Each year the venerable classical music publication Musical America recognizes a handful of artists, and this December I had the honor of accepting the award for Composer of the Year alongside luminaries such as conductors Andris Nelsons and Francisco Nunez, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and violinist Augustin Hadelich.
I couldn’t help but think about the many teachers and mentors responsible for the five of us standing together at the Carnegie Hall ceremony. My composition teacher John Corigliano, for example, during my three years under him at Juilliard, helped me understand creative musical forms and the different ways to animate them. I’m also very grateful to several conductors for their mentorship, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, whose discussion over long walks and obscure listening assignments made him part composition teacher; Riccardo Muti, who helped me understand the power of drama in the concert hall; and the maestro who commissioned my first piece, Robert Moody.
And lest we forget that music begins at a young age, I have to mention Hope Armstrong Erb, my piano teacher from St. Christopher’s School. Mrs. Erb heard my earliest compositions and challenged me to write a piece based on a music theory assignment, resulting in the majestically titled Rhapsody on a Theory Exercise. So we made a deal: if I practiced piano more, she’d mentor me in composition. From that moment on, I started to learn that art benefits from hard work.
I think about Mrs. Erb when I think about some of the challenges we face in classical music, from diversifying or audience to bringing in new listeners. So much of the attention within the field is focused on the end of the pipeline, with darts thrown at big institutions such as Carnegie Hall or The Kennedy Center. But we all know that very little will change without more music education in this country.
Every major institution offers lots of educational outreach, but much of this reaches kids as one-offs such as symphony field trips. These are fine outreach programs, but we simply need more instrumental education – more middle school bands, more high school orchestras. The challenge of learning to make music with a piece of technology called an instrument is very relevant to 21st Century life, and the discipline that comes with playing scales or improving tuning carries all the benefits of any athletic endeavor.
So if someone has boatload of money, get young Americans playing music together. Many of them may not pursue a career in music, but they’d be given a life in music – a lifetime of understanding the sounds coming over Spotify or on their iPod playlists. And they’d learn a lot about working with others in real time while playing in orchestras.
Orchestras are one of our great community bodies, and in encountering so many of them when attending performances of my music, I’ve developed a nuanced perspective on institutions. Being at the end of the classical music pipeline, they’re often maligned by arts writers – “classical-music culture…for the most part cowers in the face of modern life,” in the words of one. Folks like this have very little understanding of what is actually going on in the field beyond the 30,000 foot level. They lob grenades at, say, the Met Opera for the demographics of its directors, but they should spend at least as much ink focusing on the bounty of great things happening all over the country. Write about the Oakland Symphony and its vibrant, diverse, and often sold-out concerts at the Paramount Theater; or the astonishing rhythmic ability of the musicians of the Memphis Symphony (and the world-class concert hall they perform in); or the work of smaller institutions, such as Gabriella Lena Frank’s composer institute in Boonville, California.
In short, we need to hear more about the really fine things happening in classical music. Travel budgets for arts writers are non-existent, so the field could use a foundation to create a travel fund for arts writers, something with a very simple online application. Small-scale things exist, but we need something big. This one thing could do more to improve the arts conversation in this country than anything else. (The Rubin Institute may be the best-positioned to do this.)
Institutions are both maddening and inspiring, but I have patience with them because, after all, that’s my medium. If I want to birth a piece of symphonic music, I have to deal with administrators, unions, musicians, and sound guys (“So uh, we saw your tech rider but did the opposite because of the unique layout of our hall…”). We should hold institutions feet to the fire, but let’s give equal energy to celebrating the exceptional things happening in classical music. After all, we in the field need are ambassadors to those outside it.
The symphonic season kicks off in the Fall with orchestras showcasing some of their most exciting work, and it’s a great time to see what’s happening in the field. As I look ahead to the National Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Auditorium this month, followed by a DJ gig at San Francisco’s famed LoveBoat, I’m also reflecting on memorable things I’ve seen and heard over the past few weeks.
