A Little Water Music

Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” was the featured work at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert on Oct. 7, 2008, the first conducted by its then new music director, Robert Moody.
Bates’ work, basically a symphony in four movements, depicts increasingly warm states of water, from calving glaciers through hurricane surges to the warm lapping waves of Berlin’s Wannsee. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered it on Feb. 7, 2008. It also references New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, in Dixieland intimations from the movement “Crescent City.” This month marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina, one of the worst natural (and man-made) disasters in U.S. history.
In remarks about the new work, the composer mentions that “water has influenced countless musical endeavors. ‘La Mer’ and ‘Seigfried’s Rhine Journey’ come quickly to mind.”
That was a challenge. How many other well-known compositions have to do with water? I would never have thought of “Seigfried” immediately, but the Rhine Maidens did come to mind, and “Die Lorelei.” There’s Handel’s “Water Music,” Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela,” and Edward MacDowell’s “Ocean” Sonata, the storm at sea that ends Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude and “Ocean Waves” Etude, a song from Berlioz’ “Nuites d’ete,” Satie’s musical description of sea-sickness, Noel Coward’s “Matalo,” and the list goes on. A new parlor game?
Someday, I hope a composer (if it hasn’t been done already) will devise a musical setting for Rimbaud’s lovely liquid, languorous line: l’Eternité, C’est la mer mêlée au Soleil.”
What is just as intriguing is how water itself can make music, like raindrops falling on a metal pipe. Bates’ huge orchestra for “Liquid Interface” includes a glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that standardizes the tones made by rubbing the rims of crystal glasses containing various amounts of water.
One of the oldest musical instruments is the Hydraulus, a water-powered organ that was played by the Egyptians as early as 200 BC, if not before. The weight of water pressing on a bellows compressed the air that sounded the pipes. The sound was said to be so loud that musicians had to wear earplugs (sound familiar?) and it was later played at Roman gladiatorial contests and by the Emperor Nero. Some scholars believe that was one of the reasons for the prejudice of the early church against musical instruments of all kinds.
My favorite among water powered instruments is the sea organ on the shore of the Adriatic at Zadar, Croatia. We definitely need one in Maine. It consists of a series of wide and shallow stone steps leading down to the water. Organ pipes under the steps are sounded by air pressure that depends upon wave height. The tones would be random, except that the pipes are tuned to a diatonic scale consistent with Croatian ethnic music. The sound is always pleasing, like that of a xylophone tuned to a pentatonic scale.
“Liquid Interface” combines a modern landscape of taped sounds with relatively tonal orchestral writing.
An analogy is Rautovaara’s “Cantus Arcticus,” with its taped birdsongs. Rautovaara’s is the best music, and the most accessible, but both are worth hearing