BATES: Liquid Interface for Orchestra and Electronica

Mason Bates was born on January 23, 1977, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and currently resides in Burlingame, California. He composed Liquid Interface in 2006-07 on a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra, which performed the world premiere on February 22, 2007, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Bates has dedicated the score to his teacher John Corigliano. These are the first performances of Liquid Interface by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. Bates scores the work for three flutes (all doubling piccolo); three oboes (third doubling English horn);  three clarinets (third doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet); three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon); four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bongos, trap set, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, cymbals, suspended cymbals, ride cymbal, chimes, high tam-tam, castanets, triangle, glockenspiel, washboard with spoon, crotales, two harmonicas, slide guitar, crystal glasses (glass harmonica), wind machine, piano, strings, and electronica. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

Last week’s inaugural program of the SFS Beethoven and Bates festival presented The B-Sides (2009), the first San Francisco Symphony commission from Mason Bates, who counts Michael Tilson Thomas among his most prominent champions. Liquid Interface, which predates that work by two years, is the first in a sequence of ambitious compositions for orchestra—a de facto symphonic trilogy—that continues with Alternative Energy (commissioned and premiered by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2012, where Bates is currently composer-in-residence through 2015). In addition to presenting The B-Sides and Liquid Interface during this festival, the SFS will perform and record Alternative Energy next fall for an all-Bates release on the SFS Media label.

Bates now ranks as the most frequently performed orchestral American composer of his generation, and over the years MTT and the Symphony have certainly solidified their early commitment to Bates. As part of the American Mavericks Festival and tour during the SFS Centennial season, the Orchestra introduced another major commission: Mass Transmission. The B-Sides has meanwhile gone on to attract widespread interest since its world premiere at Davies Hall: it has been heard in concert halls ranging from Symphony Hall in Chicago to the Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal, and has also been choreographed at Houston Ballet. In 2012, Bates was one of five honored with the prestigious Heinz Award, for writing music that brings the orchestra “into the digital age.”

Liquid Interface I consider my first symphony,” explains the thirty-six-year-old composer. “What I’m doing in all three of these pieces is running with the programmatic idea of the symphony that you could say begins with Beethoven’s Ninth. Liquid Interface provided a platform in which I could attempt a narrative symphonic approach on a large scale. Previously I had written tone poems that address experience in a similar way, but not on this scale.” The result is a kind of music stamped by Bates’s most immediately recognizable stylistic signature: the blend of acoustic orchestra with electronic and ambient sounds to convey poetically compelling narratives in innovative forms uniquely suited to the material at hand.

Bates believes the epochal status of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony stems from its introduction and culminates in the final choral movement—a conceptual framework that makes the work “something bigger than an issue of formal design and pitches. It became a work of art imbued with a desire to explore larger human issues. That’s the approach I’m trying to continue with these works, using the new palette and sounds of the twenty-first century. For me, what this festival is about is the fact that music can be more than process driven, that it can be deeply evocative and tell stories.”

He is well aware of the hotly debated and divergent interpretations of the Beethoven Ninth legacy—from “absolute music” advocates who followed Brahms, himself a claimant to this heritage, to the programmatic musical perspectives of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. As it happens, Bates was commissioned in 2001 to write an orchestral “prequel” to the Ninth, Ode, which he conceived as a provocative questioning of the optimistic, utopian trajectory of that symphonic cornerstone. While Bates clearly travels the programmatic path, there is a contemporary difference. His symphonies and tone poems incorporate narratives that reflect on universal human experiences and nature from the vantage point of our fragile present-day context. The unforeseen price of the technological advances that have changed our civilization, for example, is a recurrent concern in Bates’s imaginative scenarios, such as the price of interfering with natural patterns—one of the narrative layers of Liquid Interface. Additionally, Bates expands his orchestral palette with the colors available from electronic sources, ambient recordings, and processed digital samples and beats, which are controlled from a laptop. He prefers the term “electronica” to refer to this layer of his sound world, and it is integral to Bates’s musical toolkit as a signature harmonic vocabulary was for the Romantic generation of composers.

Mason Bates is a well-known presence to music lovers outside the concert hall. He maintains an active music life as a DJ and curator, where he is known as “DJ Masonic,” who spins and mixes beats in dance clubs and alternative spaces. Masonic’s ongoing project Mercury Soul, which has traveled to cities here and abroad, fuses classical and DJ music with an environment of surreal accompanying visuals. Through his work as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, Bates has been experimenting with methods to enhance the concert experience to meet the diverse expectations of twenty-first century audiences. In short, this is a composer whose creative imagination transcends convenient subdivision into separate categories. Bates represents the new generation of American maverick, for whom the mixing of styles, genres, and raw musical materials—just like his use of electronica—is not the end but the means toward attaining an authentic voice.

Bates has even dramatized how the medium itself plays a role in the “message.” Alongside his compositions for traditional orchestral ensembles, in 2011 he introduced Mothership, a commission by the YouTube Symphony that has been viewed by an audience of nearly two million people. “We created a living orchestra from what was once only on video,” remarked Tilson Thomas, who led this global premiere from the Sydney Opera House.

Like John Adams, who is a generation older, Bates makes his home in the Bay Area but came of age on the East Coast. Classical music, though, was not a belated discovery, as it has been for several of his contemporaries. While still a teenager, Bates was already composing at a level that captured the attention of the conductor Robert Moody, resulting in his first orchestral commission, a piece called Free Variations. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia (a slight Southern accent still seasons his speech), Bates studied piano, sang in choruses, and took composition classes from the legendary Dika Newlin (1923-2006), a fellow Richmond resident who was among the last surviving pupils of Schoenberg. (Newlin herself was an insatiably curious pianist, composer, and music writer who, in her seventies, dyed her hair to play punk rock, impersonated Elvis, and posed for a pinup calendar.)