Maestro Brett Mitchell opened the Colorado Symphony’s subscription series with characteristic panache, pairing Beethoven with my The B-Sides and a fanfare by Kevin Puts. Launching his music directorship with a mix of new and old shows demonstrates the vivid programming of this dynamo. Mitchell rose to prominence at the Cleveland Orchestra, where he jumped in for last-minute appearances to much acclaim, and he always has his ear to the ground, listening for compelling American voices. But I’d never seen him conduct until last month.
Mitchell knows how to iron-out the myriad subtleties of an intricate piece like The B-Sides while staying focused on the larger arc. In the two acoustic movements “Aerosol Melody Hanalei” and “Temescal Noir,” for example, he stayed focused on the long-lined melodies while bringing out lots of nuances in the constantly-shifting metrical bed. In the electro-acoustic “Broom of the System,” I’ve come to expect that orchestras will need a few run-throughs before acclimating to the mercurial rhythms of the “future clock.” But Colorado played it near perfectly on its first run-through. It’s a fine orchestra with a mature and confident young maestro at its helm, and the crowd and vibe in the hall is hip.
On the East Coast, I dropped into the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony open with an all-Bernstein program. In my third year as composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, I find it’s so useful to experience the place in all manner of shows and repertoire. We’ll all be hearing a lot of Bernstein during his centennial year, and I just hope we get the full range of the composer, as we did at the NSO Ball.
The central work was a version of Bernstein’s Mass for cello and orchestra, a challenging piece that becomes more distant as it unfolds. The decked-out audience seemed a little deflated at hearing Yo-Yo Ma play something other than a showpiece, but the inclusion of this work gave gravitas to a concert that featured primarily lighter fare. Hearing the Mass also put Candide Overture and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in greater relief. In the context of hearing the Mass, I listened to a collection of Bernstein’s Broadway songs with new ears.
Like the Colorado Symphony, the NSO sets sail with a new music director this year. Gianandrea Noseda is in his honeymoon phase right now, and you can sure hear it in the way the musicians play. The Symphonic Dances were especially vivid: the brass and percussion really know how to swing (they certainly play a lot in that rep under principal pops conductor Stephen Reineke). Kudos to Noseda for taking on a program that lies a bit outside his comfort zone, and I look forward to hearing him conduct a big range of repertoire this year at the NSO.
Another quick visit “in the field” brought me to the 20th anniversary concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchetra’s MusicNOW series, which I ran for five years with composer Anna Clyne. It’s the good hands of Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams now, and they were gracious to bring back many of the former composers-in-residence for this show. The players did a fine job on my study in miniatures The Life of Birds, a short work for mixed ensemble conjuring different aspects of the aviary. Over our five years at the CSO, Anna and I were so grateful to see the audience grow and respond so favorably to our experiments in concert format. I’ve taken many of the things I’ve learned in immersive stagecraft to my KC Jukebox series at the Kennedy Center, but it’s nice to see the MusicNOW series still going strong.
Looking ahead, I have an eclectic few weeks in front of me. I’ll be returning to the Kennedy Center to perform my baroque thriller Auditorium with the NSO, then heading home to spin techno at the SF Loveboat right after a performance by Moby. All the while, I’ll be tinkering away on my fanfare oratorio Children of Adam.
Auditorium takes the premise that an orchestra, like a person, can be haunted. Ghostly remixed recordings of baroque period instruments trail the live orchestra, with riffs being passed across the void like on a giant Oiji board. What begins as a haunting unfolds into a kind of ‘techno bourée,’ with the two musical entities reaching an ethereal resolution. The piece was written for the San Francisco Symphony and premiered by Pablo Heras-Casado.
After Michael Tilson Thomas directed me to some obscure 18th Century composers (classic MTT maneuver), I conceived of a work that would approach not only the style and musical mannerisms of that period, but the actual instruments themselves. I composed neo-baroque music for the wonderfully strange instruments of that era, then remixed that material in ways that could never be played live. Chords swoosh on, melodies flicker like poltergeists. It will be exciting to perform this hot-off-the-press work with the NSO.
