Music Inspired by Outer Space

Sunday, August 18, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Bates: Devil’s Radio

Bates: Passage

Holst: Excerpts from The Planets



Mason Bates (b. 1977)

Devil’s Radio

Commissioned and premiered by the Sun Valley Summer Symphony

Composed: 2014
Instrumentation: 2 flutes plus 2 piccolos, 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (piccolo snare drum, high triangle, castanets, bell tree, glockenspiel, crotales, splash cymbal, ride cymbal, marimba, very small top, bass drum, high hat, suspended cymbal, large tam-tam, sandpaper blocks, swish cymbal, 6 woodblocks, small shaker), harp, piano (doubling celesta), and strings

Bates’ Devil’s Radio was commissioned by the Sun Valley Music Festival in celebration of its 30th season in 2014, and the piece has gone on to numerous repeat performances around the country since. The phrase “devil’s radio” was brought to the public consciousness by George Harrison’s track from his 1987 album Cloud Nine. Harrison’s rock tune was inspired by a church billboard that he would see on his way to dropping his son off at school, which read, “Gossip: The Devil’s Radio… Don’t Be A Broadcaster.”  The same basic quote was Bates’s starting point as well, taking his musical creation in a different direction, as he wrote for the premiere:

“Rumor is the Devil’s radio,” goes an evocative Southern phrase, and ever since hearing it, I’ve fantasized about a fanfare with equal parts darkness and groove. What began life as a brief piano étude quickly swelled way beyond its bounds, and the opportunity to write for a massive orchestra in Sun Valley seemed the perfect chance to give the Devil his due.

Sometimes the music is coldly propulsive, as at the opening, which uses a kind of sparkling “musical lure” in the upper woodwinds. But this is soon undercut by a bluesy bass line and energetic percussion, ultimately building into a soaring melody that’s best described as vainglorious. Indeed, the work has ample brightness to counter its dark corners, and in this way it can be heard as a fanfare our villain might write for himself, complete with grandiose flourishes and an infectious swing section. But this lightness quickly evaporates in the work’s final minutes, when thunderous hits in the low brass suggest a Goliath-sized figure throwing his weight around. He bows out with a wink and nod, ever the gentleman.


Mason Bates (b. 1977)


Composed: 2017
Instrumentation: Solo mezzo-soprano, 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (finger cymbals, high triangle, glockenspiel, vibraphone, bass drum, marimba, snare drum, 5 woodblocks, high and low woody clicks, suspended cymbal, 2 flexible switches on wood, large tam-tam, crotales), electronica, harp, piano, and strings

Bates has served as the Composer-in-Residence for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since 2015, the first composer appointed to this position. As part of his residency, Bates was commissioned to write a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra to play in commemoration of the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth in May 2017. After casting around for ideas about how to go about celebrating the impact Kennedy had on the nation, Bates landed on the moon for his creative inspiration.

On September 12, 1962, Kennedy gave his famous “moonshot” speech to an overflowing stadium of Texans in Houston. The idea that the United States could land a person on the moon by the end of that decade was audacious to say the least. John Glenn had made his famous flight—the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth—just 7 months prior to Kennedy’s speech, and a mere 5 years earlier, humankind had yet to send any object of any kind to space. At the time, there was still a question about whether solid objects would sink into mounds of dust on the moon’s surface. Kennedy’s confidence in declaring his intention to throw significant resources into achieving this goal inspired the nation:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon?…

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone….

Just last month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the fulfillment of Kennedy’s grand endeavor by the Apollo 11 mission.

Bates weaves the narrative of his work using the actual audio from Kennedy’s Houston speech and other speeches he made during his presidency, as well as archival audio from the decade of striving towards the moon. But as a way to contextualize the basic human aspiration towards exploration, Bates also sets text for mezzo-soprano (specifically with Sasha Cooke, who also sang the premiere, in mind) from Walt Whitman’s poem “Passage to India,” from his iconic Leaves of Grass, putting these two great American visionaries in dialogue with one another. Bates writes of his choice to include Whitman:

To complement his “moonshot” speech, I wanted another voice in the piece, a more poetic perspective on American exploration. Enter Walt Whitman.

