Rusty Air in Carolina

Description: Symphonic work with interactive sampler.

Date: 2009

Role: Programmer


  • Mason Bates, composer



  • Winston-Salem Symphony under Robert Moody
  • Virginia Symphony
  • Charleston Symphony
  • Richmond Symphony
  • Eastern Music Festival Orchestra
  • Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestral
  • University Orchestra at UC Berkeley

More information:

Rusty Air in Carolina, composed by Mason Bates, is a orchestral that work uses electronics to bring the white noise of the Southern summer into the concert hall, pairing these sounds with fluorescent orchestra textures that float gently by.

The sampler software allows the orchestra to easily perform the piece, allowing the percussion players to trigger the electronic sections of the piece with drum pads.

In the program notes Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Bates writes:

To begin with: I’m a Virginian. Many chide that it lies not far enough from the Mason-Dixon to be sufficiently Southern, but the air says something different: even in my home state, it has a texture to it—weighted not only with humidity but also with the persistent buzzing of insects.

A bit further down the coast is a wonderful music festival where I spent a summer as a teenager. Not only did the thick buzzing of cicadas and katydids always accompany the concerts at the festival in Brevard, South Carolina, but sometimes it was the music itself: I remember sitting on the porch of 100-year old Nan Burt and listening to the sounds of summer while she told stories from her long life. This venerable lady was introduced to me by a young conductor at the festival, Robert Moody, who would become a loyal collaborator. When he recently took the helm at the Winston-Salem Symphony, he asked if I might write him a new piece.

The work uses electronica to bring the white noise of the Southern summer into the concert hall, pairing these sounds with fluorescent orchestra textures. “Nan’s Porch” begins at dusk, while the katydids make their chatter. Three orchestral clouds—each inhabiting a different harmony, register, and orchestration—hover in the dusk, at first independently but ultimately fusing together when the cicadas start their singing.

The climax of this movement sends us into “Katydid Country,” when the ambient opening evolves into bluesy, rhythmic figuration. The clicks of the katydids become an electronica beat track over which the orchestra, in a smaller, more chamber setting, riffs on a simple tune inspired by old-time blues. It is said that katydids are loudest at midnight, and as the work reaches its central point, the rhythmic katydid music at last finds its melody.

Soaring in the strings over the last breaths of the blues tune, this long-lined melody moves us into “Southern Midnight.” The three distinct textures from the opening return, each brought to life by a phrase of the melody. At the close of this lyrical section, we hover in that strange space between night and day, when only the singing of the first bird alerts us to the approaching dawn. But it is a hot, Southern dawn, both sparkling and heavy, with the air made rusty again by the buzzing cicadas (popularly called locusts). And on this note, this homage—partly to the almost mythical place so far from where I now live, partly to the very real friend who made it possible—finally brings itself to an end.

Many thanks to Marin Alsop and the musicians of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, one of the musical treasures of living on the West Coast.

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