And what’s up with the Loveboat? This is a hugely popular San Francisco mini-festival that runs Halloween weekend. Run by Robbie Kowal, aka Motion Potion,the event features a great mix of artists from across the electronic universe. I perform on Saturday October 28 on a shows that includes The Polish Ambassadors and Moby.
Whether it be on shows like the Loveboat or my own Mercury Soul events, I enjoy the chance to DJ through big systems for reactive crowds. It’s great to be informed by a variety of genre just through iPod listening, but being active as a performed in a different space is good for both mind and body. It keeps my DJ chops sharp while also giving me a fresh perspective on how we experience music from all cultures.
Bernstein, in his own way, is a model for this kind of omnivorous stylistic appetite. At 100, his diversity of music still seems fresh. I’m looking forward to hearing him throughout the Kennedy Center and beyond this year, with an eye to both his music and the music yet to be written.
As the 2017-18 season awakens, I look ahead to upcoming performances and premieres still glowing from an enchanting summer in Santa Fe. Here are some reflections on the premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and an overview of performances and new projects for the coming season.
Wrapping up Jobs
The last week of performances of my opera in late August were both exciting and poignant. For one thing, we were performing to sold-out houses in front of an incredible mix of first-time opera audiences and, interestingly, 2nd- or 3rd-time viewers of the piece. Strong word of mouth propelled this opera to become one of the best-selling productions in the history of Santa Fe Opera of any era, and the energy in the audience was palpable every night. I once had to check on some tickets left for friends at the box office right before a show, and moving through the lobby was like going to a revivalist church at Christmas. Such infectious electricity infused everyone.
As the performances wrapped up, both cast and creative team seemed to realize the uniqueness to our bond. Many opera productions are plagued by infighting or drama due to the large personalities that inhabit the medium, yet we were thankfully as close-knit and collegial a group as any could remember. A lot of the credit goes to our fearless leaders, director Kevin Newbury and conductor Michael Christie – their positivity infected everyone. But a great deal of the credit also goes to our stunning lead, baritone Edward Parks, who created the mammoth role of Steve Jobs while remaining gracious and mellow offstage. The cast included two families – Sasha Cooke (Laurene) and Kelly Markgraf (Paul Jobs), and Garret Sorensen (Woz) and his son Jonah (Young Steve) – as well as the lovely Jessica Jones and the magical Wei Wu. He made us all smile both onstage and off.
I was also a bit wistful to see my performance of the electronic part come to a close. Being a performer in the orchestra pit gave me not only a shot of adrenalin every week, it also offered special insights into the piece as I consider minor nips and tucks. There is no better way to understand your own music’s strengths and weaknesses than performing it yourself. But as much as I love being part of the performance, I carefully design each piece to work with minimal extra tech requirements – hence the “laptop part” for a future percussionist. As the piece moves to Seattle, San Francisco, Indiana University and beyond, it needs to live on its own. But I’ll always cherish those nights in Santa Fe when I’d climb behind my rig in the pit, with a crackerjack cast and God on our lighting team (there’s a sunset in Scene Three that always looked especially beautiful through the back wall). To keep me from a post-partum meltdown, a busy schedule this year awaits:
2017-18: Kennedy Center, Mercury Soul, Chanticleer…
The third year of my composer-in-residency at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts features a variety of appearances, starting with the National Symphony’s performance of my Baroque thriller Auditorium Oct 12-15. This piece haunts the modern orchestra with original neo-baroque music composed for period instruments. Premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, this is the work’s East Coast premiere.
Also at the Kennedy Center is my KC Jukebox series, which features new music in new formats. Each show features immersive production and ambient information to educate the audience, as well as post-parties with DJs to allow people to debrief in a fun space. We open on Nov 15 with German electronica due Mouse on Mars, the heirs to Kraftwerk. Their music is ear-tingling mix of funky industrial techno and alluring sound design, and it will be thrilling to feature them at the Center.
