic forces, for electronic ones, and for combinations of various kinds have been performed with increasing frequency in Europe, Australia, Canada and throughout the United States. The range of his interests is further exemplified by his music for Eric Lodal's film The Locrian Mode, which is played by the Dryden String Quartet, and his opera California Fictions, which the New York City Opera presented in its annual VOX Showcase.
In the course of the present season, Mr. Bates has performed live electronica in the New West Electro-Acoustic Music Festival in Portland, Oregon; the Overture to California Fictions was given its premiere by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra; his Songs from the Plays were performed at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York; he took part in a panel discussion and performance with the music critic Alex Ross in the New Yorker Festival; his String Band, for prepared piano trio, was performed by the Claremont Trio in Dayton, Southbury, Milwaukee and Boston. Next month Young Concert Artists (of which he is a member) will present a program of his works at Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall, and his chamber music will be performed in San Francisco (Composers, Inc.), St. Paul (Zeitgeist), and Chicago (Chicago Chamber Musicians). His symphonic works have taken hold well beyond their premieres, and the remainder of this season will include performances in concerts ranging from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to the Cabrillo and Eastern Music Festivals.
As a recent winner of both the American Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize, Mr Bates became involved in the musical life of those cities during his two years in Europe. In May 2005 he collaborated with members of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Roter Salon, the celebrated club in the former East Berlin, in an evening of his chamber music during which he performed interludes of electronica. Impressions formed in Berlin (as well as some closer to home) had a part in the background of Liquid Interface, as Mr. Bates explains in a note of his own, characterizing the work as following the layout of a four-movement symphony.

Water has influenced countless musical endeavors—La Mer and "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" quickly come to mind—and after living on Berlin's enormous Wannsee I formed a new take on the idea. In the course of barely two months, I watched this huge body of water transform itself from an ice sheet thick enough to support sausage vendors to a refreshing swimming spot heavy with humidity. If the play of the waves inspired Debussy, then why not examine the phenomenon of water in its variety of forms?
Liquid Interface moves through all of them, inhabiting an increasingly hotter world in each progressive movement. GLACIERS CALVING opens with huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register. (Snippets of actual recordings of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic, supplied by the adventurous radio journalist Daniel Grossman, appear in the opening.) As the thaw continues, these sonic blocks melt into aqueous, blurry figurations. The beats of the electronics evolve from slow trip-hop into energetic "drum 'n' bass," and at the movement's climax the orchestra blazes in turbulent figuration. The ensuing SCHERZO LIQUIDO explores water on a micro-level: droplets splash from the speakers in the form of a variety of nimble electronica beats, with the orchestra swirling around them.
The temperature continues to rise as we move into CRESCENT CITY, which examines the destructive force as water grows from the small-scale to the enormous. This is illustrated in a theme-and-variations form in which the opening melody, at first quiet and lyrical, gradually accumulates a trail of echoing figuration behind it. In a nod to New Orleans, which knows the power of water all too well, the instruments trail the melody in a reimagination of Dixieland swing. As the improvisatory sound of a dozen soloists begins to lose control, verging into big-band territory, the electronics—silent in this movement until now—enter in the form of a distant storm.
At the peak of the movement, with an enormous wake of figuration swirling behind the soaring melody, the orchestra is buried in an electronic hurricane of processed storm sounds. We are swept into the muffled depths of the ocean. This water-covered world, which relaxes into a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise, is where we end the symphony in ON THE WANNSEE. A simple, lazy tune bends in the strings above ambient sounds recorded at a dock on the Wannsee. Gentle beats echo quietly in the moist heat. At near pianissimo from this point, the melody floats lazily upwards through the humidity and, at the work's end, finally evaporates.
Leonard Slatkin exhibited characteristic courage and generosity in commissioning this work, and it is with the deepest gratitude that I now join him and the musicians in its premiere.


[More information on Mason Bates and his music is available on the composer's Website: For information on Daniel Grossman's recordings from Antarctica, go to]