From my English major days, I remembered a mystical poem called “Passage to India.”  What begins as an ode to the steamship explodes into a sprawling homage to American exploration and the limitless frontier. Whitman marvels at our ability to travel by ship to India, then by locomotive to California—then looks into the heavens and says ‘O sun and moon—passage to you!’

The two voices, separated by nearly 100 years, indeed have remarkable resonance, which Bates brings out in his carefully chosen juxtapositions. The narrative roughly follows the chronology of the 1960s, illustrating the hopes, dreams, accomplishments, tragedies, and ultimate triumph of the dramatic launch and landing on the moon using Whitman to capture the emotional spirit of each phase of the journey.


Gustav Holst (b. 1874-1934)

Mars, Venus, and Jupiter from The Planets, Op. 32

Composed: 1914-17
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo and 4th doubling alto flute and piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling bass oboe) plus English horn, 3 clarinets plus bass clarinet, 3 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba, tuba, 2 timpani, 4 percussion (triangle, snare drum, tambourine, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum, tam-tam, bells, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings

We journey beyond Earth’s orbit for this evening’s final work. Most blurbs written about Holst’s symphonic masterpiece The Planets emphasize the composer’s interest in astrology, mysticism, and horoscopes to explain his approach to the music. But while these topics engaged his curiosity, they were secondary to his immersion in music itself. About a year before writing The Planets, Holst wrote: “As a rule, I only study things which suggest music to me…. Recently, the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”  His enjoyment of horoscopes was lifelong, not for their alleged predictive truths, but for the suggestive power they seemed to have over their readers. Daughter Imogen Holst tried to set the record straight some years later, writing, “Horoscopes had nothing to do with the writing of The Planets, and once [Holst] had taken the underlying idea from astrology, he let the music have its way with him.”  And what a way it had. The massive size of the orchestra required (including bass oboe, tenor tuba, contrabassoon, alto flute, a wide array of percussion, and even an offstage women’s chorus for Neptune) was the largest he would ever use so as to extract to full range of color that he desired in his piece. When WWI broke out soon after Holst began his piece, he realized that it would be difficult to put together a full-scale production of it, which perhaps slowed his progress. When the work was given its first public performance in early 1919, the audience was astounded, and the piece quickly entered the standard repertoire.

Holst scored seven movements, one for each known planet except Earth, basing the music on the astrological character of each. For the premiere of the piece, Holst wrote:

These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also in the more ceremonial kind associated with religious or national festivities….

Holst never viewed The Planets as a cohesive suite (he called the work “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra”), and it is not unusual to hear individual movements extracted from the work. This evening, three movements are on the program.

Mars was written just a few weeks before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, and is a stunning statement on the brutality and senselessness of war. The relentless ostinato (continually repeated phrase) in the col legno strings (the player hit the strings with the back of the bow) and timpani presses forward menacingly in 5/4 time, as the thematic material is mostly left to the large brass forces. The dramatic solo in the tenor tuba, answered by the trumpets, becomes a recurrent gesture among the percussive rat-a-tats in the background. The terrifying ending fragments the ostinato figure in double fortissimo brass and strings.

There are no two consecutive movements in the literature of Western music that are more polar opposites than Mars and Venus. In Venus, Holst uses the large orchestra to create a varying array of tone color instead of the broad washes of sound and texture found in Mars. Solo instruments abound in a magical atmosphere of continual melody: solo horn, violin, oboe, clarinet, flute, and cello lines all become prominent.

The power of the full brass section is featured for a celebratory romp in Jupiter. After a memorable introduction, the famous horn motto is heard with its syncopated answer in brass and winds. Holst plays with this motto both melodically and rhythmically throughout the rest of the movement. In the midst of this merry-making comes the stately ceremonial section (to which Holst referred in his notes), a melody later used to set the English hymn “I vow to thee my country.”


Program notes by Jon Kochavi