On Dec 8 we feature music and visual art in a show called Eye/Ear, with Christopher Rountree conducting a wide range of music by Marcos Balter, Anna Clyne, Timo Andres, and Jacob Cooper. Later in the spring (April 25), as part of the year-long celebration of John F. Kennedy’s centennial, we present a show called JFK Jukebox featuring music in response to civil rights challenges. The highlighted work is by Julius Eastman, a newly re-appreciated composer who early minimalist experiments show a unique musical mind. We also hear from Carlos Simon and from David Little’s band Newspeak, which performs Electric Proletariat.
A central part of the Jukebox series is this year’s inaugural Direct Current festival at the Kennedy Center. A huge range of new works from all manner of art forms will be presented, including on two Jukebox events. California Mystics offers music from California visionaries past and present, with music by legends Lou Harrison and Steve Reich complemented by electric cellist Zoe Keating, the Junkestra of Nathaniel Stookey, and my own Mass Transmission. The festival also includes a Jukebox presentation of Mercury Soul, with music by Derek Bermel, Ted Hearne, Missy Mazzoli, and Jennifer Higdon. I’ll be presenting my own Digital Loom and also DJing with Chicagoan Justin Reed.
Not far from DC, my hometown of Richmond, Virginia is premiering my first work for chorus and orchestra for the Richmond Symphony’s 60th anniversary. Children of Adam is a high-octane collection of exuberant American celebrations of creation, with a special focus on secular poets exploring sacred themes. The work also includes creation texts from Native Americans of the Virginia area, as well as completely novel celebrations of the creative power of the Industrial Age from Carl Sanburg.
Elsewhere, the legendary Joffrey Ballet is premiering a new ballet Feb 7-18 on The B-Sides by Nicholas Blanc, who first choreographed my Mothership for New York City Ballet. The superstar chorus Chanticleer tours my new work Drum-Taps around the country on a program responding to armed conflict. And in San Francisco, Mercury Soul presents three classical-meets-club shows at the DNA Lounge. Our first, on Nov 17, is entitled “Burlesque & Beats: the 1920’s French Underground” and features imaginative collisions of cabaret, burlesque, and EDM.
That’s enough to keep my mind from drifting into too much nostalgia for the high desert. The season is on!
A surprising document appeared in my inbox a few days ago: a copy of a letter I wrote in 2000 to my manager Monica Felkel at Young Concert Artists. Writing just after graduating from Juilliard, I alluded to meeting “Brad, who is number 2 at Santa Fe Opera and currently in charge of new productions, commissions, etc … he requested some music and materials.”
Over the seventeen years since then, that seed became a tree that, just a few weeks ago, bore fruit with the premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Many visits to this wonderful opera house ensued, initially to see world premieres but eventually to see just about anything. Jobs may appear to be a first theatrical endeavor by a symphonic composer and DJ, but in fact it is the result of many years of hard work and false starts. Here are some thoughts about the process of bringing this piece to life over the past month.
First of all, many people do not realize how long I have dreamed of an opera premiere. My career has appeared to focus on electro-acoustic symphonic works, which are highly informed by my work as DJ (which also has impacted my role as a curator with institutions from the Chicago Symphony to the Kennedy Center). But I’ve always fixated with special passion on opera, the only artform to unify so much theatrical media simultaneously. And as the narrative nature of my symphonic work indicates, I’ve always been interested in telling new, wild stories with music.
Several embryonic works led to this moment, from a medieval mystery play produced at Juilliard to an opera about a California writer spiraling into personal crisis workshopped in Aspen. (That latter work was presented to Brad about ten years ago; the polite response was I think you’ll have something else.) Those experiences taught me some important lessons: first of all, find a resonant topic; and then, find a world-class librettist.
Mark Campbell took on the challenge I laid out to him with an opera about Steve Jobs, which he had some initial ambivalence about. But he quickly fell in love with the complex, duel protagonist-and-antagonist role of Steve Jobs, and then (just as importantly) with the soulful figure of Laurene Jobs and the mystical character of Kobun, the Buddhist spiritual advisor to Jobs. Mark’s libretto is a master of new storytelling, with a non-linear form tethered by rock-solid dramatic themes.
