Silicon Valley serenade
“Steve Jobs” brings fresh sounds, sights to traditional opera world in Santa Fe
Modern American classical — roughly the music written from the mid-20th century through today — falls into two distinct categories. And, generally speaking, they can’t stand the sound of one another.
There’s the Bernstein-Copland camp of composers who combine notes into romantic, emotional music that’s influenced as much by the sweeping, narrative styles of Beethoven and Strauss as they are by the inexpensive, indulgent sentimentality of Broadway.
Then, there’s the progressive wing of composers who have expanded on the more contemporary sounds of folks like Phillip Glass, John Cage and Steve Reich, eschewing romance and warmth, and often listenability, in favor of music reigned in by minimalism and mathematics and enabled by new technologies.
But here in the middle comes Mason Bates, a symphonic composer whose first opera, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” premieres in Sante Fe this month. There’s something-old school about the guy in that his music can take on themes and stories while being so beautiful it makes you cry.
At the same time, it’s entirely fresh; both rule-bending and mind-bending, thanks to Bates’ embrace of the digital world. He’s a Brahms junkie, but also a techno-loving DJ. He can write for violins, but also sit in the pit during one of his own pieces, working a laptop and joining the sonic fray with electronic noises that he embeds into symphonic traditions.
Bates is, in a sense a bridge-builder, making something that might please fans of both contemporary and conventional classical music, though he sees himself as just the latest in a long line of composers — he names Wagner and Berlioz — who have always looked for new ways to use instruments, whatever they have available in their day, as creative tools.
“I do think it is a natural progression,” he said in an interview last week between rehearsals of the new work. “Even though it can sound so outlandish.”
Bates, who is 40, has written mixed-media pieces for instrumental ensembles large and small and now applies his signature style to opera. It’s definitely not the opera of Mozart or Verdi, but Bates doesn’t want to get caught up in specific definitions of the genre. “Steve Jobs” is opera because it’s opera, he believes. It is music mixed with stagecraft, it has a narrative, and it’s presented in an opera house. That’s enough to make it a good fit at the Santa Fe Opera.
“I do feel because it’s happening in that psychological space, we are jumping off from that point,” he said.
Where “Steve Jobs” lands will be up to the audiences and critics who hear it. It does have some jarring qualities, starting with the subject matter itself. Operas tend to tell exotic love stories from bygone eras and dwell in the courts of kings or mythic heroes.
This one is about the dude who made home computers and pocket phones and who died just six years ago.
Bates acknowledges that “in the first two seconds of hearing about it, it sounds surprising because people might not associate a tech visionary with opera.”
But Jobs’ story holds up because of its dramatic elements. There was a rise and fall and rise to his professional career, but also in his personal life, and the opera weaves the tales together.
There are scenes set at product launches, board meetings and lecture halls. But also moments of tender love, Buddhiststyle introspection and emotional reconciliation. Jobs is neither a good guy or bad guy in this musical bio. He’s a genius but also a cad, who treated people very badly at times.
The libretto, by Mark Campbell, reflects Jobs’ changing moods, and also Bates’ unpredictable compositional style, by presenting the story out of chronological sequence. It jumps, over the course of few scenes, from 1965 to 2007 to 1973, then spends moments in the 1980s and ’90s before winding up with Jobs’ death in 2011.
The dramatic tension comes from Jobs’ natural inconsistencies. He’s a man, a mogul really, who makes the world’s most perfect machines, precision devices that look beautiful on the outside and, by design, never allow people to see what goes on inside. But he has little patience for the imperfections of people, including himself.
“He really wanted to have a clean, minimalist kind of life, and what’s fascinating is that he found that life doesn’t work like his devices,” said Bates. “There’s a kind of operatic tension to that, and musically you can imagine a busy soul that’s trying to keep things under control while everything is spinning out of hand.”
The “revolution” in the opera’s title has him coming to terms with it all as he battles a terminal illness. This work gives a lot of the credit to his wife, Laurene. As she sings to him in Scene 16:
Jobs has worse qualities than intolerance in this opera. There were those workers he screwed over and that daughter he denied for years. Plenty of goo for a one-act.
Campbell handles it deftly. He’s the most successful living librettist in the country, with mega-hits like “The Shining,” “As One” and “Silent Night” to his credit. He plays skillfully with rhyme and inserts plenty of humor.
And both composer and librettist understand they are working in a territory that’s familiar to audiences. This is an insider work of art for anyone who has ever purchased one of the 1 billion-plus iPhones sold around the globe. Campbell adds jokes about dating apps and puppy pics. Bates incorporates samples of sounds taken from actual computer keyboards and electronic notifications.
He also enhances the usual orchestra setup with, in addition to a very versatile laptop, a guitar and some saxophones, and he adds in some jazz sounds. That allows him to create leitmotifs appropriate for his characters.
Jobs’ musical sound, for example, is rooted in a “really fast finger-picking guitar,” Bates said, while Laurene is accompanied by some “very earthy strings that just kind of ground him.”
Jobs’ spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino Otogawa, is rendered in an “almost purely electronic white space.”
The combination is typical of Bates’ bridge-building musical mode, giving classical audiences sounds they are used to, but taking them forward — into the present and beyond — by merging in a few sonic surprises.
“Jobs did transform the way we hear music, the way we connect to it,” said Bates. Adding in elements from the present-day American musical vernacular was a natural.
“In order to conjure up the role of Silicon Valley in the ’70s and ’80s, I needed those instruments.”
“Steve Jobs Outlining the Digital Revolution, Sonoma, California, 1986,” by photographer Doug Menuez. Archival pigment print, 17 inches by 22 inches. Copyright Doug Menuez.