What was belated was Bates’s discovery of the popular side of the musical equation, specifically via club culture music. While pursuing simultaneous degrees in composition and English literature in the Columbia-Juilliard joint program, he discovered the vibrant club culture scene of the Lower East Side and began honing his skills as a DJ artist. In 2001 Bates resettled in the Bay Area in 2001 to enroll in the PhD program at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies.

While at Juilliard, one of Bates’s most significant mentors was John Corigliano, whose enduring importance is indicated by Bates’s dedication of Liquid Interface. “I dedicated the score to John Corigliano,” says Bates, “because he made me aware of my central challenge. He told me: ‘You can’t just connect the dots; as you’re creating your forms, you need to discover what the forms are capable of.’ What he gave me is an approach to architecture that is unique. John is a master of integrating diverse musical materials into a cohesive whole. So many of his pieces will have various exotic elements or extremely different kinds of materials that he manage to integrate.”

Undertaking a large orchestral composition, Bates points out, entails the challenge of figuring out “how to present a variety of experiences and different material but to somehow unify those in a way that doesn’t seem contrived—so that the listener can recognize the material when it comes back in new ways.” The essence of Liquid Interface, he continues is “about how one thing becomes another. I wanted to explore the idea of a symphony that really involved change, where the music would go to a lot of different spaces. Water turns out to be a great metaphor for something that changes and yet fundamentally remains the same.”

More concretely, Bates found his inspiration for this extramusical idea, which so convincingly mirrors the process of musical thought itself, while living in Berlin in 2005 thanks to a scholarship from the American Academy in Berlin. At the time Bates resided in a lakeside villa that is now the Academy’s headquarters located next to the Wannsee in the southwestern part of the city. “Over the course of barely two months,” recalls the composer, “I watched this huge body of water transform from an ice sheet thick enough to support sausage vendors to a refreshing swimming destination heavy with humidity.”

And so was born the core idea behind the four movements of Liquid Interface. The sea and other forms of water, as Bates remarks, have inspired some of the most celebrated music for orchestra, from Wagner’s Prelude (which suggests the very beginning of time in the Ring cycle) and the scene change music for Siegfried’s Rhine Journey to Debussy’s monumental triptych La Mer. “If the play of the waves inspired Debussy, then what about water in its variety of forms?” Bates asked himself. Thus he decided to begin Liquid Interface with a depiction of water in its solid form. The first movement represents an example of “a programmatic approach leading me to finding the kind of music that I was trying to write. The musical solution can take you beyond what happens with your standard process-driven music.”

Liquid Interface traces the metamorphosis of water beginning in its solid (and “ancient”) state (Glaciers Calving). It continues through a process of melting that goes from the small to the large scale, from the playful (the second movement, Scherzo Liquido) to the epic, reaching a threatening climax in the third movement (Crescent City), with its allusion to Hurricane Katrina. The work concludes with a return to the “balmy, greenhouse paradise” aspect of the lake in spring in the final movement (On the Wannsee).

A word on the pre-recorded and electronic elements in Liquid Interface: Bates explains that these originate from the following main sources: One is the field recording he made of ambient sounds at Lake Wannsee, while he used the radio journalist Daniel Grossman’s recordings of glaciers breaking off and calving into the Antarctic in the first movement. A processed recording of sounds from a hurricane figures in the third movement. Meanwhile, Bates prepared a layer of homemade rhythm-centered sounds or  “beats,” which in their original context are found in dance club music in styles ranging from slow trip-hop to high-energy drum ‘n’ bass. These are processed according to the colors and nuances Bates desires: he might cut off the resonance of a beat, as if cutting and splicing a piece of musical DNA. Bates considers this technique simply another aspect of his orchestration.

And from the perspective of orchestration, Liquid Interface can be heard as a journey from the shimmering surfaces and figuration of the first two movements toward the emergence of forms of melody. “My preference is always for a dynamic musical experience,” Bates says. “It is remarkable that when you begin to find yourself in one satisfying musical world, you start to have other needs that you may not even realize. So the first movement sets up a need for melody.”

In musical content and shaping, Bates draws on his instinctive flair for color and the strategic use of registration, timbre, and texture to evoke the dynamic processes that inform Liquid Interface. Glaciers Calving presents what the composer describes as “huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register . . . . As the thaw continues, these sonic blocks melt into aqueous, blurry figuration.” The ensuing scherzo brings our focus to “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.”

Crescent City, the most extensive of the four movements, moves from the playful to the destructive. Employing theme and variations, this movement begins with a subdued lyrical melody that “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.”

While Bates refers to Beethoven’s Ninth, it is the composer’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral) that may come to mind as a model for movements three and four of Liquid Interface: storm (much shorter in Beethoven’s case) followed by serene aftermath. For his finale, Bates has imagined a “water-covered world” that begins with “a simple, lazy tune [bending] in the strings above ambient sounds recorded at a dock on Lake Wannsee. Gentle beats echo quietly in the moist heat. At near pianissimo throughout, the melody floats lazily upwards through the humidity and—at the work’s end—finally evaporates.”

—Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs at memeteria.com.

More About the Music
Online: Mason Bates’s extensive website, masonbates.com, includes lists of upcoming performances and a complete list of compositions, as well as performance clips of his work. Clips are also available at youtube.com/masonbates. Some of the composer’s work under the alias DJ Masonic can be downloaded on iTunes.  |  Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are recording these concerts for an upcoming release of Liquid Interface on the SFS Media label, which will be coupled with two other major symphonic works by Mason Bates (The B-Sides and Alternative Energy).

Reading: Thomas May’s profile appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Listen magazine  |  Kyle Gann’s profile appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Symphony magazine.