During the premiere process, Mark and I became something of an old married couple, working out issues behind closed doors and then going to the creative team as a solid unit. After years of this opera living in our heads, it started to come to life in staging rehearsals run by gifted director Kevin Newbury. Whenever I had a question about a particular piece of staging or direction, I’d whisper into Mark’s ear for a quick consultation. Does Jobs really need to wear a single black turtleneck throughout the show? Is it clear when this scene takes place? Is Laurene too static during the fiery argument scene? Mark and I would quietly work out our issues and then, as a unit, take our concerns to the team. I never wanted any daylight between me and Mark during rehearsals; there’s simply too much going on to have competing opinions between librettist and composer.
As we got into the dress rehearsals, Santa Fe Opera constructed a special ladder that I could ascend from the pit, where I am stationed with my electronic gear, so I could check balance in the hall and watch staging unfold. (SFO has a unique moat that runs between pit and audience – a kind of “fourth wall” stream – and I felt like I was passing through a theatrical portal every time I went over it.) Many times I would run out and have a quick chat with Mark and Kevin, giving feedback from fresh eyes.
Kevin Newbury was the perfect director to bring this piece to life. He is a master at assembling a strong design team. Due to the subject matter of this show, we needed a dazzling, high-tech production that would take as through time and space in a unique way. He brought in production designer Vita Tzykun, who created a mesmerizing series of lighted panels that glide around the stage, along with lighting designer Japhy Weideman and projectionist Ben Pearcy. I learned a great deal watching these four people work at each tech rehearsal, which in Santa Fe occur in the wee hours of the night. Lighting storms would play out in the desert behind the stage while, onstage, the magic of stagecraft would unfold.
The biggest question for me was about pacing and clarity. Could I unfurl ninety minutes of drama in an elegantly executed arc? Would the most important elements be perceived amidst all the glorious detail of orchestration, lighting, and theater?
In symphonic premieres, sometimes the sensation of oversaturation settles upon me. In your head or in the safety of your studio, a particular melody or sonority might be the musical focus; but amidst the swirling of eighty other instruments, ideas can get lost. Carefully composing clear, cravable ideas that are transparently orchestrated is the obvious solution, but you have to take risks in order to continue to develop as an artist. Risk-taking means that some things might not work and need adjusting. In an opera, the listener is buried by so much information – music, words, staging – that oversaturation is one of the greatest risks.
There were many, many adjustments made to the orchestration and electronics in the rehearsal process. Creating little windows of silence around specific words was one solution; another was to omit unnecessary over-doubling of the voice; and still another was to whittle-down the volume of accompaniment. The principal singers were especially helpful on this front. Sasha Cooke, our star mezzo-soprano, had just premiered my Passage at the Kennedy Center, so we had a very efficient process. The amazing Ed Parks was a great collaborator, and I made quite a lot of adjustments to Steve Jobs’ big “vision aria” so that the aria would fit him like a glove. I found ways to have the orchestra appear and disappear rapidly around his soaring lines.
There have been many other crucial players in this premiere. Maestro Michael Christie provided crucial suggestions from the beginning. From suggesting vocal space around certain words or balance adjustments within the orchestra, Michael has become a true partner. My music distributor Noah Luna provided key on-the-ground help with orchestral parts. Sound designer Rick Jacobson successfully juggled two dozen mic’s, three guitars, and my circus act of electronic sounds. My ears in the hall were on the head of conductor Ryan Haskins, who continues to give me highly detailed info about electronic and orchestral balance. Assistant director James Daniel and choreographer Chloe Treat were essential collaborators in getting those giant monoliths to dance onstage.
We’re not even halfway through the run. An additional show was added to accommodate the demand, something I didn’t even know was possible, so I’ll be in Santa Fe a little more than I expected this month. Which is fine with me, because I’ve fallen in love with this enchanted town and its superb opera house.
One curious aspect of writing an opera about Steve Jobs: he continues to haunt me. Indeed, he continues to haunt everyone. As the creative team and cast rehearse The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in preparation for its premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera, we find his presence inescapable. Most of this opera has been created on his computers, most of communication relayed through his devices. In fact, most people reading this – and on this planet – probably feel a strange kinship with a man who impacts us daily. Just check your pocket.
