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Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface" at the Kennedy Center

February 25, 2007

storm_1.jpgWe went down to the Kennedy Center last night to hear Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface" -- a new work that uses electronica and a beefed-up orchestra to explore (in the composer's words) "water in all its forms."   And Bates proved himself an impressive talent.  The piece is shot through with originality and sonic imagination, and though it may not break much new ground harmonically, its striking colors and pulse-driven flow made it an always-interesting listen.

Working a MacBook Pro and and an Akai electric drumpad from a podium at stage left, the composer performed  the electronic elements of the piece himself, while conductor Leonard Slatkin ran the National Symphony Orchestra through its paces.  

The concept behind "Liquid Interface" is dramatic, to say the least:  The Earth's water changes as the planet heats up, unleashing more and more of its power until a huge hurricane erupts, washing everything into the ocean and eventually submerging the planet. (I'm paraphrasing Bates' program notes.)  It's a great conceit for a piece, but we came away wishing that Bates -- given his obvious skill and imagination -- had gotten more out of the material.  

bates_portrait.jpgTo these ears, the second of the four movements was the most successful; Bates used sampled water sounds as the basic raw material for his electronica, blending the sounds into an orchestral water dance that was an absolute tour-de-force.  The synthesis of orchestra and computer was seamless, the writing gorgeous and intensely musical, and the realization of the water-into-sound idea brilliantly done -- in short, some of the most impressive new writing you'll hear anywhere.

But the drama seemed to sag after that promising beginning.  The climactic "electronic hurricane" of the third movement was rather tame, as electronic hurricanes go. Entering with convincing menace, it quickly got all shy about, you know, wiping out life on the planet.  So it did it as politely as it could.

Similarly, the aftermath of the storm -- when the music evokes a planet drowned in water -- was wonderfully done, but was over almost before it started.  Too bad -- the image of a ravaged world "swept into the muffled depths of the ocean" is seriously compelling, and it would have been fascinating to hear what Bates could do with such an unusual, dramatic and emotionally-charged landscape.

After this quasi-biblical flood, the waters recede, the planet is reborn, and Bates uses the final movement to evoke a serene world.  It's beautiful writing, and a beautiful world.  And yet, coming out of this cataclysmic flood, somehow not quite ... enough.  You feel hungry for a resolution beyond just optimism --  some deeper exploration of disaster, transcendence and rebirth.  Instead, you get mere tranquility, and the piece ends with a graceful evaporation of sound. Lovely, certainly -- but frustrating in a work with such a powerful dramatic arc.

That said, this is still a fne and extremely enjoyable piece, and received a long ovation -- kudos to Slatkin & Co for commissioning it.  Mason Bates just turned 30 last month, and if "Liquid Interface" is any indication, he's just at the beginning of a fascinating career.

Posted on Sunday, February 25, 2007 at 12:56PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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