Sil­i­con Val­ley ser­e­nade

“Steve Jobs” brings fresh sounds, sights to tra­di­tional opera world in Santa Fe

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

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.”

Im­age pro­vided by Patina Gallery

“Steve Jobs Out­lin­ing the Dig­i­tal Rev­o­lu­tion, Sonoma, Cal­i­for­nia, 1986,” by pho­tog­ra­pher Doug Menuez. Archival pig­ment print, 17 inches by 22 inches. Copy­right Doug Menuez.

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