The sleekness of the devices Jobs created – which we all carry like miniature monoliths – underscores a fundamental tension in 21st Century life: how do we simplify human communication on such beautifully minimalist devices – when people are so messy?
This tension exploded in Jobs’ own life. In both his work and his life, he strove to hide all the ugly wires with sensual exteriors. Whether it be the cancer he tried to control through diets, the refusal to acknowledge his first daughter, or his imperious management style, Jobs sought to control his life as forcefully as he did his software. But as Jobs learned, life doesn’t have one button.
That tension is the stuff of opera.
This medium can get to the essence of his story in unique ways. Unlike film or literature, opera has the ability to present many characters’ thoughts simultaneously. Themes weave together, disparate musics collide. A dramatic version of this approach, which is a kind of extreme version of Wagnerian leitmotif, is essential in an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication. The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, his wife Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – are associated with highly distinct music. As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig.
The other reason that Jobs’ story is so well suited to opera: it’s a non-representational medium. A poetic approach can illuminate a story in deep ways. For example, Mark Campbell’s masterful libretto presents the story in kinetically non-linear, almost ‘pixelated’ manner. Any one of these short scenes seen own its own, like a single pixel, is but a flicker of light. But arranged together, these pixels animate an image, a life. The juxtapositions that occur in this kind of storytelling help us understand a man who transformed from a hippy in an apple orchard to a mogul at the helm of the world’s most valuable company.
Indeed, new storytelling techniques are a part of every element of this piece. The electro-acoustic score not only animates the inner music of Jobs, but also that of his spiritual advisor Kobun – a key figure in Jobs’ life-long search for inner peace. Unlike the quicksilver electronics and acoustic guitar that run underneath Jobs, the sound of Kobun is calm and mystical. Prayer bowls, gongs, and chimes swirl through the electronics whenever he is on stage. Other characters, such as the key figure of Laurene, are illustrated very differently. She’s oceanic strings and grounded harmonies, since she represents the ‘ground’ between the positive and negative charges of Jobs.
The production continues this new storytelling. The opera opens in the early garage of Steve Jobs and his adoptive father, but soon the walls of the garage fly apart and become projection surfaces that form a kaliedosopic range of spaces. These giant panels are a beautiful collision of 21st Century technology and old stagecraft. Each looming panel is invisibly moved by people, yet each one has tracking technology that allows high-definition projections to continuously project images upon it while moving in all directions. This tracking technology, developed in motion-capture for films, has not yet been explored in this medium.
This dynamic set us to tumble spaces seamlessly into other and deepen the narrative. For example, if you look carefully on the shelves of Jobs’ boyhood garage, you see all the components that would later be transformed by the iPhone: a projector, a telephone, an 8-track player, a camera. When the walls of the garage fly apart, we see Jobs in 2007 holding the first iPhone at its launch.
Technology, in fact, has always been an important element of opera, as well as the orchestra. After all, pyrotechnics and moving scenery were the Lucasfilm of their age. But all of these new techniques, from music to libretto to production, are in the service of the story, and this story is about a man who rediscovers what it means to be human. That journey is guided by his wife, Laurene, who so crucially acted as the ‘ground’ between the positive and negative charges of Jobs.
From the moment he began tinkering in his Los Altos garage, Steve Jobs looked to a future where computers would change the way we interact, where these devices would become as friendly as pets. But in changing our world, he changed too – and sometimes forgot that life is not as streamlined as his devices.
His journey to rediscovering true human connection is the story of this opera, and I invite you to come experience it at Santa Fe Opera.
How do you set a President to music?
I confronted this challenge when the National Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new work on the occasion of John F Kennedy’s centennial, which occurred on May 24. Working inside a ‘living memorial’ has been a strange and beautiful experience over the past two years, but nothing has approached the uniqueness of commemorating a man whose very spirit inhabits the building. The result is Passage, a work for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronic sounds. Here’s how it came to life.
Commemorative works, let’s be honest, can ring a bit stilted. Even one of the most beloved, Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, plods along too much for me. Whether because of subject matter or the use of narration, the orchestra feels like a backup band, not the main event. I wanted to write a piece that would both commemorate JFK and live beyond the occasion of its premiere, and – just as important – stretch me artistically. And the orchestra is always the main event.
So I quickly abandoned the idea of narrating JFK’s speeches and decided to use the speeches themselves: the actual recordings of his voice, which carry so much more personality than the words alone (as stirring as they may be). Pouring over his many utterances, from the topic of civil rights to national defense, I found myself most drawn to his moonshot speech at Rice University.
This is one of the most audaciously ambitious moments in all of history – and, unbelievably, it succeeded. When JFK said “we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” he catalyzed the entire country to achieve something that seemed literally beyond the reach of mankind. Listening to that speech over fifty years later, amidst our seemingly intractable world problems – from climate change to socio-economic divisions – I felt JFK’s aspirational vision was needed more than ever. This President defined the American optimism and aspiration that, sadly, seems a distant memory. We need more of JFK today.
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 piece crystallized: a setting of Whitman trailed by ghostly echoes of JFK’s voice, two perspectives on the expanding frontier from two American visionaries – President and poet. Technology has been a topic I’ve returned to in new ways, and the idea of juxtaposing two different kinds of American voices intrigued me.
I reached out to Sasha Cooke, whose voice I’ve fallen in love with during the composition of my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The warmth of her voice, her expansive range, and her special understanding of American music made her perfect for Passage. She joined the project, and I got to work.
My biggest challenge: handling the recorded fragments of JFK’s clipped, Bostonian accent – both in terms of acoustic clarity, and in terms of integration into the orchestra. Human speech makes the listener hear differently, and I had to confront both technological and psychological barriers.
JFK speeches available online are not exactly high fidelity. They inhabit a very small spectrum and often are accompanied by crowd noise. Luckily, the Kennedy Center has special access to this kind of thing, and the resourceful Charles Lawson of Public Radio provided me with much higher-bandwidth recordings.
Armed with these, I played through each clip in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with in-house sound engineer D.C. Valentine. Using a spectrograph and our ears, we identified which frequencies needed to be filtered out. We had to adjust so much, the resulting parametric EQs looked like mountain ranges. Then back in my California studio, I also slowed down, sometimes considerably, the clips themselves to make them more understandable.
Remarkably, all this surgical sound design results in something that sounds natural and untouched. But this is what you have to do when playing 1960’s speeches into a highly resonant space.
Next, on the orchestration front, I had to carefully orchestrate around each clip, making sure the orchestra was very spare whenever JFK appeared. Mid-range woodwinds, for example, compete directly with the human voice, so I kept them out the way. While the piece is primarily focused on the Whitman setting, each ghostly appearance of JFK’s voice needs to be understood.
I also had to very carefully weave the orchestra from foreground to background whenever JFK spoke, because the human ear instantly zeroes-in on speech when it’s present. This piece has plenty of busy music – steamship music, chugging locomotive music, even the music of a rocket launch at the end – but whenever JFK or news clips occur, the orchestra momentarily freezes.
On the Sasha front, I gave myself a special assignment: write some passages in her chiaroscuro range with almost nothing in the orchestra. When Sasha inhabits her middle and low end, there is so much color and warmth that over-orchestrating would be a big mistake. Having lived with her voice for two years while writing Jobs, I knew exactly where I wanted to feature her unique sound. There are also plenty of places where she sings at full force, with the orchestra churning underneath. Passage is dedicated to Sasha, a brilliant collaborator and exceptional voice.
Walking through the Kennedy Center over the past six months while immersed in this project has been surreal. I might see a JFK quote chiseled on the wall and think That one has a lot of 700 Hz and some crazy crowd noise. I also think about his vision and, as well, the vision of Walt Whitman – and all Americans who looked to the ever-expanding frontier and said, “O further sail!”
When it rains, it pours. April has me in a variety of cities at work in a variety of mediums, from symphonic to opera to club. California’s big rainy season very much seems, to me at least, to be accompanied by a storm of notes.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performed Alternative Energy at the start of the month under the baton of the astonishing Yannick Nezet-Seguin. This exceptionally gifted maestro designed an entire program around my ‘energy symphony,’ and performing with this legendary orchestra one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.
Yannick wove Alternative Energy’s subject matter and compositional approach throughout the program. Bookending the concert were two pieces about Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus. Both Beethoven and Liszt depict fire in their own ways, with Liszt especially effective in using novel orchestral effects to evoke the imagery. He staggers violent accents across the strings, for example, to create an explosive musical surface.
These pieces not only relate to my work’s depiction of energy, but they also relate to my narrative approach. The great programmatic symphonists of the 19th Century – Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner – pointed to Beethoven as the first to integrate extra-musical content into symphonic form. The 9th Symphony does this most dramatically with the inclusion of a chorus; at that moment, with the appearance of text, a symphony could suddenly be about something.
Those 19th Century symphonists were drawn to imaginative forms because they often needed to invent new sounds to bring the stories to life. While the composers draw from literature and mythology, the medium of course is music – and the goal always is always create wild new sounds to move the listener. The 20th Century saw this approach discarded in favor of process-driven approaches such as serialism and minimalism, which spin small cells into large forms. As I’ve revived the narrative approach, I’ve looked to the sounds of the 21st Century to tell new stories in new ways.
This makes my music a natural fit for Yannick, a master musical dramatist who, in 2020, takes the helm of the Metropolitan Opera. I was amazed to see how vividly he brought Alternative Energy to life, conducting it as joyfully and naturally as if he’d been living with it for years. He pulled all the subtleties out of the work while also intuitively understanding its techno heart. I love this dude.
Next up was the Guggenheim Museum’s sneak peak of my opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Santa Fe Opera brought most of the cast to the “Works & Process” series for two nights of performance and discussion. Now that the heavy lifting is behind me (mainly), it was such a pleasure to chat onstage with the librettist Mark Campbell and director Kevin Newbury.
We discussed the fundamental challenge at the heart of Jobs’ life: he changed human communication by shrinking it onto beautiful sleek devices – but people are so complicated. Life is does not operate with one button. You can’t swish away an unacknowledged daughter or pancreatic cancer with the swipe of a finger. Jobs’ journey to a deeper understanding of human relationships was guided by his wife Laurene, who is the critical character in this story.
I next head to the Kennedy Center, where the National Symphony Orchestra performs Liquid Interface, my ‘water symphony,’ on April 20 & 22 under the baton of Cristian Macelaru. This is especially meaningful for me because, ten years ago, the piece was premiered by the very same orchestra. It’s exciting to bring back a work that was written well before my post began as composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center, and with a rising star in the conducting world. I’ve fallen in love with the place and all its possibilities, and the NSO lies at the heart of it. Many NSO musicians play on my KC Jukebox series, which presents new music in fluid, immersive formats. It’ll be cool to join them onstage.
And finally, on April 28, Mercury Soul returns to the San Francisco’s DNA Lounge for a “California Mystics: From Reich to Burning Man.” This classical/club show has gathered strong momentum in SF, presenting the city’s finest indie classical ensembles alongside awesome DJs. This show examines visionaries of California, from Lou Harrison to Terry Riley to Steve Reich, with special appearances by DJ Derek Hena and electric violinist Homer Hsu from Pink Mammoth. Burning Man very much exemplifies the maverick, iconoclastic streak in West Coast music history, and we’re very thankful for the participation of two energizing Pink Mammoth members.
That’s April. Tune in next month for a preview of my new JFK piece.
Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell talk about making of Bates' opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs premiering July 22 with the Santa Fe Opera. Tickets at www.santafeopera.org.
from film by Gus Van Sant starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe & Naomi Watts
• Named Composer of the Year by Musical America
critical hit” • Wired: “Jobs’ Life is the Perfect Opera
• Review of post-Moby DJ set at SF’s LoveBoat
September 21st, 2011